- Travel Home
- Travel News
10 fabulous U.S. music venues
Ranging from revered to notorious, these live music venues have launched careers and are still the backdrops for music history
In theory, why would anyone attend a concert?
After all, the best performance of a musician, captured with the best technology on CD, is available for less than 20 bucks on Amazon. Or via the DVD recording of a concert, so the viewer can actually see the performers' faces (for better or for worse).
But as anyone who has ever been to these 10 venues knows, nothing beats the adrenaline, the exhilaration of watching an amazing performance live in a beautiful space, or the rush of discovery that comes with witnessing the birth of a newcomer who you know will become a massive star.
Spanning eras and genres, these music venues rock the best sound, location and legends.
Severance Hall, Cleveland
Music lovers call the Cleveland Orchestra’s historic Severance Hall the most beautiful concert hall in the United States.
Opened in 1931 and impressively restored in 2000, it boasts a lovely setting in the leafy University Circle neighborhood, a Georgian exterior, and a grand entrance foyer of soaring columns.
The 94-rank Norton Memorial Organ, created by Boston’s renowned Ernest M. Skinner in 1930, has some serious pipes -- 6,025 of them, ranging from 18 centimeters to 9.8 meters -- and is considered one of the finest concert organs ever built.
This is one gorgeous place to experience not just Mozart and the usual sublime suspects but also the many up-and-comers Severance Hall premieres.
11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, Ohio; + 1 216 231 1111; www.clevelandorchestra.com
Schubas Tavern and Lincoln Hall, Chicago
Rated one of Chicago’s best music clubs, Schubas has been around for more than 20 years and helped launched the careers of Dave Matthews, Feist and My Morning Jacket.
But Schubas is small -- a tavern really -- and brothers Chris and Mike Schuba wanted another bigger venue that would retain a “human-scale intimate experience.”
They found finally found their spot in the original Fullerton Theater building (built in 1912) in the Windy City’s well-to-do Lincoln Park community.
Some fun facts: the place previously housed a nickleodeon, a garage and a machine shop. On the night John Dillinger was killed in 1934, FBI sharpshooters were deployed on top of the building to prevent his escape from the Biograph Theater across the street.
Now, instead of G-men on the roof, it’s bands like Noah and the Whale, Wavves, Girls and Fruit Bats on the stage.
One reviewer declared that “all fans of music should thank the heavens” for the venue, as it makes the listeners feel like they are hanging out with the artists despite its large scale.
Schubas Tavern, 3159 North Southport Ave., Chicago, Ill.; +1 773 525 2508; www.schubas.com
Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, Ill.; +1 773 525 2501; www.lincolnhallchicago.com
Billy Bob’s Texas, Fort Worth, Texas
Texas lays claim to hosting the world’s largest honky-tonk.
Billy Bob’s Texas is a Texas-size place: 11,800 square meters of boot-scootin’, country concerts, and rodeoing, all under the same big Fort Worth roof.
Named the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Club of the Year 11 times and counting, Billy Bob’s is a hallowed Lone Star music venue, but it’s also a must-see destination on many a travel itinerary.
The venue has been booking top-tier acts here since opening in 1981, when the first month saw Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Alabama and Hank Williams Jr.
For the 30th-anniversary celebration in April 2011, the lineup featured Gary Allan, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Dierks Bentley, George Thorogood and The Josh Abbott Band.
Dozens of country acts credit playing Billy Bob’s as a turning point -- Eli Young Band among the recent homage-payers -- and an equal number have recorded live albums here.
Those intent on the music more than the drinking and dancing shouldn’t bother with general-admission tickets and pony up for an assigned seat.
College night on Thursdays features free line dance lessons. The scene here, as one reviewer summed it up, is “beer, bulls, boots and blondes.” A quintessential Texas experience.
2520 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth, Texas; +1 817 624 7117; www.billybobstexas.com
Troubadour, Los Angeles
Miles Davis, Neil Diamond, Carole King and James Taylor have all played live at the Troubadour.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more storied place that has played a pivotal role in the careers of so many important musicians and comedians.
Eccentric impresario Doug Weston founded the venue in 1957. It remains an important creative force and popular venue among serious music fans more than a decade after his death in 1999.
During his life, he made a point of booking “sensitive artists who have something to say about our times." "They are modern-day troubadours," he said.
The list of those artists is a staggering “who’s who” of the comedy, folk, and rock scenes of the 1960s and 1970s. Lenny Bruce, Cheech & Chong, Bill Cosby. Tom Waits, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt. The list goes on.
In one way or another, they all came into their own at the Troubadour, and for decades, it was the place where fated encounters and career-making gigs occurred with stunning regularity.
Perhaps the most famous historic gig introduced a then-unknown musician named Elton John, while future Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey met at the popular bar.
John Lennon lost a weekend here with Harry Nilsson, heckled The Smothers Brothers, and was ejected from the club.
Reporting the now-infamous incident, a newspaper of the day described the Troubadour as “known for its excellent sound, the quality of its acts, and for the show business and record industry people it attracts.”
Today it remains all that and a happening scene known for breaking British bands to U.S. audiences.
9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, Calif.; +1 310 276 1158; www.troubadour.com
Rose Theater at Jazz, Lincoln Center, New York
In New York, there are gritty jazz dives (we love Smalls Jazz Club) and then there’s Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.
Under the artistic direction of Wynton Marsalis, the whole place swings with its mission to inspire and grow audiences and advance the art of jazz. For the spectacular Rose Theater, Marsalis collaborated with top international theater planners and engineers to come up with “the premier jazz performance hall in the world.” Paul Simon, John Hammond and John Mayall, Shamekia Copeland, and, of course Wynton are just some of the greats to grace the stage.
There’s not a bad seat in the place (you’re never more than 30 meters from the stage), and the technological bells and whistles are virtuosic -- both sound and seating configurations can be high-tech tailored to specific performances which aren’t confined strictly to jazz but also include opera and theater.
As long as the kids keep quiet, they’re more than welcome; there’s even a special Jazz for Young People concert series and Jazz and Popular Song Family Concert.
After the performance, those up for more jazz should head to the center's Dizzy's Club. Every bit as magical as the Rose Theater, Dizzy’s delivers great jazz in an intimate setting with a killer view through a glass wall overlooking Central Park.
33 West 60th St., New York, N.Y.; +1 212 258 9500; www.jalc.org
The Bluebird Café, Nashville, Tennessee
The Ryman Auditorium might be the stage for Twangtown glitterati, but Nashville’s Bluebird Café is the hub for serious songwriters.
Legendary for helping to catapult Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Kenny Chesney to fame -- among many others -- the Bluebird Café has been around since 1982, when it started building what would become a worldwide reputation as an intimate (100-seat) listening room where you can hear up-and-coming songwriters as well as the “heroes behind the hits.”
The magic dust started flying by the handful after Kathy Mattea landed a record deal in 1983 after only playing the Bluebird for a couple of months.
Then everyone started showing up to play, including a young Taylor Swift, who got her big break at a Bluebird showcase when Scott Borchetta took notice and promptly signed to her to his new Big Machine Records label.
This is the place that gave birth to the now widely imitated In the Round format.
On a typical night, three or four songwriters (one of them might be John Prine) sit in the center of the room, taking turns playing their own songs and then accompanying and harmonizing with each other.
Acoustic immersions at the Bluebird have become as much a signature experience in Music City as a trip to the Grand Ole Opry — so much so that in 2008 the nonprofit Nashville Songwriters Association International bought the Bird to make sure it keeps right on singing.
4104 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, Tenn.; +1 615 383 1461; www.bluebirdcafe.com
Tipitina’s, New Orleans
"Tipitina tra la la la / Whoa la la la-ah tra la la / Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla …"
Tipitina's gets its name from the above song by Professor Longhair, the Crescent City piano player, and is possibly the most famous music club (with the exception of Preservation Hall) in the most famous music city.
The Uptown building has been around since 1912; after surviving life as a gambling house, gym, and brothel, it became what would eventually be known as Tipitina’s in 1977, when music lovers opened it as the 501 Club.
As the now-venerable Tipitina’s, it’s seen an impressive number of bands record live albums, including the Blind Boys of Alabama, The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, the Radiators and Wilco.
The club gives more than great music: its nonprofit Tipitina’s Foundation supports local music and musicians and has lately lent a hand to musicians who fell victim to Hurricane Katrina.
On Sunday, the venue hosts a rollicking fais-dodo Cajun dance party.
501 Napoleon St. (at the corner of Tchoupitoulas), New Orleans, La.; +1 504 895 8477; www.tipitinas.com
Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa, Oklahoma
In what has to be one of the most incongruous pairings of band and venue, the Sex Pistols played the historic Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa in 1978 on one of only seven stops on their U.S. tour.
To this day, a framed piece of drywall Sid Vicious ostensibly punched a hole through commemorates the historic gig at the even more historic venue.
The Pistols were just passing through, but in generations past, the hallowed hall was home turf for Wills and His Texas Playboys, who broadcast their performances on national radio here on KVOO from 1934 to 1942 and would routinely pack more than 1,000 dancers onto the supposedly spring-loaded maple dance floor.
Originally intended to be a garage when it was built in 1924, the building instead became Cain’s Dance Academy in 1930 -- its neon sign still advertises “ballroom dancing” -- and finally a music venue in 1976.
Others who have filled the floor at the Cain’s include everyone from Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, and Tennessee Ernie Ford to The Strokes, Metallica and Elvis Costello.
Still going strong, the Cain’s manages to be both a landmark in the National Register of Historic Places and a pioneering live venue where you’re as likely to see the Josh Abbott Band and the National Fiddler Hall of Fame Induction as The Polyphonic Spree and dubstep deejay Excision.
423 North Main St., Tulsa, Okla.; +1 918 584 2306; www.cainsballroom.com
The Continental Club, Austin, Texas
When Johnny Depp was in town for the Austin Film Festival screening of "The Rum Diary," he dropped in to play a surprise 90-minute set with Billy Gibbons and Bill Carter.
Ever since Morin Scott opened it in the 1950s as a posh private supper club catering to “swells” and featuring big names like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, the club has been a big name in town.
In the late 1970s the venue was leased to a group that started booking acts that would earn the Continental a reputation as a revered rock spot.
The place with the barbershop poles out front has seen the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe King Carrasco, Joe Ely, Butthole Surfers, Lee Roy Parnell, and Kinky Friedman take the stage; and it was here that an 11-year-old Charlie Sexton made his debut in 1979.
Even though big business and big-city problems have moved in, the Lone Star capital retains bragging rights to being one of the live music towns, in no small part thanks to the Continental Club.
The music’s always good, the beer’s always cold, and the vibe is always old-school Austin (in spite of the ever-increasing number of tourists making the scene).
It might be small and a little funky around the edges, but it’s still cool -- especially when Toni Price plays Tuesday Happy Hour.
1315 South Congress Ave. Austin, Texas; +1 512 441 2444; www.continentalclub.com
Red Rocks, Morrison, Colorado
The only naturally occurring acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world is located 24 kilometers west of Denver. The historic Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Morrison, Colorado, delivers a massive concert experience -- not for its size (9,000 seats) but for the sheer wonder of its surroundings at nearly 2,000 meters above sea level.
Pop and rock promoters were hardly the first to see the dramatic setting of enormous rock outcroppings as a wondrous backdrop for performances. After magazine publisher and automobile entrepreneur John Brisben Walker made a fortune selling Cosmopolitan magazine to William Randolph Hearst, he used the proceeds to buy the natural amphitheater and staged concerts here from 1906 to 1910.
The Beatles performed here in 1964, Jimi Hendrix in 1968, and U2 in 1983 (the occasion of their full concert-length video "Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky"). Ironic rock footnote: although The Beatles gig here was the only stop on their U.S. tour that did not sell out, rock band Widespread Panic has sold out a record 35.
Everyone from John Tesh to Incubus seems to have recorded albums and/or filmed concert DVDs here for the venue’s great beauty and acoustic profundity.
More than one star performer has remarked on the spiritual quality of playing Red Rocks and proclaimed it the best place to play.
18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison, Colo.; +1 720 865 2494; www.redrocksonline.com
Also on CNN: Best live music venues in Tokyo