Thursday, April 26, 2012

Best Live Music Venues

As this summer approaches, I find myself getting entrenched in concert mode. In addition to attending the aforementioned Newport Folk Festival and the soon to be announced lineup for the Xponential music festival, I have also gotten tickets for Radiohead, Marillion, Jason Mraz, and hopefully there is more to come. But I have also spent some time reflecting (not really) on the countless concerts I have been too and wide variety of venues (good and bad) that have hosted me. So I decided to take a look back at my concert history and rank the top 10 venues. The only criteria I used is that I had to have been there at least twice, which unfortunately excludes many venues in cities other than Philadelphia and New York.  I also excluded any festival grounds (sorry New Orleans Fairgrounds and Fort Adams!) because that is a whole different concert experience.

10. Johnny Brenda's (Philadelphia, PA) - This venue boasts one of the best microbrew selections and also one of the smallest stages I have ever seen. Overflowing with character and offers a great balcony if you want to be literally on top of the performer. Acts I've seen include Matt Pond PA, A.C. Newman, Rhett Miller

9. House of Blues (Chicago, IL & Atlantic City, NJ) - I decided to combine these two cities just so I could get H.O.B on the list. An obviously iconic place provides a great concert atmosphere, albeit slightly generic. Guster, Matt Pond PA, Maroon 5

8. Theater of the Living Arts (Philadelphia, PA) - A much improved venue from when I originally started going there 10 years ago, the TLA gets some of the best acts in Philly and now offers improved balcony seating. Knock on the TLA is that occasionally alcohol is not allowed on the main floor which sucks. John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Martin Sexton, Portugal.The Man, Mike Doughty, Sufjan Stevens, Flight of the Conchords, Gomez

7. Central Park Summer Stage (New York, NY) - This doesn't need much explaining, great music + central park = awesome. Although I am only two for two at Summer Stage, one of those happens to be a top 5 concert of all time. Guster, Ben Folds, New Pornographers

6. Tin Angel (Philadelphia, PA) - If you are looking for an intimate concert experience, this is it. Every show feels like its happening in your living room and therefore is very predisposed to audience participation and stage banter. I could really make a case for this to be higher on the list because I have never had a bad experience there but it does feel a bit too small at times. Ari Hest, Peter Himmelman, Ellis Paul, Richard Schindell, Grant Lee-Phillips

5. Jones Beach Theater (Wantagh, NY) - This is a nostalgic pick for me, because I haven't been there much in the last 10 years but I can confidently say that is the best open air theater I have ever been too (no, I haven't been to Red Rocks yet). Friendly acoustics, a great breeze, and a beautiful backdrop have made average shows seem much better than average. It is a dry venue and I despise the extra seating added in 1998, but where else can you see Neil Diamond, Iron Maiden, and Dave Matthews Band all in the same summer? James Taylor, Steely Dan, Hootie & the Blowfish, Tom Petty, Rush, Dave Matthews Band

4. Bowery Ballroom (New York, NY) - Ahhh, the Bowery Ballroom. Home to some of the best concert memories of my 20's. I really love everything about this place. Great size, acoustics, and pre-show drinking (bar downstairs is great) make this a sure bet for a fun night out. Not sure if the area around the BB has improved, because that would only make it better. Sloan, Vertical Horizon, Del Amitri

3. The Stephen Talkhouse (Amagansett, NY) - There are way more shows that I kicked myself for not going to then shows I have been too here, which is partly because this place is so much fun and also hard to get to. Another intimate venue, but unlike the Tin Angel this place feels more like you are crashing a party. Small, but friendly bar and a handful of tables if you come early or pay for the premium tickets (hint, its worth it). Martin Sexton, Kathleen Edwards, October Project

2. The Bottom Line* (New York, NY) - Outside of my father, if I had to point to my biggest musical influence growing up it was definitely The Bottom Line. Going to this place as a teenager made me feel connected to music and like I was part of a scene. Fantastic layout, terrific sound and incredible french fries...If I had a dollar for every memory in this place, I would have several dollars. Ellis Paul, Moxy Fruvous, Weird Al Yankovic, Buster Poindexter, Jude Cole, Peter Himmelman, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

1. World Cafe Live (Philadelphia, PA) - Established in 2004, the World Cafe Live has been the most integral part of my live music scene ever since. In a way, it picked up where the Bottom Line left off in the late 90's (other venues filled in during the 6 year interim). The WCL did everything right when they opened and because of that, other venues can only hope to match the various components that make this place great. There is an upstairs, for more acoustic and slightly more obscure acts, that also has a great bar and terrific food. The downstairs is pristine, a beautiful bar, perfect floor space, and an incredibly neat balcony where you can actually purchase cushions on a couch for a show. Top it all off with free shows every Friday sponsored by WXPN (Counting Crows, John Legend, Joe Jackson, Andrew Bird, The National) and it makes sense why I have been there close to 50 times in less than 10 years. Mike Doughty, Bob Schneider, Justin Currie, Rhett Miller, Josh Ritter, Josh Rouse, Joe Henry, Darius Rucker

Venues that just missed or I have only been to once: The Wetlands* (New York, NY), Fez Under Time Cafe* (New York, NY), Scottish Rite Theater (Collingswood, NJ), BB King Blues Club (New York, NY), Newport Blues Cafe (Newport, RI), Irving Plaza (New York, NY) & The Mann Center (Philadelphia, PA)
* indicates venue is no longer open


  1. Solid list but a few comments:

    -Jones Beach: you should have put an asterisk next to this venue since it died with the addition of seating. Also, despite having a cool parking lot scene for pregame, it's a dry venue which drops it way down on my list.

    -Curious where you'd put the Mann Center for Performing Arts in Philly. I know you've only been there once but I thought it was awesome.

    1. I reference the addition of seats to Jones Beach, but 90% of my concerts there were pre-addition, so I still think of it highly. As for the Mann Center, love it. Although if you dont have premium seats I expect the view to be obscured. And the food situation was troubling for me.

  2. Yeah your information on the music venues are awesome and in that venue nyc is also available. Thanks!!