11 of the Best Cities in the US for Live Music
1. Indio, California
Before 1993, Indio was a town known mostly for its date palm production and being adjacent to other resort cities people actually wanted to visit. But that year in the early ’90s, Pearl Jam decided to host a protest concert against Ticketmaster’s monopoly on event access. It was a risky proposition–Indio is nearly three hours outside of any major metropolitan area, and the desert heat makes it more desirable to health tourists than anybody looking to get down. But the concert was a smash hit. In one swoop, it proved that people would be willing to make the pilgrimage as long as the product was there.
Today, Indio–and the Empire Polo Club in particular–is a mecca for music fans. Coachella, held over two weekends every year in April, is one of the most popular music festivals on the planet and consistently brings in some of the best lineups year over year, along with cultural landmark moments like Daft Punk’s Pyramid Stage debut and the Tupac Hologram. Stagecoach, a country festival also held in April, attracts just about every music fan that wouldn’t be interested in Coachella. The city council recently approved yet another festival called Desert Trip to take place during the fall, bringing together Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, and the Who for the first time ever. And all of these festivals act as ignition centers for parties and shows all over the Coachella valley, with more and more taking place further away from the festival weekends. Splash House, for example, now operates over two weekends in June and August, and more must-see events pop up every year.
2. Austin, Texas
Everything’s bigger in Texas. And while that includes homophobia and regressive educational policies, the state’s more progressive cities at least temper its idiosyncrasies with some damn fine music. Like Indio, Austin is a festival lightning rod. Every March, it plays host to South By Southwest, a citywide music, film, art and technology festival that features performances and demonstrations by literally thousands of artists and creators. More traditional festivals like Fun Fun Fun and Euphoria Festival are scattered throughout the year, drawing visitors from dozens, if not hundreds, of different countries.
In 1974, PBS began airing Austin City Limits, a program meant to celebrate Texan music that quickly grew to encompass all kinds of music from all over the world. This program helped give Austin the nickname of “Live Music Capitol of the World.” As of now, it’s the longest airing music program in history. ACL eventually expanded into a music festival that, like Coachella, itself had to expand to a two-weekend format to meet demand.
When there’s no festival on, Austin is still a hotbed of live music, existing as one of the major stopover cities for touring band. Its myriad high-quality bars and venues–The White Horse, the Elephant Room, the Paramount Theatre, or the Moody Theatre to name a few–are the reason events like South By Southwest can exist, and the city has produced acts like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Janis Joplin, and Explosions in the Sky. There’s nothing quite like relaxing in the sun with some barbecue and a beer, listening to some classic blues from an act who will inevitably hit it big within a year.
3. New York City, New York
There are only a few cities in the world that can truly be called “Global Cities.” Each one seems to have its specialties–Paris has a lock on high-end dining, London has its shopping and history, Los Angeles has film and Tokyo has technology. New York has music. Gotham’s importance in the music scene makes it a guaranteed stopover on virtually every band’s North American tour schedule, from the most prima donna of superstars to the garage band touring in their mom’s minivan.
The diversity of the five boroughs has allowed it to play a role in the development of genres from jazz to hip-hop to punk rock, and its stood as the inspiration for artists from Frank Sinatra to Jay Z to LCD Soundsystem. New York, I love you, and you’re not bringing me down at all.
The city features such iconic venues as the Bowery Ballroom, King’s Theatre, and Madison Square Garden, but it also plays host to the career-building small venues like Baby’s All Right, Le Poisson Rouge and Rough Trade Records. New York has only just started featuring festivals on par with those out west. Governors Ball began in 2011 and has quickly become one of the most popular in the nation. In 2016, the founders of Coachella created Panorama to take place in the same venue (with plans to eventually move to Flushing Meadows in Queens, perhaps the first of its kind in the borough). At the same time the Madison Square Garden Company entered a bid for yet another music festival, and while details on that one have yet to fully emerge, it just goes to show that even with so much history behind it, New York’s music scene is only going to improve.
4. Chicago, Illinois
Perhaps even moreso than New York City, Chicago laid out the trajectory for the development of music in America as a unique identity. Back in the early 20th century, Chicago bars and music halls were the first places to showcase jazz and blues musicians, even if they did make them enter through a different door than the white patrons who would go on the pay to see them.
In the early 80s, Chicago DJs played old disco records and funk beats with an added synthesizer track–this music, played primarily at the club The Warehouse, would eventually use the venue as an eponym, referred to as House music. Now, venues like Lincoln Hall, Smart Bar and Hideout carry on that legacy.
There’s never been a downturn in Chicago’s music scene. Today, rock stars like Smashing Pumpkins and Fall Out Boy share the space with rappers like Kanye West and Chance The Rapper. Music venues in the area continue to draw in huge names, and the music festival Lollapalooza, perhaps the most successful inner-city festival of all time with international editions on three continents, is celebrating its 25th year with one of the biggest lineups to date.
5. New Orleans, Louisiana
Chicago was one of Jazz’s original homes, but like your new dog in your last bad breakup, it came from somebody a little hotter, a little freakier, and with a hot French accent. New Orleans is the reigning king of jazz music, a genre tied so intrinsically to its culture that people there have “jazz funerals,” in which upbeat live music is played by their processions.
New Orleans jazz can be heard ubiquitously walking through the city, particularly in the famous French Quarter. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is one of the few house bands to tour extensively (having played Coachella as recently as last year) while also putting on nightly shows in Preservation Hall, a venue dedicated to “preserving, protecting and perpetuating New Orleans jazz.” Other venues, like the Spotted Cat or the the Maple Leaf, feature a mix of bigger names and up-and-coming acts.
This city has expanded its music tastes in recent years with the increasing ease of finding and playing new music. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, for example, is now about as dedicated to jazz music as the Dodgers were to Brooklyn, and this changing lineup representation has helped the festival became popular with a younger generation, in turn inspiring them towards the genre that made the city famous. But everything the city does is steeped in its original Creole, jazzy aesthetic, and for this reason, live music in New Orleans is truly set apart from anywhere else in the world.
6. Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Eau Claire is a relatively new addition to this list, a sleepy Wisconsin town that until recently, like most of the state, excelled in little more than alcohol tolerance. However, the city has recently seen a surge in live music attention, thanks in no small part to the local Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver. Vernon, a virtuosic producer, opened the April Base Recording Studio after gaining international fame as Bon Iver.
With an specific artistic vision and unquestionable talent, Vernon cultivated a wide network of associated acts like the Staves, Sylvan Esso, and even Kanye West, all of whom have traveled to Eau Claire to record and perform. Building from this convergence is Vernon’s Eaux Claires Music Festival, curated by himself and members of the National with an eclectic lineup that draws on the aesthetic of Vernon’s own varied tastes.
7. Nashville, Tennessee
One of the most entertainingly one-sided feuds in music today runs between the Black Keys and the White Stripes. Jack White, one of the talented people to pick up an axe in the last two decades, alleges that the similarly named Black Keys stole his sound. Here’s the maddening thing–Jack White stole it too. The “Nashville” sound, a blues/rock/country guitar-based aesthetic, is nearly as deeply entrenched in that city’s culture and musical history as Jazz is for New Orleans. Developed primarily by artists like Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins, Nashville’s music identity has inspired multiple films and TV shows and led to calling itself “Music City.” Don’t tell Austin.
Jack White’s Third Man Records, one of the last major vinyl producers in the country, hosts performances in its Blues Room venue space, and there are dozens of other unique venues all around the city, such as Mercy Lounge, the Ryman Auditorium, and The Basement. Even the local airport has hosted a live music series since 1981.
While the city itself doesn’t play host to any massive music festivals (as are fashionable these days), it does serve as the metropolitan hub and connection for Bonnaroo, held each year on a farm about 60 miles away. Bonnaroo leans heavily towards the modern standard of festival lineups (you’ll find heavy crossover in the lineups with Coachella and Lollapalooza), but it remains constantly steeped in country, and with this dedication to a specific aesthetic coupled with a willingness to change, its inception was named by Rolling Stone as one of the 50 moments that changed rock-n-roll forever.
8. Los Angeles, California
Last week, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted its latest class. Nestled into the lineup of icons like Deep Purple, Steve Miller and Cheap Trick was a little group of poor kids from the hood that went on to become known as the most dangerous group in America. NWA. And despite what Gene Simmons says, NWA are rock gods, people that defied authority and convention to create music that changed the world. Although the city’s heavy focus is on Hollywood, Los Angeles has been functioning as a low-key hotspot for live music for about as long as the city’s had running water.
Some of the world’s most iconic venues are located in the city, and some of music history’s most iconic moments have happened there. Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire while performing in Downtown’s Shrine Ampitheatre, leading to a lifetime need of pain medication that eventually caused his death. In 1974, John Lennon was thrown out of the Troubadour for getting too drunk and heckling the band. This year, Guns N’ Roses reunited for the first time in 23 years at a surprise show at the same venue. The Hollywood Bowl was the site of one of the Beatle’s most famous performances ever, nearly drowned out by their screaming fans. Smaller venues, such as Villains, Bootleg Bar and Hotel Cafe also bring out the best acts, sure to hit it big within the year.
There are hundreds of stories like that in Los Angeles music history, and more are created every day with venues like the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the Staples Center putting on shows that run the gamut from small and personal to extravagant and over-produced. Everybody has an opinion about Los Angeles, and one of the most common complaints is that the city lacks a distinct culture. Clearly the people saying that have not been paying attention.
9. Portland, Oregon
It’s easy to hate on Portland for the stereotypes portrayed by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, accurate as they may be. But say what you will about hipsters–they usually have some damn good taste in music. Hell, Carrie Brownstein herself is a member of Sleater-Kinney, one of the best rock groups to come out of the ’90s, so there’s a pedigree involved. The Oregon city taps into the music scenes of both the Pacific Northwest and the California coast, and acts tend to stop through on their way between the two iconic musical centers. Venues like Mississippi Studios, Holocene, the Aladdin Theatre and Edgefield book interesting acts, and the Zoo Ampitheatre provides a unique experience of listening to your favorite bands while Asian elephants walk just behind you.
And as a hipster’s mecca, Portland has been pioneering the responsible music festival, providing experiences that simply can’t exist at larger, more commercial destinations like Coachella. Pickathon, held on Pendarvis Farm each year just outside the city limits, is the only outdoor music festival in the country to minimize single-use products like water bottles and cutlery. This Green message is starting to spread to other, larger corporate festivals, proving that small changes can make a difference as they trickle upwards form the pilot program. It’s like Carrie Brownstein said–the dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland. But the dream of the future is too.
10. Seattle, Washington
To the outsider, Seattle’s music scene is synonymous with Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana. But while plaid and incomprehensibly garbled singing put the city of rain on the map, the city has evolved far past the early ’90s to become the dominant hub of the arts in the Pacific Northwest (take that, Portland), while still maintaining a direct line to its grunge heritage and a distinct regional character. The Showbox, for example, is one of the most popular venues in the city, being located directly in the world-famous Pike’s Place Market. The Crocodile, which opened in 1991, assisted in the rise of the city’s most famous offerings of the last two decades, and other venues like Q Nightclub, the Highline and Columbia City Theatre have played host to a range of genres far outside the grunge and rock that permeates the city’s mythos.
And while the city’s weather often precludes the possibility of outdoor shows for all but the most dedicated and masochistic heads, enough fans turn out to make them worth putting on. Bumbershoot, held at the Seattle Center ever year, is America’s longest running outdoor music festival, and in fact is still one of its largest as well. And the Gorge Ampitheatre (admittedly quite remote at 2 hours outside the city) has been rated as one of the best music venues in the country, competing with the likes of Red Rocks for the title of most epic outdoor show possible.
11. San Francisco, California
Few cities on the west coast can lay claim to a musical heritage the way that cities on the east coast can. Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles simply haven’t existed long enough to build the kind of culture that’s been present in Chicago and New Orleans for nearly two centuries. But while they’re making in-roads, none have been so successful west of Texas as San Francisco.
In the 1960s, San Francisco became the center of one of the most influential and important youth movements in history, with artists, beatniks and hippies galore moving to the Bay Area to become part of it and in turn steer it to the juggernaut that it became. Since that time, its music scene, itself decentralized in genre and direction, has grown to become one of the best in the country.
The Fillmore may be the center of this explosive growth. At first a roller-rink, the building became a music venue playing primarily African-American music until 1965, at which point it developed into the ultimate taste-making venue of the 1960s, with all the big names from Jimi to Dylan playing its stage. Bill Graham, the longtime owner and curator of the venue, has been more instrumental in steering live music in the city than anybody else, with his second venue, Fillmore West, occupying much the same niche as the original Fillmore during slower times of development.
The Fillmore may have the most history, but it’s hardly the only venue in the city of note. The Independent and Bimbo’s 365 are both popular stopovers with great nightlife attached, while smaller venues like Sweetwater Music Hall, Slim’s and Yoshi’s develop upcoming talent in the area. And while the city’s sprawl is rapidly growing out of control, there are still plenty of outdoor spaces for music as well–Golden Gate Park, in particular, now plays host to Outside Lands, one of the last major American music festivals each Summer and thus gathering a greatest hits lineup of the year. Add to that the robust hip-hop scenes and the ever-experimental Bohemian population, and San Francisco earns its place as one of the best cities in the country for live music.