1. Empire Polo Club (Indio)
You’d be forgiven if you couldn’t find the obscure Inland Empire city of Indio on a map. But 21 years ago, Pearl Jam used its Empire Polo Club to give a geographic middle finger to Ticketmaster, and in one fell swoop, they proved an open field in a town in the middle of the desert could turn into the single most epic concert venue in California. In the United States. Hell, maybe the world.
Now the Empire Polo Club plays host to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival every year. The monster crowds have to fight and claw each other for tickets — and once you’ve been, you know why they do it. The sun setting behind dusty red mountains while palm trees shade grass so green you don’t even want to see the other side. Stifling noon heat giving way to a pleasantly warm, star-studded night sky. Lights and art that dazzle the mind back to a preschool state.
The quality of the shows is only half the magic potion — it’s the epic setting of the EPC that elevates Coachella to the prestige it enjoys today.
2. Golden Gate Park (San Francisco)
The SF-LA rivalry is real — it’s a scientific fact. So if Los Angeles gets to have a festival like Coachella just two short hours outside its borders, you can bet San Francisco is gonna put one on right in the center of their city.
Golden Gate Park doesn’t have the heat or desert charm of the Empire Polo Club, but as a festival venue you can be sure it’s just as magical. The Bay Area’s foggy mystique and colder weather makes for an entirely unique atmosphere, with music reverberating through the tall trees of the park like the haunted echoes of the city’s long musical history.
The primary festival here is Outside Lands, which takes place in August vs. Coachella’s April. Many people go to both — and when people get a sampling of different tastes, they inevitably compare. Sandstorm vs. rainstorm. Heat vs. fog.
Everybody has a preference, but they’ll thank whatever god they worship they have their pick of both in California.
3. The Hollywood Bowl (Hollywood)
Classical music hasn’t been considered “cool” in a long, long time. Doesn’t help when the prevailing image of your audience includes coattails and monocles. But there’s a little bubble in Los Angeles that steamrolls that stereotype, and at the center of it is the Hollywood Bowl. Set into a natural chaparral amphitheater with the world famous Hollywood sign looking down like a guardian angel, the Bowl plays host to the LA Philharmonic (one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world). Since it’s outside, they can go as big as they want: fireworks, soaring visuals and light shows, up to and including real freakin’ canons during the traditional grand finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”
With picnic areas and a very loose BYO atmosphere, having a nice bottle of wine and seeing a concert is one of the most highly recommended Friday evenings in the city. Imagine: lying in the grass, a few twinkling stars breaking through the shine of city lights, drinking a glass of Pinot while violins drift out of the giant shell in the canyon. With that allure, there’s gonna be more than the Phil getting booked — every big act from the Beatles to Blink-182 has played epic shows at the Bowl.
4. Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Los Angeles)
You probably don’t immediately think of a graveyard as being an appropriate setting for a concert, but that’s the whole charm of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The 62-acre green field is dotted with the mausoleums and memorials of some of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars, and sitting smack in the middle is the Fairbanks Lawn — the perfect place to drop a blanket and listen to music on a warm summer night.
The idea of being in a cemetery seeps into every show played. Like Sigur Rós’ fog-draped Icelandic cooing, or the Flaming Lips’ two-night gig entitled “Everyone you know someday will die.” This isn’t your standard show hall. This is the past pressing on the present to create an ambiance unmatched by any other show except the one playing the cemetery next.
5. The Troubadour (West Hollywood)
In 1974, John Lennon was kicked out of a club for heckling the band on stage. Now, normally that would be an honor for everybody involved (hell, especially the band). But here, it hardly registered as an event, because that club was the Troubadour, where even the brightest stars are brought down to Earth. Many of the venues that make this list do so for the grand aspirations they represent — be it in size or strangeness. The Troub does the opposite. It shrinks the spirit of music that’s already elevated to stadium status back down to a room that couldn’t fit 400 people if they slapped on some surfwax and made a dog pile.
Despite the small crowd capacity, the Troubadour has been an important landmark in the career of everybody from Elton John to Bruce Springsteen to freaking Cheech & Chong. Guns n’ Roses were discovered here. Radiohead hit America through its doors. At this point, any band that plays it is living up to a long legacy of stars, and they have to bring their A-game. The small crowd feeds on this energy, leading to some of the most intimate shows a music lover can attend. It’s a special experience for everybody involved, and that only gives the venue more renown with every performance.
6. The Hearst Greek Theatre (Berkeley)
You want epic? That word has been so diluted. That breakfast burrito you made with your leftovers isn’t “epic,” dude. You want real OG Epic? Go to the guys who coined the term. Go to the Greeks. William Randolph Hearst did back in the 1900s, when he put this theater in a natural amphitheater near UC Berkeley. It’s based on the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus, one of the original concert halls where the acoustics are so perfectly balanced you can hear an unamplified match being struck center stage from way out in the nosebleeds.
Not that there are nosebleeds — the theater only seats just over 8,000 people, keeping it intimate — more appropriate for small city-state Greek dramas than modern-world city productions. Even still, UC Berkeley owns the theater and throws its influence around, swinging bookings from big-name concerts to addresses by the President and the Dalai Lama. Rocking out like the ancient Greeks — now that’s epic.
7. The Fillmore (San Francisco)
All of the venues on this list make it for a specific reason: Size. Oddities. Location and age. The Fillmore has all of those things, yeah, but it’s also the only venue that can claim to be the epicenter of one of the most important youth movements in history. You wouldn’t realize it just by looking at the big squarish facades. Maybe that’s the point. Once you get in close, you start to see the Wes Wilson posters adorning the walls, their psychedelic block letters nearly indecipherable from afar. The barrel of apples for any concert-goer’s taste. The friendly man saying, “Welcome to the Fillmore!” It reeks of ‘60s traditions in the best of ways.
The Fillmore was the home of the psychedelic and hippie movements in San Francisco back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, playing host to Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and every other important act of that era. The Grateful Dead played it over 50 times in four years, and you can assume there’s at least one dedicated Dead Head who went to every show. Bill Graham, the guy who made the place what it is, basically shaped the San Francisco scene according to his musical tastes, and it shows in his building. Inside, any semblance of Squarishness is cast aside in favor of a psychedelic light projection system conceived and designed by Andy Warhol and Danny Williams. The crowd is encouraged to dance as wildly as possible, a holdover from the free days of the Summer of Love. It’s the ultimate experience for anybody who’s ever thought they were born in the wrong generation.
8. Balboa Theatre (San Diego)
The best live music experiences blend the visual with the auditory. Sensory overload. It’s part of why EDM is so popular nowadays — their live shows are roughly 50% strobe lights, which hypnotize the crowd into having fun. And they need it. Most of the stages DJs play on are either contained in skeezy clubs or mobile metal monstrosities.
But when a band plays at a venue like the Balboa Theatre, they can tone it down a bit. The Balboa will do the visual work for them.
The Balboa began as a movie theater back in the ‘20s, and played into the old stereotypes of the grand silver screen, the Hollywood glamor of red carpets and soaring architecture. The stage covered by giant red velvet drapes. As recently as 2008, it reopened as a live performance venue, but it kept in touch with its roots. The restoration just means it perfectly blends that Roaring ‘20s class with modern sensibilities and taste.
Acts that play the Balboa reflect that class, presenting more low-key music than at some of the rockier venues around. John Legend played a touching show recently, his “All of Me” crooner hitting all the right notes for the room. Guys, this is the kind of show where you shower, shave, put on your nicest shirt, and take your lady for a night on the town.
9. The Casbah (San Diego)
Some people would say the clothes don’t make the man. You could douse a venue in money, dress it up like the most legendary concert halls of old, but you couldn’t buy the magic that makes a stage truly epic. The magic comes of its own volition. And like any beautiful thing, it’s rarely attracted to those who beg for it. The Casbah is a standing testimony to that — a grimy nightclub in San Diego, the kind whose mere existence seems like it should be shut down by the fire marshal. It doesn’t try to be pretty, and that’s why the magic found its way to the Casbah stage as soon as it opened its doors, instantly becoming one of the premier rock spots in America.
In its 30-year history, it’s hosted the greats of each generation: Nirvana. Blink-182. The Smashing Pumpkins. Each of them have performed on the beer-soaked stage to a crowd that head-banged and danced and screamed their lungs out without regard to what the room looks like. Attracting an audience like that — that’s the sign of a truly epic music venue. Making it about the music. And with so many epic show halls in California, it makes you wonder. Maybe that’s just the California way.