Great -- but small -- American Venues

There's no need to remark on the Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Centers of the land; that would be like reminding folks that Buffet is a billionaire or that Tyson is a tough cookie with a squeaky voice!

Instead, I'd rather focus on those smaller, more immediate venues for live music that may have gone unnoticed, sometimes even in our own hometowns. There are so many well-designed, intimate spaces that afford the attentive audience a chance to not only listen and see live music in its most pure form, but also to become part of the experience. In these special musical spots, your clap actually matters and when you whistle and holler, the artists feel it and feed off it to everyone's benefit. What follows is only a tiny selection of magical venues to explore:

The Ark in Ann Arbor, MI - Back in the U of M days, this is where I got my first taste of music performance in-the-round listening to the songs and stories of legends like Greg Brown along with new guard of folk acts like Steppin' In It (don't know them? well, you better!). It's a nationally known stop for singer / songwriters and for jazzheads to catch the likes of John Scofield and Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Despite the notion of "flyover country", the Ark is one venue not to miss if you're in the midwest.

The Rialto Room at Hotel Indigo, Athens, GA - Although Hotel Indigo can be a bit pretentious (the hipster/frat quotient is high!), the Rialto Room is a space that was designed for intimacy and quality acoustics using "state-of-the-art equipment". It so well-planned that you feel like the artist is playing practically for you alone. It's remarkable what good design can do to showcase the art that the acts bring to town, admittedly one frequently flooded with quality music.

The Bottom of The Hill in San Francisco, CA - I hear good things about this spot, but I've yet to get there -- in due time. Based on the schedule, this small venue caters to acts on the rise and established artists, as well in various genres including "alternative, rock-a-billy, punk, and hard-rock" with a bit of "folk, punk, and pop" mixed in. Rolling Stone considers this "the best place to hear live music" in SF which is seriously saying something (RS 813).

The Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, GA - This is another "must play" venue for acts small and medium in addition to those legends who recognize the value of seeing the whites of the listeners' eyes. You can sit movie-theater style; you can smoke in the dedicated "smoker's alley" (although you shouldn't 'cause those buggers will eventually end up smoking you!) or you can dance it up close to the stage. I've seen many greats shows at the Variety and the neighborhood of Little Five Points is funky and fun for before and after!

The Highline Ballroom in NYC - If this one is anywhere near the new Highline Urban Park, then it's worth a visit; not to mention, it seems like every band / artist I watch out for is playing this ballroom on tour. Big reputation!

Johnny Brenda's in Philidelphia - Just one that I discovered in my searching, and it looks like one to check out in Philly. Anytime the name is one of those "man-lady" combos, you can bet it's a place where the love sows the seeds of musical adventure! Been there? Tell us about it.

How about your area? Is there some spot where you go to see live music that's not a stadium sporting a corporate moniker? Tell me about it: Post a comment and I'll put it on the bucket list.

To close, I leave you with the lyrics to a classic Dan Hicks tune that makes my point about heading to these wonderfully inviting, small venues to get yourself in tune with live musical energy!

Dan Hicks

Canned music, canned music, playing on the radio
Canned music, canned music, with out a doubt it doesn't go
Favorites on the jukebox are only half the show when it's
Canned music, canned music

A little before she left me, I asked her what it's all about
She said I feel like dancin', She feel like stepping out
I took her with the van, where the band was on the stand, playin'
Live music live music

She got us on the dance floor, to me it was a sight
I never seen my baby movin', like the moves she made on me that night
I did not have a chance the way that music made me dance, it was ah
Live music, live music

The rhythm was all around us, we was really steppin' out
My baby said I'm livin' for this music, I asked her what it's all about
She said I'm just a silly girl, this stuff has got me in a whirl
It's just some live music, live music

And that was the night she left me, danced herself into my memory
My baby had to leave me for the drummer, I guess I'll never solve that mystery
I think I've learned my lesson just don't get too near the band when it's
Live music, live music

A little before she left me, I asked her what it's all about
She said she feel like dancin', she feel like steppin' out


  1. Nice post Alex...For me, the spot that I always seem to end up at here in London is the Jazz Cafe in Camden. I think it might take 300-400 people at a pinch (might be wrong... Hard to tell in the dark!). The best in old school hip hop rolls through there on a regular basis, and there's some decent jazz and R&B there too. Well worth a look if you're ever out this way!

  2. Thanks Duncan! I will be sure to try to catch a show at the Jazz Cafe in Camden. I've had the improbable dream to visit my brother and his family over there for the Olympics. That'd be a perfect chance to check out that spot, while everyone else is out watching the javelin throw and the steeplechase!

    Noted! Thanks for the comment.


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