One music junkie’s take on the top nine places to catch a show
This tiny, diverse Iowan venue is making a name for itself in the Court Avenue district of downtown Des Moines and securing a place for quality local talent. Chris Ford, who has played the venue with his band Christopher the Conquered, raves about Vaudeville. “It’s the one place where anyone can have the opportunity to play. It was very important in fostering my talent and gave me lots of opportunities to play shows when no one else would,” he says. “The crowds are always there for the show, not just to party—though plenty of that happens, and it is always a good time. The staff is great, the sound is good, and it feels like a real rock and roll club.” Vaudeville gets visitors up close—really close—to its acts, thanks to a 220 capacity. For those who want to support up-and-coming groups in an intimate scene, Vaudeville’s where it’s at.
8. The Pageant (St. Louis, Mo.)
At the Pageant in St. Louis, music acts vary in a space small enough to catch a big band (like AWOLNATION and Mumford and Sons) without losing quality acoustics. Despite a generously sized pit, crowds can be colossal and tightly packed, but regulars say there isn’t a bad view in the house of the high, eye-level stage. Andrew Kuchem, a St. Louis native, said the Pageant has an “old time feel” to it and books both mellow and high-energy shows. Kuchem has opted for a pit spot each time he’s visited the Pageant and said crowd rowdiness varies depending on the act. (Pro tip: For excellent seating, book a balcony spot.) Also, since the venue is newly smoke-free, concertgoers who aren’t tobacco fans can go home basking in the glow of a badass show, not the aroma of an ashtray.
7. Aragon Ballroom (Chicago, Ill.)
This exquisite Chicago classic tailors to crowds between 700 to 4,500 people for events ranging from wrestling matches to movie productions. Its capacity for live music is a standout, catering to those who need a break from the grimy, beer-soaked accommodations of grungier venues and want to rock out a little classier: Picture Spanish palace courtyard style architecture, crystal chandeliers and a terra-cotta ceiling. Aragon opened as an orchestra house in 1920 and has seen its up and downs, but under recent ownership in the ‘70s it secured a niche as a rock ‘n’ roll haven. It has since come a long way from head bangers, now hosting many up-and-coming alternative bands and some bigger names including Florence + the Machine, The Flaming Lips, My Chemical Romance, and Neon Trees.
6. Pabst Venues (Pabst Theater, The Riverside, and Turner Hall Ballroom) (Milwaukee, Wis.)
In the case of concert-going gems in the Milwaukee area, three is better than one. The ages-old Pabst Theater is known for its big-name acts and classic Neo-Renaissance elegance with its crystal chandeliers and red velvet décor. Jake Perez, a Milwaukee native, recently caught The Lumineers at Pabst and said the stadium seating is unlike typical venues, but nice in its own way. This National Historic Landmark is a must-attend, in junction with its sister centers Riverside Theater and Turner Hall Ballroom. Riverside hosts a healthy entertainment mix ranging from Bill Cosby to Bon Iver, all in a historical theater setting with three tiers of seating and standing room near the elevated stage. Turner Hall is the most intimate of the bunch and books spectacular but smaller shows like The Black Keys and Vampire Weekend. Each venue is comprised of ornate, jaw-dropping architecture. And, yes, the brewing guru Captain Frederick Pabst is to praise for the construction of the venue legacy.
5. The Majestic Theatre (Madison, Wis.)
The Majestic Theatre, Madison’s modern update on an old-style theater, is as flexible as it is fun. When the venue hosts live music, it tailors to a diverse booking of acts, with a specialty for underground rock and alternative favorites. Think the lighter side of Vans Warped Tour, with names like Reel Big Fish and Never Shout Never. Outside of music groups, the venue transforms into a showcase for “brew ‘n’ view” movie nights or themed costume parties, reaching full capacity at 600. The dynamic layout means concertgoers can go nuts (depending on the band’s excitability factor) up near the stage or kick it back in the multi-tiered balcony, complete with renovated balcony boxes for lounging. As for the stage, expect insane lighting effects and tall columns of ornate architecture framing the act. Those who want a casual concert experience with character should opt for the Majestic.
4. Varsity Theater (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
The Varsity Theater in Minneapolis is spot-on for catching a mellow show. Recently voted Best Concert Venue of the Twin Cities 2012, the theater has an upscale charm with mod, sophisticated décor (and uncharacteristically clean bathrooms to boot) paired with a chill, hipster ambience. Expect lounging over moshing: Lofted tables and assorted couches line the perimeter of the dance floor, with dangling string lights and disco balls to set the mood. This place prefers casual concertgoers to crowd surfers, so if you want to catch a great group—like Jack’s Mannequin, Sara Bareilles or The Bravery—without the clusterfuck, get your tickets today.
3. Lincoln Hall (Chicago, Illinois)
For smaller Chicago venues, this one takes the cake. Concertgoers chime odes of love for Lincoln—and with good cause. It opened in the early 1900s but found a loveable forte as the host for intimate, intense live music shows a few years ago. Founder Chris Schuba wanted to foster an environment where the music could “come first,” and he achieved just that: This place is praised for stellar sound quality and a cozy layout—a must for nitpicky, avid show viewers. The venue tailors to a versatility of music genres, booking hip-hop, indie, rock, electronic and other acts all under one roof. And if you get enough of the live action on stage—God forbid—you can cozy up to the bar and check out the show on a TV screen.
2. The Metro (Chicago, Illinois)
Planted two blocks North of Wrigley Field in Chicago, this venue is the place to perform for emerging talent. Over 30 years ago, music junkie Joe Shanahan transformed a former jazz and folk club into a prime venue for up-and-coming groups. Today, the Metro’s tradition continues as a foot-in-the-door opportunity for developing bands. The venue’s set list is all encompassing, with a knack for mid-tier favorites like Jimmy Eat World and Fall Out Boy.
Mike Lieb, University of Northern Iowa student, has a plethora of concerts under his belt. But after seeing The Airborne Toxic Event at the Metro on New Year’s Eve, he discovered his new favorite venue and now keenly recommends it. “It was the best-sounding show I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot,” he says. “Being in the front row, I could still hear everything equally, and the venue was intimate and classy. No matter where you stand, you can get good quality sound.”
Ornate architecture frames the dynamically lighted stage, and an optional video screen adds visual interest behind the band. The crowd ambience teems with Chi-town coolness, hitting the sweet spot between grunge and class. The sound quality is excellent—words can get muddied, but volume level and accuracy of sound are good. And, a rare perk, it’s also clean. Guests can opt for cozy standing room to get up-close-and-personal with the performer, or chat the night away in the mellow balcony area (in entirety, holding about 1,150 concertgoers). The venue commonly sells out quickly, so plan ahead and snag tickets early.
1. First Avenue (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Downtown Minneapolis holds one of the nation’s oldest rock clubs: First Avenue, a grungy music hotspot integral to the Twin Cities. The beloved First Ave debuted in 1970 and has hosted everything from Prince (it’s featured in “Purple Rain”) to the Pixies, local artists, comedy acts and wild-weekend dance raves. First Ave has won numerous awards for dance club events and for reigning as a crowd- and band-pleaser. Noah Harmon, bass player of the alt-rock favorite Airborne Toxic Event, said First Ave is a favorite Midwest spot for him and the band to play. And it may be tattered, but its lineups are anything but shabby: A wall of painted stars denotes big-name artists from a plethora of genres with names like The Black Keys, Eminem and the Goo Goo Dolls.
First Ave’s layout is made up of a balcony and generous standing room that houses maniacal moshes. The intimate space is commonly sold out weeks in advance. Annelise Tarnowski, a Minnesota native and show fanatic, calls First Ave her favorite spot to catch acts. She says it’s the “little-big venue,” with enough room to effectively rage while still feeling “like a family.” When artists come through First Ave, she said, “they have to be able to engage the crowd as a group. That’s what show goers expect.”