The Best American Cities for Live Music (Besides Nashville)
Get ready to book your next trip! From coast to coast and across all genres, these are the best places to find jam sessions, jazz bars, listening rooms, and larger venues.
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Beyond Music City
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When it comes to live music, Nashville—aka Music City—may seem hard to beat. After all, you can see some of the hottest songwriters and artists in the biz, alongside up-and-coming names, at The Listening Room Cafe, an intimate venue in the downtown “SoBro” Nashville district. The Grand Ole Opry and historic Ryman Auditorium regularly host some of the biggest acts in country music. Or you can get up-close and personal with two professional songwriters on SongBird Tours, as they perform their hits on a state-of-the-art bus that drives around some of Nashville’s most notable hangouts and celebrity homes. And, of course, don’t forget all the no-cover-charge bars along Honky Tonk Highway, located on Lower Broadway, where live music is thumping from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m daily.
But Nashville isn’t the only city in the country with an amazing live-music scene. Read on to discover the other hot spots that should top your live-music bucket list. No matter which genre you’re looking for, we’ve got you covered. And by the way, this is what your favorite music says about your personality.
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With an official motto of “Live Music Capital of the World,” it’s probably no surprise that Austin tops this list. In fact, on any given night of the week, you can find more than 100 venues showcasing a wide variety of free (yes, free!) live music performances. So grab your girlfriends—Austin is one of the 13 best girls’ weekend getaways in America—and make your way to Texas. Check out The Parish on Sixth Street for live hip-hop, rock, funk, and reggae, and The Elephant Room on Congress Avenue for candlelit jazz 365 nights a year. For a truly unforgettable Austin experience, visit Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, a classic honky-tonk that’s famous for its Sunday bingo games (and live music six nights a week).
Hang your cowboy hat at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin, situated in the heart of Austin’s downtown entertainment district, which makes for an easy walk or pedicab ride to many venues. Plus, you may even get to brush shoulders with some of music’s biggest stars, who often stay here while headlining Austin’s two biggest music festivals: SXSW and Austin City Limits.
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Motor City has more claim to fame than its automotive industry. It’s also brimming with Motown roots and has been home to such major artists as Aretha Franklin, Eminem, and the White Stripes. “I’ve lived in both Nashville and Detroit, and Detroit is an absolutely incredible city for live music,” says singer/songwriter Mella Barnes. “Detroit crowds are so enthusiastic and really make the experience. The city caters to every genre, from jazz to metal to hip-hop and country.” One of her favorite hot spots is 20 Front Street, a small venue with pews as seats and an intimate setting that makes it easy to interact with the performers. Another is The Magic Bag, which Barnes describes as a “Detroit staple.” While you’re there, check out the Detroit River Conservancy, one of the best free tourist attractions in the country.
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If your initial reaction was, “Minneapolis? Really?” then you’re forgetting this Twin City’s rich musical heritage. Prince, Bob Dylan, Lizzo, Judy Garland, the Replacements, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Semisonic, Soul Asylum, and Husker Du are just some of the legendary musicians who have called Minnesota their home and played a role in shaping the local music culture. One of Prince’s favorite clubs to visit (and occasionally jump on stage) was the Dakota Jazz Club, an intimate cabaret setting on Nicollet Mall with nightly music and full-service fine dining. Another don’t-miss is First Avenue, the music club where the live version of Prince’s Purple Rain was recorded and scenes from the movie were filmed; today, you’ll find an impressive lineup of acts. If your budget is tight, you’ll be happy to know that Minneapolis is one of 11 affordable U.S. cities to add to your bucket list.
Columbia, South Carolina
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If you love everything from indie and jazz to contemporary hip-hop and pop, then Columbia is your kind of town. Fun fact: This is where Hootie & the Blowfish got their start in the mid-1980s, at the University of South Carolina. Begin your visit to this under-the-radar music scene with a stop at The White Mule, a Columbia classic in Five Points that recently reopened after a relocation from Main Street that is known for being an experimental space for new talent to hone their craft with a smaller audience. Next, hit up The Joint, which resembles a 1940s jazz hall and features local and national jazz and blues bands Thursday through Saturday. Finally, stop by The Senate at Tin Roof in the heart of the Vista District, which hosts a variety of indie artists and tribute bands.
Los Angeles, California
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It’s the entertainment capital of the world, so of course, L.A.’s music scene is top-notch. “There’s a DIY movement happening, where bands and artists are working together to host their own shows instead of relying on bookers and promoters,” says singer-songwriter-guitarist Greg Gilman, frontman and founder of independent rock band Greg in Good Company. “The most talented people in the world are coming here to pursue their dreams, so naturally, the music scene is nurturing the stars of tomorrow.”
Gilman says the singer-songwriter community is flourishing, thanks to popular weekly shows like The Writer’s Room, which hosts Nashville-style songwriter rounds with open mic in between on Wednesday evenings at The Parlour Room of Hollywood. (Bonus: There’s no cover charge.) For jazz, Grammy winner Dave Yaden hosts packed crowds at Black Rabbit Rose in Hollywood every Saturday night. To truly engulf yourself in L.A.’s vibrant and diverse local music scene, Gilman suggests asking locals and bartenders for recommendations. Los Angeles also has some of the coolest street art in America.
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No matter what genre you’re hoping to hear, Chicago has it—and then some. No wonder it’s been named the best city in America! Chicago is the birthplace of several influential genres (including house, modern, gospel, and Chicago-style blues) and home to a legendary jazz scene. Fun fact: Chicago-style jazz is a combination of Mississippi Delta and New Orleans “Dixieland” style, but with heavy bass and guitar, longer solos, and fast tempos.
Several neighborhoods stand out for their music scenes. Uptown has been an entertainment hot spot since the Roaring Twenties and is the home of one of Chicago’s oldest jazz clubs (The Green Mill, where Al Capone and other gangsters used to hang out). Logan Square is the hipster hangout for cutting-edge local music, and The Whistler hosts live music and DJs seven nights a week. When you’re ready to sing the blues, choose Kingston Mines in Lincoln Park (the oldest and largest continuously operating blues club in Chicago) or Buddy Guy’s Legends in the South Loop, which is owned by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Buddy Guy.
Raleigh, North Carolina
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With more than 80 live music venues, Raleigh is sure to scratch any musical itch you have, from bluegrass and indie rock to rap and Americana. If dinner and a show is your style, the Irregardless Café has been hosting live jazz and bluegrass—not to mention fresh-from-the-farm meals—nightly since 1975. The Pour House Music Hall & Record Shop is a record shop by day that turns into a live music venue at night and doesn’t appear to discriminate against genres; most nights of the week, you’ll find a live show featuring rock, Latin wave, bluegrass, folk, punk, country, Appalachian rock, honky-tonk, garage, soul, funk, and even metal. But before you book your ticket, learn how to say “Raleigh” like a local—it’s one of 35 city names around the world you’re probably mispronouncing.
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Seattle offers up a healthy dose of musical history, being the home of the grunge era and Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Dave Matthews, and Macklemore. The younger crowd will want to head to The Crocodile in Belltown, for standing-room-only performances of hip-hop, rock, punk, and electronic shows. (Pearl Jam and Nirvana played here in the ’90s.) Gen Xers and beyond are more likely to appreciate the Moore Theater downtown, Seattle’s oldest theater. For something a bit funkier, the Tractor Tavern in Ballard offers Americana decor with folk, bluegrass, and indie bands. And for an extra dose of music history, plan to stay at the Kimpton Palladian Hotel, located in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. Artistic tributes to local musicians are found throughout the lobby and guest rooms, and guests can even request specific pillows, such as Elvis Presley or David Bowie, from the front desk.
Asbury Park, New Jersey
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This shore town is the home of Bruce Springsteen. Need we say more? But seriously, Asbury Park has seen a major musical renaissance over the last decade. The Stone Pony has been one of the most iconic rock venues in the world since opening its doors in 1974, with New Jersey natives Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi helping to put it on the map. And the Boss christened the newly reopened and restored Asbury Lanes last summer, a bowling center with live entertainment most nights of the week. Finally, Soundbooth at the Asbury Hotel offers live music and open-mic nights most evenings. A trip to Asbury Park will be easy on your wallet, too, considering it’s one of these 13 charming beach towns for under $150 a night.