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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
It may be deeply rooted in blues, bluegrass, and country music, but over the last two decades, OKC has transformed into a multi-genre city where everything from jazz to hip-hop can be found daily. Start your musical tour of Oklahoma City at The Blue Door, a 100-seat venue known as the best listening room in Oklahoma; it’s BYOB, so plan accordingly. The Jones Assembly is a restaurant serving refined regional cuisine by day and a concert venue by night set in an old Ford Model T assembly plant. Upcoming acts include the Indigo Girls, Blues Traveler, and masked Canadian country musician Orville Peck. For the safest venue-hopping, ride the OKC Streetcar, which has 22 stops throughout the city’s major districts and costs as little as $1 per ride.
New Orleans, Louisiana
If you’ve ever been to NOLA, then you know the vibrant sounds of jazz and Zydeco fill the streets of the Big Easy. Every bar and street corner, day or night, is buzzing with musicians, so feel free to go where the beat takes you. Stop by the Davenport Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton on the edge of the French Quarter to hear jazz trumpeter Jeremy Davenport headline performances at his namesake lounge Wednesday through Saturday evenings.
If you don’t want to sit down at a venue, just start walking. “On the weekends, you will often find local musicians or kids playing their instruments in the streets,” say Cory and John Booth, of the travel blog, Let’s Find Fun. “Start your walk down Chartres Street and let the sounds guide you. Frenchmen Street is another good place to start. You are almost guaranteed to catch musicians playing outside of the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square or even on the steps of the Washington Artillery Park.” Grab a beignet from the world-famous Café Du Monde French Market if you run out of energy. By the way, these are the cheapest months of the year to visit Louisiana and every other state.
Less than 200 miles southwest of Nashville lies Memphis, a city that hasn’t gone unnoticed as part of Tennessee’s rich musical heritage. Memphis’ musical pedigree was established on Beale Street, an early-1900s mecca for blues musicians including B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie, and Muddy Waters. During the ’60s and ’70s, legendary artists launched their careers in Memphis, including Otis Redding and Al Green. And today, the city is known for its hip-hop artists, including Academy Award-winning Three 6 Mafia.
Beale Street is still the epicenter of Memphis’ live music scene, and while you can find all genres here, blues and soul still rule the roost. A few favorites include B.B. King’s Blues Club (live music is available nightly, and don’t miss the barbecue) and Rum Boogie Cafe (go for the rum selection, stay for the musical acts). Finally, check out Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square. It offers live music seven nights a week and once hosted legends like Billy Joel, KISS, and Barry Manilow.
If jazz is your jam, then Indy is sure to dish up all your favorite sounds. This area was home to some of the greatest names in jazz, such as Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, and, later, Kenneth Babyface Edmonds. Today’s Indy jazz scene is still thriving, but the city also features an impressive and growing hip-hop scene—with the nationally recognized Chreece hip-hop festival and artists like rapper Mark Battles, Rhymefest, and platinum producer Fresh Duzit. Indy is also home to an eclectic indie-pop scene led by Joyful Noise Records artists like Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s.
Catch top jazz artists at the Chatterbox, a legendary jazz dive bar, located on the bustling Mass Ave. The Broad Ripple neighborhood is home to the Jazz Kitchen and the legendary Vogue Nightclub. Finally, the Fountain Square neighborhood has a cluster of venues—including the Hi-Fi and the Square Cat Vinyl record shop—that allow you to catch multiple shows any night of the week. Bonus: Indianapolis International Airport has been named the best airport in North America.
Surprise! Columbus is having a moment, and its music scene is a large reason why. From intimate listening rooms and jazz clubs to stadiums and other large venues, Cbus knows how to draw a crowd. You’ll find the underground rock scene at The Basement, which features national bands and local groups working hard to perfect their craft while waiting to hit it big. Stop by Natalie’s in Worthington for great acoustics and coal-fired pizza; and those in the know never miss Soul Sundays here, a popular brunch on the first Sunday of each month showcasing national and regional gospel artists. Rambling House Soda is a quirky little spot north of the Ohio State University’s campus, offering craft soda alongside live roots and bluegrass nightly, plus an open jam session on Sunday evenings. Ready to book a trip? Before you do, make sure you know these 13 ways air travel will change in 2020.