For many people, music is the opposite of travel. It comes to us. If your dream is seeing “the Boss,” you wait for a tour, then buy your ticket to a variation on the same show in some big-box arena.
Yet some music venues are destinations themselves. After poring through hundreds of candidates in the U.S., here are 11 iconic venues where it’s more about the experience of being there, than who happens to be on stage.
Apollo Theater (Harlem, New York)
A survivor of Harlem’s first renaissance, the Apollo has been a go-to music mecca in uptown NYC for nearly a century. Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder found fame there and James Brown recorded his legendary live album there. Heck, a memorial service and viewing was held there when he died in 2006.
The best time to go, on Wednesdays for their outrageous Amateur Night, is no secret, but witnessing the wide array of talent on display — and being a part of the alternately cheering and catcalling audience — more than deserves the rave reviews.
Blueberry Hill (St. Louis, Missouri)
Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame first-round inductee Chuck Berry still plays intimate shows at Blueberry Hill in his hometown. At 86, who know how much longer he’ll be doing it, so better get there on the double.
The classic venue (named after the song made famous by fellow first-round inductee Fats Domino) is stuffed to the gills with memorabilia — and stuffed animal heads. But Berry fans head to the basement Duck Room, named for Berry’s duck-walk strut. Arthritis may lead some of the guitar legend’s riffs astray these days, but his wit and singing remain crystal clear. Go early, and you can get very, very close.
Fitzgerald Theater (St. Paul, Minnesota)
The throwback variety radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” is touring this year, but its real home is the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Built in 1910 as the Shubert, it adopted the name of the city’s most famous literary son, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in 1994 due to efforts of folks like Companion host Garrison Keillor.
The show returns to its home base in September, and remains the definitive place to take in the show’s trademark corny jokes and singers revisiting blues, gospel, and folk classics.
Preservation Hall (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Preservation Hall was set up in 1961 to help preserve traditional New Orleans jazz and runs 45-minute shows for $15 (cash only) in front of a packed crowd.
Arrive an hour ahead of time to get a seat. The house band lets the trombones and tubas and trumpets soar across the scales. You won’t leave unhappy.
Ground Zero Blues Club (Clarksville, Mississippi)
Travel an hour and a half down Highway 61 from Memphis (and near Robert Johnson’s fabled “crossroads” meeting place with the devil), and you’ll come to Clarksdale — a humble little hamlet with a handful of places to have a beer and eat some ribs. But the town’s greatest asset is Ground Zero.
It’s best in April, during the Juke Joint Festival, but the classic joint – with faded couches out front, pulled pork cooking inside, and a mix of musicians churning out primo blues – just feels right any time of year. Even if it is only 12 years old, and co-owned by Morgan Freeman.
The Barn (Woodstock, New York)
Ever see a “Midnight Ramble”? After making music history at Big Pink, the simple home-studio of Bob Dylan and his band, The Band, who helped countrify rock ‘n’ roll’s psychedelic vibe in the late ‘60s, drummer Levon Helm stuck around and began hosting rambles at his barn down the road.
Even after Helm’s recent death, his barn continues to host rambles, a mishmash of musicians sampling Americana folk and Band songs, that help keep his legacy alive. Go early to mingle and drink in the grass parking lot outside, then find a spot to stand (I recommend just behind the stage).
Gruene Hall (New Braunfels, Texas)
Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth may be the world’s biggest honky-tonk, and Gilley’s in Houston may be preparing for a comeback, but for laid-back, historic kicks, Gruene Hall — “the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas” — still takes the prize.
Opened in 1878, this honky-tonk backed by the town water tower has played host to a laundry list of country greats (Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, and Lyle Lovett among them) who cut their teeth on the stage. The timeless venue still shines.
Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, Tennessee)
It’s where Hank did it his way. And where Earl Scruggs put bluegrass on the map, Johnny Cash staged his TV show, and Robert Altman filmed his fascinating 1975 movie, Nashville.
Built as a tabernacle in 1892, the Ryman Auditorium famously hosted the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1976. (Though the Opry’s gone on to bigger pastures most of the year, it returns to its roots each winter.) But the Ryman remains a temple of twang and beyond, hosting acts as varied as Neil Young to Blondie. You can also tour the legendary building.
Surf Ballroom (Clear Lake, Iowa)
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Iowa might not be high on your travel bucket list, but if you’re a rock fan, or crave a Back to the Future timewarp, you should add it. Walking into the Surf Ballroom — which resembles a stylish retro bowling alley — is like stepping into 1959. More precisely, it’s like walking into February 2, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper played their final show.
Since that fateful, fatal, crash, the Surf hangs onto its look and pays tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll legends by hosting a festival every February. Big names, wanting to pay homage themselves, make it here, too.
It was here that Lenny Bruce got arrested, Joni Mitchell went California (she’s Canadian), Tom Waits got discovered, and Guns N’ Roses got signed. Plan ahead; the compact stage, backed by the venue’s iconic neon sign, sells out — and fills up — fast on big nights.
The Village Vanguard (Manhattan, New York)
The cozy Village Vanguard is one of a handful of jazz-era survivors that simply needs to experienced once. Opened in 1935, the Vanguard served as a bebop breeding ground in the ‘50s and the setting for seminal jazz recordings by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. A show here remains a rite of passage and a badge of pride for stand-out musicians on the rise.
Any night is the real deal, but if you want to see surviving old-school session players, you’re in luck; they still play here regularly.