The best live music venues in Boston
What began by the Sater family in 1970 as a Middle Eastern restaurant expanded in the late 1980s to pioneer the burgeoning local alt rock scene, then became a major tour stop. Venues include the smaller Upstairs, larger Downstairs (created from a former bowling alley), Zuzu, which hosts experimental artists and the stellar Soulelujah DJs, and The Corner, where musicians play for tips and belly dancers perform. Everyone from Chris Cornell to Jaden Smith, and even Ryan Gosling, has trod these hallowed bohemian boards.
The home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Orchestra is among the world’s top acoustically brilliant venues. Nothing shows off that attribute better than the BSO in full musical flight. The annual Holiday Pops is wonderfully festive and shouldn’t be missed. In addition, the very best classical conductors and musicians often join the BSO and Pops, and Symphony Hall also hosts many of the world’s top artists, from folk giants to pop stars.
This Harvard Square highlight pairs minimalist industrial chic style with the best up-and-comers and veteran cult artists, in genres ranging from indie rock to hip hop. Even the odd mainstream pop youngster will showcase in this bi-level room, which has a balcony and main floor, and a separate bar area. The adjacent restaurant and bar is accessed separately and hosts DJ and trivia nights.
A 21st century revamp turned what was a local favorite into a world-class jazz venue. Now situated on the ground floor, and with a smoky gray decor and sleek seating designed for optional views and a state-of-the-art sound throughout, Scullers showcases jazz greats such as Chuck Correa, or newcomers like Rumer Willis. The club has a bar menu and table service, and there’s an optional Almost Showtime dinner-and-performance package, which adds a three-course dinner in the Boathouse restaurant overlooking the Charles River.
This mid-size Allston venue includes a nice big stage with plenty of standing room, and some seating around the exterior. (There is some seating towards the front, too, but you lose good viewing.) The back room has pool tables—an entertaining diversion in between bands. Expect well-known artists in all genres, from roots rock band The Blasters to the insouciant pop of St. Etienne and the industrial goth artist Ohgr.
Passim has history and then some; during the late 1950s and early 1960s folk revival, it was called Club 47, and the likes of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Donovan put Harvard Square on the world’s folk scene. As Club Passim, Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega cut their teeth here. Now a non-profit with summer camps and an educational component, the basement club remains the city’s premiere venue for intimate folk and world music performances.
Tucked away between Davis and Union Squares, Once is well worth the trek off the beaten track. In fact, being off the beaten track, set in an old ballroom, gives this venue huge kitsch and DIY cred. Add in good bookings that bring equally off-the-mainstream-radar acts like the rockabilly trio Reverend Horton Heat or psychedelic rock surviver Roky Erikson, and Once is a real treat. The separate upstairs retro-cool lounge has bar food and the occasional local band performance.
Now stuck amongst the massive Seaport District development, this gorgeous tented outdoor venue overlooks the Boston Harbor, claiming some of the most sought after real estate in town. The seasonal venue has hosted concerts in this spot since 1999 and just about every artist you can think of has played here: from Die Antwoord to Coldplay. Indeed, before Coldplay reached mega-dome status, singer Chris Martin gleefully remarked from the stage, “We’re playing in a tent in Boston, how brilliant.”
Berklee School of Music’s in-house venue is a seated auditorium with a grand stage and stellar sound. Across Boylston Street, the little sister venue, Café 939 is more of a club type venue. Both are used for student and faculty performances, but touring artists ranging from Scottish post-rockers Mogwai to German neo-classical composer and pianist Max Richter play the performance center.
This is downtown Boston’s premiere rock club—actually, the gorgeous, ornate and spacious room is the only rock club in Boston proper. The large balcony—closed on quieter nights—offers seating, and a lavish foyer with settees is the place for a quieter chat. Weekend shows start and end earlier, because of dance nights. Expect everything from rootsy rockers (Butch Walker) and veteran art rockers (The Jesus Lizard) to moody emotive newcomers (Car Seat Headrest).
Everyone from U2 to Kings of Leon has graced the Paradise’s stage at one time or another. This mid-size venue is a part of the city’s rock fabric—even with its often difficult stage viewing—and local bands often make up the bill. Entrance is through he Paradise Lounge, which serves drinks and a bar menu, and is open on most concert nights one hour before the club opens.
The younger, smaller sister to the Middle East complex is in the spot on Brookline Street where TT the Bear’s once stood, adjacent to the Downstairs part. After a night and day renovation that revamped the whole venue with a new stage and sound, and a vibe that is more 21st century rock club.
This gorgeous old theater dates to 1852, when it opened as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s original home. It is one of the USA’s oldest theaters and remains a gem. These days, rock, pop, and urban artists fill its rickety old seats. The low-ceilinged foyer includes a bar, where the scene is usually a convivial, boozy one. Expect big names like Robert Plant, soul-man Maxwell, and upstart indie rockers Chvrches on the marquee.
This DIY venue hosts under-the-radar classical and jazz, and outsider rock of all stripes. Local artists are a big feature, too. The tiny space delights those who want to be intimate with performers and their process. There is a regular jazz jam, but the booking runs to gamut from indie rockers like Church Girls to the bebop veterans Charlie Kohlhase’s Explorers Club.
Tucked into what might otherwise be a sports bar filled with students, Great Scott’s sound isn’t the best, and the small stage at the end of the long narrow room means having to muscle-in and get sweaty for the best view. However, a savvy booking team brings many big name indie rock bands—Echo and the Bunnymen, Ted Leo—and features the best of the local bands, both established and on the rise. Atmosphere wise, it’s a winner.
Set in the elegant Charles Hotel, Regattabar is a chic, intimate jazz club that also features blues, R&B, pop, and even folk artists. Expect top notch sound and service. Excellent cocktails are dispensed from the bar, and dinner at one of the hotel’s two venues—Henrietta’s Table or Benedetto—completes a memorable evening. The Summer Courtyard Series brings young musicians to the Charles Square Courtyard by Henrietta’s patio—and performances are free.
While this is part of a national chain, it should be noted that the very first House of Blues opened in 1992 on Winthrop Street in Harvard Square. This particular venue is carved from two former clubs—Avalon and Axis—to create one giant venue with multiple bars and even a restaurant, which has a separate entrance. The Foundation Room is the sultry members-only upstairs lounge. With feature acts like The Flaming Lips or Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, the House of Blues continues to rock Lansdowne Street.
Part of a national chain that debuted a decade ago in Manhattan, City Winery's mid-size music room is separate from a bar and lounge area. Make no mistake, though wine-making is a focus, music is a big part of City Winery’s make up—the Knitting Factory (NYC) founder Michael Dorf is behind it all. Programming is eclectic but approachable rather than experimental. Expect veteran greats like blues lady Marcia Ball and indefatigable rock singer-songwriter Rhett Miller.