The best live music venues in Boston
The lounge area at this much-loved rock 'n' roll club generally features local bands, with the occasional showcase by up-and-coming major label signings. It also exhibits work by local artists, and serves appetizers, salads and sandwiches. But the larger, two-tiered back room is where the real action happens. The view-blocking support pillar just in front of the stage? Well, that's just character building. Given the caliber of bands performing, this is one of Boston's must-visit rock haunts.
This sprawling venue is one of America's leading rock clubs, and a major player on the national and local music scene. A Middle Eastern restaurant as well as a club, it was the nurturing ground for Boston's alternative and indie music scenes, beginning in the mid-1980s in the smaller Upstairs room. 'Downstairs' was added later and, like many of Boston's basement clubs, was once a bowling alley. In the restaurant, musicians play the Corner without a cover charge and, in keeping with the Middle Eastern theme, there are also belly dancers. Head to the ZuZu area, which sits between Upstairs and Downstairs, to eat some food and enjoy hip DJ nights.
When the Roxy's shabby sort of elegance became just plain shabbiness, new ownership took over to revamp the entire interior, renaming the space Royale. The massive room has a grand stage, an elegant marble foyer, cushy seating nooks, a fantastic sound system, a festive light show and more bustier-wearing bartenders than you can shake a glowstick at. There are VIP balconies if you feel like getting away from it all—but Boston clubs rarely reach the size of this place, so why not take the opportunity to get lost? The DJ spins house/dance on weekend nights, while hipper-than-thou promoters Bowery Boston (yes, the Hub's own branch of the much-loved Bowery group in NYC) bring in a diverse range of indie and mainstream rock, pop and hip-hop throughout the week.
Finally, the music hall that Harvard Square deserves. Classier than Central Square's beloved (but borderline dilapidated) Middle East complex, the newly minted Sinclair has been attracting indie darlings since its opening thanks to NYC powerhouse booking crew, the Bowery Presents. The total package, the venue even has its own restaurant front-of-house.
This Porter Square hole-in-the-wall is one of the few remaining cover-free spots in the city. There's a lot of good roots/Americana, though the joint isn't above booking a solid Beatles tribute band or a well-honed soul singer. Barely the size of a studio apartment, Toad gets packed easily, so expect to rub elbows with complete strangers. Fortunately, this place self-selects for a certain brand of open-minded musicophile, so mingling with this amiable bunch is usually a pleasure—and when it's not, the bands should be enough to hold your attention.
In a city of gritty rock clubs, the House of Blues is a shimmering outsider. Still, you can't beat the big name acts that parade through it's cavernous expanses—just don't get stuck too many rows back in the balcony or expect a laidback night on Landsdowne Street when the Sox are in town.
Often playing second banana to the nearby Paradise Rock Club, the BMH actually holds its own when it comes to quality shows from both touring and local acts. Dueling bars with a decent selection flank the space, ensuring a drink is never far away. Walk past the stage into the mysterious back area for an inexplicable but enjoyable smattering of pool tables.
MGMT, Hot Chip and Of Montreal all gigged at Great Scott long before all the sold-out tours at theaters and arenas. The 240-capacity Allston bar is an unofficial feeder for larger clubs like the Middle East and the Paradise. The small space has no backstage, which makes this the perfect locale for cornering your favorite singer and cajoling them into grabbing a beer with you. The line-up is mostly various shades of rock, peppered with the occasional influences of folk, electronica and country.
A homey neighborhood bar with a dangerously diverse mix of acts from Boston and beyond, the Midway often garners comparisons to New York City’s legendary Knitting Factory. Though not officially gay, this tiny, noisy, divey Jamaica Plain rock bar has always been popular with local queer folk. On Thursdays, a rowdy crowd takes over the bumping dance floor and postage-stamp stage for Queeraoke. Drink options run the gamut from high- to low-brow, with even some cocktails ringing up at under five bucks.
This might be the most unlikely new music venue to come along in a decade: a catering space that suddenly began booking indie acts. But read the bio of chef-owner JJ Gonson–who spent years running a small label in Seattle and still seems to know everyone in the recording business (her sister in is Magnetic Fields and also manages the band–and it’ll all make sense. Those ties have led to shows from the likes of Kim Gordon, Amanda Palmer, and The Juliana Hatfield Three in a room decked out in crystal chandeliers and mirrored disco balls. The familial vibe of the space makes you feel like an insider rather than an interloper, and an attached lounge space serving dinner and drinks means you can make a night of it.
A short walk from Harvard Square, this diminutive basement bar puts on a jam-packed program of shows. The beauty of the Lizard Lounge is that there is no stage. Instead, bands perform on a well-worn rug—the only delineation between audience and performer. The musical fare runs the gamut from rock and folk to Americana, along with the odd Boston Opera Underground performance. There's great food too, served in the Lounge early on, and all night up in the Cambridge Common restaurant.
This small, not-for-profit venue was once at the vanguard of the 1960s folk scene, and regularly welcomed the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. The club retains its relaxed, hippie-ish vibe, with plenty of singer-songwriters on the bill. Its popular restaurant,The Kitchen at Club Passim, packs in the punters but also kept up with those progressive '60s ethics–all the while serving a mean organic black bean burger.
The music at this tiny, 70-person club skews more toward punk and metal outfits with names like Maggot Brain and Rat Corpse. Though it's a fraction of the size of small-scale venues like Great Scott, O'Brien's doesn't dial down its sound system, so be sure to pack earplugs. Renovated back in 2006 and focusing on local production, O'Brien's serves some delectable craft beers and also offers a variety of cider options. So grab a drink and revel in the sound of pure punk.
This delightfully dive-y Central Square haunt offers everything from bring-your-ax 80s and 90s jams(Wednesdays) to singer-songwriter open mics (Mondays). There are a couple of undisputed stars: on Tuesday nights, some of the best fiddlers and banjo-pickers this side of the Mississippi trade licks while host Geoff Bartley sends around a donation hat (more recreational bluegrass players can sharpen their skills together downstairs). On Thursday evenings, a bevy of unbridled grad students dance their cares away to the Chicken Slacks' mix of Motown covers and funky originals. A well-stocked jukebox fills in during quieter moments at the bar, which draws a diverse clientele ranging from twentysomethings to grizzled barflies. The one Cantab constant throughout is high-quality musicianship and an undeniably unpretentious vibe.
For sheer history and ambience there's no beating Wally's. Since 1947, this unassuming South End spot has been the premier showcase for Boston jazz talent, including plenty of students from Berklee, the Boston Conservatory and the New England Conservatory of Music. The crowd is a colorblind mix of post-grads, South End yuppies and be-bop-diggin' septuagenarians. The drinks are strong and reasonably priced. Musical highlights include blues on Mondays, funk/fusion on Wednesdays and Sundays, and Latin jazz salsaon Thursdays, plus nightly jam sessions. No matter the day of the week, it's invariably jazzy, often inventive and always free.
Located just outside Inman Square, this cozy tavern is worth the trek. The dark bar lights up with live music every night of the week—usually foot-stomping local acts or a curated collection of well-known musicians-about-town. The pub-style food is pretty solid, the beer list commendable and the patio downright pleasant.
Ideal for the most devout music listeners, this Inman Square institution deserves credit for its stubborn refusal to play by other venues' rules: no stage and no newfangled “service charges”—although, to the delight of longtime BYOBers, the venue finally decided to start serving beer and wine. Just a small performance space, some metal folding chairs and an eclectic, experimental line-up. The atmosphere feels intimate and DIY, with local art adorning the walls and a table at the front door where patrons drop their $10 donations. Any given night you might find a Brazilian rocker, a punk outfit with a string quintet, or the next Beirut (who played here in 2006). Soak in the tuneage.
No one would call Boston a country music hub, but that doesn’t mean the city lacks hardcore fans. Loretta’s fills the void between the occasional big-name shows at Gillette Stadium, hosting regular acts out of Nashville as well as some local up-and-comers. For those needing a further primer on the country music scene, there’s also weekly line-dancing, a bluegrass brunch, and even the occasional “Countryoke” night (aka Country Karaoke). A menu lineup of country classics, including hot chicken and chicken fried steak, completes your hat-to-spurs transformation, at least for one night.