Due to its central location in the middle of the country, Chicago has always been a destination for touring musicians. Consequently, the city is filled with classic theaters that date back to the early 1900s and modern clubs that draw on the area's rich live music tradition. Producers and artists who have created Chicago's best albums have played these venues, as well as bands in town for a summer music festival.
Whether you're a passionate music geek trying to discover the next hot indie act or want to see one of your musical heroes in front of a crowd of thousands, here are the Chicago music venues that should be on your radar. Heck, a few of them even serve great burgers.
Best Chicago music venues
Lincoln Hall has quickly become one of the city's most vital venues. This is typically where you go see that band that is blowing up, or the artsy ones that have already blown up. A stone's throw from the gravesite of the legendary Lounge Ax club, the venue books everyone from Foxygen to Charli XCX in this great sounding room (Wilco bestowed some of its high-end sound gear). The design is sleeker and more modern than its Lakeview sibling, Schubas, but the fresh-ground burger and the big booths are just as inviting. Yeah, even the food is good.
Don’t be fooled by its unassuming storefront: This is Chicago’s premier indie rock club, hosting cutting-edge bands from home and abroad. If you need to get away from the noise for a while, the club has a comfortable front room, complete with a pool table and pinball. The club mascot, Radley the cat, passed away years ago, but his scent perhaps lives on. Most local shows are free, removing the financial risk from gambling on an unknown bill.
Much like the Empty Bottle, this small club (its capacity is about a third of its brother Lincoln Hall, which holds about 500) books some of the best indie touring acts around, leaning toward the acoustic singer-songwriter end of the spectrum, plus month-long residencies from local groups with a national profile. You can hang out in the front bar area without paying cover for the shows; if you’re under 21, go straight to the back room. The Harmony Grill serves up a mean brunch on weekends.
A ramshackle roadhouse of country-rock in an industrial stretch of the city wouldn't be complete without a few characters hanging out on the porch no matter the weather. Longtime local acts like Robbie Fulks and Devil in a Woodpile play inside, but the music can still be heard over the cracking of PBR cans out front. It can be difficult to reach this juke joint via public trans, but it's worth a trip for the cheap beer, live country-rock and DJs dropping nostalgia, from Prince to Devo.
The Loop’s 5,000-seat Chicago Theatre was the opulent French baroque-style flagship of the Balaban and Katz movie-palace chain when it opened in 1921. It’s still a beautiful venue (you’ve probably seen the famous illuminated “Chicago” marquee even if you’re from out of town) that’s surprisingly cozy for its large size. Whenever your favorite band plays here, it's a memorable experience.
The newest jewel in the Chicago music scene, this antique concert hall in Pilsen was rehabbed and reopened by Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden, who runs SPACE in Evanston, in the grand room above their restaurant and bar—Dusek's Board and Beer and Punch House. Yep, you can get Punch House punches at a rock show, too. A balcony wraps around the room and opera boxes hang above the stage—you can sit inside them for a price during select shows. The bookings lean a little City Winery, a little Empty Bottle (of course), ranging from Americana to psychedelic garage.
Formerly known as the Viaduct Theater, this nondescript building overshadowed by the Belmont overpass is home to some of the city's most progressive jazz, contemporary classical and improvised music. Founded by local drummer and Pitchfork Music Festival talent buyer Mike Reed, Constellation boasts two performance spaces and a bar offering reasonably priced beer and cocktails. From local jazz groups to touring avant-garde performers, the venue is Chicago's home for anything that's "too weird" for the rock clubs.
Metro is one of the city’s older and more famous clubs. Formerly known as the Cabaret Metro, it hosts a variety of midsize national touring acts of all genres, from rock to hip-hop to electronica. In the club's early days, owner Joe Shanahan lassoed New Order, R.E.M., Depeche Mode and more, and later helped popularize industrial and grunge. The multi-level joint is a house hub as well, as its sister venue Smart Bar sits downstairs, bringing in ace DJs to one of the top dance clubs in in town.
Al Capone and other gangsters used to hang here in the 1920s, but these days it’s all about the music. Owner Dave Jemilo, who returned the club to its original luster in the 1980s, books smart bebop and free jazz with a discriminating ear. Local favorites Kimberly Gordon and Patricia Barber both maintain residencies throughout the year. Come early, as it’s usually busy.
Originally on the fourth floor of the magnificent Wrigleyville building (also home to Metro), this venerated dance club is now in the basement. A recent makeover slicked up the looks a notch and brought back a vibrant young crowd. But more importantly, the club boasts a world-class Funktion-One sound system, which sounds tremendous on the central dance floor. Cutting-edge DJs from Europe, Detroit and Chicago form the bulk of the weekend bookings with house, techno and electro styles; but local mash-up and indie jocks rule on bargain weekday nights.
During the summer, Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion is often filled with people taking in free classical performances or rock concerts under the city skyline. Designed by Frank Gehry, you can get a great view of the stage whether you watch the LED screen while eating a picnic on the lawn or take a seat in the pavilion.
This welcoming corner bar in Roscoe Village is something of a stepping stone in Chicago's music scene, hosting many debut shows by local and touring bands in its dingy but intimate back room. On any given night, you'll find punk, garage and power-pop acts performing onstage while regulars post up at the bar in front. Boasting a great selection of reasonably priced beers and interesting menu items like the Thai pizza and lamb lollipops, it's also a great place to grab a quick bite before the show.
Better known as the Vic, this larger-size club is easy to get to via train and hosts a variety of rock acts (we’ve seen everything from Sonic Youth to Julian Casablancas here). It has a good number of 18-and-older and all-ages shows. If you’re 21, be sure to also check out Brew and View, where movies are shown and the heckles from the audience are usually more entertaining than what’s onscreen.
Set in the heart of Wicker Park, this venue has a place for those seeking concerts—and for those simply seeking beer. The upstairs is devoted to a live stage, which features heavy rock, emo, indie and hip-hop acts nightly, while the downstairs bar serves as a cozy den for a weekly lineup of reggae and house nights. Subterranean is also one of the best places in town for underage 17-and-up shows. Sub-T is also now the home of The Lincoln Lodge, one of the top comedy nights in town.
The Riv is generally considered to be the sister rock club to the Aragon, a block away. With a capacity of around 2,500, the jazz-age theater isn’t quite as big as its neighbor, but the acoustics are much better. You might catch someone like Alt-J or Fitz and the Tantrums here. Those afraid of heights should probably give the steep balcony seating a miss. We've even felt it vibrate during a Cut Copy gig.