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Top ten intimate music venues

Get a little closer-to the music.


Chicago's smaller music venues books great bands, serve good drinks and look good doing it. No wonder gigs often sell out.

Much like the Empty Bottle, this small club books some of the best indie touring acts around, but leaning toward the acoustic singer-songwriter end of the spectrum, and month-long residencies from local groups with a national profile.

Appropriately named (it’s tucked away in an industrial corridor), the Hideout serves as both an unpretentious, friendly local bar and a don’t-miss roots venue. Some of the city’s best alt-country acts got their start in the backroom, which also plays host to rock groups, readings and other non-music events. Its annual block party is always a blast. Rugged string band Devil in a Woodpile play in the front bar every Tuesday for free.

Green Mill
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 (Barber’s here every Monday, if she’s not on tour) while Tuesdays belong to the ferociously swinging Deep Blue Organ Trio.

Empty Bottle
Don’t be fooled by its battered storefront: this is Chicago’s premier indie rock club, hosting cutting-edge bands from home and abroad. The annual Adventures in Modern Music festival, co-sponsored by British magazine The Wire, is internationally renowned. If you need to get away from the noise for a while, the club has a comfortable front room, complete with a pool. “Cheap Sundays” and free Mondays remove the financial risk from gambling on an unknown bill.

Old Town School of Folk Music
There are occasional shows at the Old Town School’s Old Town location (909 W Armitage Avenue, at N Fremont Street). However, the bigger concerts staged by this loveable local institution, featuring folk, blues, country and world music acts, are held up in the more capacious Ravenswood space. Don’t miss the annual Old Town Folk & Roots Festival in July. Take in everything from Senegalese hip hop to Tropicalia for little to no cost on World Music Wednesdays.

Lee’s Unleaded Blues
Since the demise of the original Checkerboard, Lee’s has inherited the title of the South Side’s leading blues bar, and with good reason. The unassuming brick house, across from an auto wrecker in the shadow of the I-90 overpass, books a variety of local acts for seasoned regulars ready to hop. There’s never a cover. Perhaps the last truly authentic juke joint in the city.

Jazz Showcase
Long heralded as Chicago’s leading jazz venue, the venerable club hass been forced to relocate more than once since its inception in 1947. However, since relocating to swank new digs in 2008, the Showcase has easily reestablished its reputation for bringing in top-shelf talent.

Beat Kitchen
This tidy, welcoming little corner bar in the north of the city has hosted innumerable debut shows, many of them of the punk, garage and power-pop varieties. However, it also stages sporadic gigs from more well-known acts such as a residency from bubblegrunge heroes Local H.

Set right in the heart of Wicker Park, this upstairs club (pity the drummers lugging gear up the stairs) rarely disappoints sound-wise, despite a rather creepy door staff. There’s a lofty balcony high above the stage if you don’t want to rub shoulders with the crowd, packed in to see typically heavy rock and hip-hop.

The Whistler
Delicious epicurean cocktails might be the Logan Square bar’s forte, but the tiny room hosts more and more delightful underground pop shows and art exhibits. The crowd can’t reach triple digits, so intimacy with both the musicians and your neighbor’s elbows is inevitable.

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