Attending a huge stadium or arena tour can be magical. Elaborate lights and stage design elevate a good show into a theatrical, once-in-a-lifetime event. Something about assembling of 18,000+ fans in one room turns the air electric. The floor thrums with so many feet dancing and the walls shake from the chorus of voices singing along. Music is an expression of emotion that’s best experienced live, in the company of others.
But as cool as giant stadium shows are, they can also be a massive headache and even bigger money suck. When a nosebleed seat to Taylor Swift costs $125 and you spend an hour and a half trying to get out of the parking lot after the encore, you might question the time, money, and energy commitment of seeing your favorite artists in concert.
Thankfully, you don’t have to go to a stadium or arena to see world-class music. Some of the country’s best music venues only have room for a few hundred (or few dozen) attendees. Every artist gets their start somewhere, and most of the folks who play arenas these days got their start playing small gigs at run-down local spots. Check out some of America’s coolest underground music venues and discover your next favorite artist in the process.
1. Stubb’s Indoor — Austin, Texas
Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater is a famed 2000-odd capacity venue in the heart of downtown Austin, with recent visits from The National, Kacey Musgraves, and Lizzo. But I’m also partial to the venue’s indoor space, which holds about 150 standing room. The folks who book shows at Stubb’s do an incredible job finding artists just on the cusp of breaking big — in the last year alone, I’ve seen Soccer Mommy, Half Waif, and Charly Bliss play the Stubb’s Indoor stage.
Also, Stubb’s sells BBQ upstairs until showtime, so get there early and pregame with some brisket and mac and cheese.
2. Bluebird Cafe — Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe is teeny tiny, but its reputation precedes it. Since it opened in 1982, the Bluebird has featured low-key acoustic sets from some of country and folk’s biggest stars, and features performances every day from Nashville’s local talent on the rise. Bluebird’s open mic nights are a great place for discovery, whether you’re a songwriter or industry professional looking for the next big thing or just an enthusiast ready to hear some great country.
Kacey Musgraves first met her husband Ruston Kelly at Bluebird Cafe in 2016, and I can’t think of a more magical place for a meet-cute.
3. Berlin — Chicago, Illinois
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Berlin isn’t a music venue in the same way most of the other spots on this list are. A nightclub on the edge of Boystown, its stage is known for some of the city’s best DJ sets and drag performances. But every so often, some thrilling performers visit there. A friend saw Kim Petras and Charli XCX play there, and stood close enough to the stage to see Petras’ pores.
Berlin is one of the most famous gay bars in Chicago, a vibrant part of the city’s nightlife and open haven for all who frequent it. Go for a drink and dancing, and if Charli XCX shows up, it’s just the icing on the cake.