The 5 best venues to see live music in the Bay Area

Imad Pasha/Staff

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As music beat at The Daily Californian, I’ve covered a lot of concerts. I’ve seen shows at the Hearst Greek Theatre, the UC Theatre, Golden Gate Park, the Great American Music Hall, The Fillmore, Slim’s, Oakland Metro Operahouse, the Paramount Theatre, Bottom of the Hill, The Masonic, Rickshaw Stop, Brick and Mortar Music Hall, America’s Cup Pavilion, The Independent, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Yoshi’s, Oracle Arena, DNA Lounge and the Fox Theater, among the others I’m likely forgetting.

If that list is indicative of anything, it’s that we are incredibly lucky to live in the Bay Area where great music venues abound. But over the years, some venues have really distinguished themselves as hotspots for taking in the tunes and screaming along to your favorite bands. So if music is your gig, be sure to catch a show or two at these amazing venues.

The Fillmore

Tucked in the heart of San Francisco, The Fillmore is a venue takes the cake when it comes to live music in the city. The historic hall has a perfectly sized floor for medium-to-largely popular bands, with wooden flooring that bounces oh-so-satisfying when the whole crowd is jumping, and some pretty chandeliers overhead. Unlike most venues of its size, The Fillmore also occasionally doesn’t put up a barrier, meaning fans can stand all the way up against the chest-high stage. But with The Fillmore, it’s the little things that make all the difference, and make The Fillmore the best venue around: a friendly staff, free delicious and always juicy apples on your way in and out, and free, beautifully rendered posters for every sold-out show.

Hearst Greek Theatre/Courtesy

Hearst Greek Theatre/Courtesy

Hearst Greek Theatre

As far as outdoor venues in the Bay Area go, nothing can beat the Greek. For the majority of shows, the Greek is a GA-only venue — so the pit and the amphitheater itself, along with the grassy knoll above it, are all open for the taking, depending on your concert preference. What’s especially fun is to see the show from different angles, from up close in the jumping escatics of the pit to up in the seats, where the visuals of the crowd and light show meld together in awe inspiring form. All seating angles are prime, and the whole space is quite simply gorgeous.

Fox Theater/Courtesy

Fox Theater/Courtesy

Fox Theater

I’ve been to the Fox Theater more than 10 times in the last few years, and the fact that it is so consistently booked by popular bands is a testament to its strengths as a venue. Chief among them is its floor, which is split into a true pit and tiered standing room sections, each about a foot higher than the last, allowing for solid views all the way to the back of the venue. It is also a beautifully rendered space, with cool statues and intricate pattern-work on the walls and ceiling. Though the balcony extends too far back to provide a good experience for most rock shows, the floor down below has a commodity that easily makes up for it: air conditioned cooling vents.

Pedro Paredes/Great American Music Hall/Courtesy

Pedro Paredes/Great American Music Hall/Courtesy

Great American Music Hall

Great American Music Hall feels like an ornate room straight out of Versailles. You can sense the history of the place — which was originally a gambling establishment, then a nightclub operated by notorious fan dancer Sally Rand. It’s a highly intimate spot, with no barrier and a stage that is at around waist level, which lets fans get up close and personal with their favorite bands, far from the emotional separation at larger venues like the Fox.  

Bottom of the Hill/Courtesy

Bottom of the Hill/Courtesy

Bottom of the Hill

Over in the Mission District, Bottom of the Hill is a gem of an oddly-shaped, all-around unique venue. Located inside what, from the outside, is indistinguishable from a typical San Francisco-style Victorian apartment building or house, Bottom of the Hill offers one of the most intimate experiences one can get with a band. We’re talking about a venue so small there’s no “backstage” — band members emerge from the green room upstairs and walk through the crowd to climb up onto it. And with shows held almost every night, it has become one of the main thoroughfares for up and coming local bands, or bands first starting out on their own headlining tours.

Honorable Mentions:

The Independent — The Independent has a lot of similarities, vibe-wise, with The Fillmore, and has one of the city’s best sound systems. But it is forever frustratingly 21+, and hey, teenagers enjoy music too!

Slim’s — Slim’s is one of those venues that you just have to love, despite the fact that it’s a little bit rickety and gets a little too hot on a crowded night. And there’s those damn poles that hold up the roof — which, while an important job, creates odd line-of-sight blockings even when you’re near the front. Nevertheless, it’s a right of passage to see shows there, given most are all ages.

The Masonic — The semicircular geometry of The Masonic means that whether standing or sitting, most views are treated equally. A word of advice though: do not try to park there.

Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.