San Francisco’s 15 Best Live Music Venues
Richard Osborn - December 20, 2019

San Francisco’s 15 Best Live Music Venues

The Summer of Love is Over. Where Winterland Once Stood, the Brunch Crowd Now Queues for Mimosas and Bloodies. (That Doesn’t Mean San Francisco’s Music Scene Isn’t as Vital, as Vibrant as Ever.)
The Fillmore.

A line snakes up the sidewalk along Steiner Street, a gathering of eager brunchers, equal parts hipster and tech bro, cellphone-focused as they await some victuals. They’ve come for the French toast, mimosas and Bloody Marys and, of course, the Millionaire’s Bacon, the specialty at this Lower Pacific Heights hotspot, Sweet Maple, where on weekends an open table is as nearly as rare as a Yeti sighting.

There was a time, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when folks regularly gathered along this same stretch of sidewalk in search of another kind of treat: concert tickets. No one queuing up this sunny October morning seems particularly aware of it, but this block once housed the greatest music hall west of the Mississippi. A converted skating rink overhauled by promoter extraordinaire Bill Graham, Winterland hosted every major rock band imaginable during a prolific stretch between 1966 and 1978.

Jimi Hendrix (see Live at Winterland), The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Black Sabbath, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin all played the 5,400-capacity venue in its heyday. It’s where The Band played their last show, captured on film by Martin Scorsese (The Last Waltz). The Sex Pistols’ farewell performance happened here, too. Portions of Peter Frampton’s masterwork, the double LP Frampton Comes Alive!, were recorded here. The Grateful Dead all but lived at Winterland, their annual New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day shows the stuff of rock and roll legend.

Gone are the encamped Deadheads seeking entry; replaced by the brunch set. Winterland was demolished in 1985. Bill Graham, the empresario who also oversaw the nearby Fillmore and the epic Day on the Green shows at the Oakland Coliseum, died in 1991. But the above postmortem doesn’t mean San Francisco is no longer on the leading edge when it comes to musical happenings. Quite the contrary. Like the city has done so many times before, it continues to reinvent itself and, if anything, now offers more opportunities than ever to experience live music within its cherished 7x7 footprint. Whether it’s multi-day festivals in Golden Gate Park (Outside Lands, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass), the shiny new Chase Center or its multitudinous small-stage venues, San Francisco remains at the very forefront of the live music scene. Live by StubHub outlines the 15 best spots to catch a concert in The City by the Bay.       

1| Great American Music Hall | 859 O’Farrell Street

Capacity: 470

A gem in the otherwise rough-hewn Tenderloin opened more than a century ago, GAMH might just be the best of San Francisco’s myriad small-stage music venues, an intimate gathering spot adorned with intricate frescoes, columns and balconies. This is where the Grateful Dead recorded One from the Vault in ’75; comedians Fred Armisen and the late Robin Williams filmed comedy specials at this O’Farrell Street haunt; Elvis Costello debuted My Aim is True in its entirety here in 2007, some 30 years after the iconic album’s release.   

2| The Independent | 629 Divisadero

Capacity: 500

The NOPA corridor along Divisadero, just down the hill from Alamo Square and its postcard-ready Painted Ladies, has been all but reinvented in recent years, with upscale grocery stores (Bi-Rite), foodie hot spots (Souvla, Nopa, etc.) and coffee shops (The Mill) popping up at a rapid pace. The Independent remains the neighborhood’s center point, a small-stage hangout where you can get up-close and personal with some of the best bands in indie music. Doja Cat, Wilco, M83, Hundred Waters, Thundercat, X, Beck, Tortoise and Dave Chapelle are among those who’ve graced the stage since its 2004 opening.   

3| Swedish American Hall | 2174 Market Street

Capacity: 500

The upstairs counterpart of Café du Nord, this cozy Market Street performance space is a favorite for music purists who truly come to listen. Often, you can hear a pin drop between songs. That kind of sonic reverence exists here. Whether its Jason Lytle of Grandaddy fame performing solo or an on-the-rise singer-songwriter making their Bay Area debut at the eclectic Noise Pop Music & Arts Festival, you somehow always leave feeling as if you’ve just experienced a private, invite-only show. Nope, just another night at the Swedish American.

4| The Chapel | 777 Valencia Street

Capacity: 400

In a city chock-full of musical offerings, The Chapel has carved its own niche by booking an outside-the-box array of genre-bending bands and artists with cult followings. Bassist/producer Bill Laswell performed a rare weeklong residency here in 2019, mixing things up on consecutive nights with the likes of conspirators James Blood Ulmer and Jah Wobble. Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy is a frequent performer, too, showcasing his solo work and even covering the music of the late David Bowie. Food options abound nearby on this suddenly trendy strip in the Mission (Tacolicious, Tartine, Curry Up Now, etc.). Plus, The Chapel’s sister bar/restaurant, Curio, adjoins the venue.   

5| The Fillmore | 1805 Geary Boulevard

Capacity: 1,315

Bill Graham’s vision remains a historic happening on the corner of Fillmore and Geary in Western Addition. Its honor roll reads like a rock and roll Who’s Who: Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, The Who, Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Frank Zappa, Cream, The Doors, Aretha Franklin, etc. You wouldn’t know it from its shabby 1912 exterior, but the 1,315-capacity venue is the equivalent of a rock museum, filled with photographs and concert posters from across the years. Don’t forget to grab an apple and a free poster on your way out. And consider dinner at the James Beard Award-winning, Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions, located only a few doors down.

6| Bimbo’s 365 Club | 1025 Columbus Avenue

Capacity: 685

To cross the threshold of this North Beach mainstay is akin to time travel; instantly bringing you back to the Art-Deco days of a spiffier, more polished San Francisco, when Louis Prima made the rounds and you sipped cocktails and marveled at in-house performer Dolfina, “The Girl in the Fishbowl.” The old-school ambience remains intact (including the candy-hawking bathroom attendant), but these days you’ll find more of a contemporary lineup. Norah Jones, The Flaming Lips, Joe Jackson, Third Rail and Talvin Singh have all performed here.

The Masonic.
The Masonic on Nob Hill.

7| SF Masonic Auditorium | 1111 California Street

Capacity: 3,481

Perched atop Nob Hill directly across from Grace Cathedral, the Masonic didn’t waste time becoming one of the city’s best stages. Distinctive with its Emile Norman frieze and mosaic window, the venue underwent an overhaul and now boasts a state-of-the-art sound setup and great sightlines from every corner. Fresh from his Grammy grab in 2019 (“Bubblin’”), Anderson .Paak launched his Andy’s Beach Club tour here. Santigold, Band of Horses, Kacey Musgraves, Meek Mill, Greta Van Fleet, Spoon, Social Distortion and Janelle Monae have rocked the Masonic, too.     

8| The Regency Ballroom | 1300 Van Ness Avenue

Capacity: 700

The nightly queue along Van Ness is visual evidence of The Regency’s ever-increasing status on the San Francisco music scene. The onetime movie house continues to book a varied lineup of in-demand acts, including Caribou, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jon Anderson (Yes), Living Colour, Hank 3, Steve Hackett and Dweezil Zappa.

9| Rickshaw Stop | 155 Fell Street

Capacity: 400

This tiny Hayes Valley go-to is a TV studio-turned-concert venue that continues to introduce San Franciscans to new and exciting acts. Vampire Weekend, Grimes, El Ten Eleven and Silversun Pickups all passed through here on their way up, while established artists often return for late-night DJ sessions, too. (Think Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nick Harmer.)

10| Brick & Mortar Music Hall | 1710 Mission Street

Capacity: 300

Tucked underneath the Central Freeway on Mission is yet another intimate SF performance space. Brick & Mortar continues to punch above its weight class, staging everyone from G-Eazy to Nathaniel Rateliff (both of whom made their SF debuts here).  

11| Bottom of the Hill | 1233 17th Street

Capacity: 350

Bottom of the Hill’s familiar blue neon marquee has long been a beacon for indie rockers looking to break through on the West Coast. It’s also been a Potrero Hill meeting point for fans, who flock here seven nights a week to catch three, sometimes four, bands on the bill. Alums include Arcade Fire, the late Elliott Smith, Green Day, The Wrens, The White Stripes, Richard Buckner, The Strokes and Queens of the Stone Age, just to name a few.    

12| Slim’s | 333 11th Street

Capacity: 500

Opened by rocker Boz Scaggs back in ’88, Slim’s in SOMA occupies its own unique standing on the SF music landscape, one that often veers toward harder-edged rock (Metallica, Les Claypool, Danko Jones, Nashville Pussy, et al.) and punk (Stiff Little Fingers, Redd Kross, et al.). Not that the venue hasn’t flirted with other genres over the years. Prince once played a late-night pop-up here; Bruno Mars and Radiohead have taken the stage, too.

13| August Hall | 420 Mason Street

Capacity: 750

Replacing the nightclub Ruby Skye in 2018, August Hall is a refreshing change-up that has endeared itself to Northern California music fans on the quick. Credit a legit calendar that has included Anderson .Paak, Pixies, Justin Townes Earle, Neon Indian, SNBRN, Rick Ross and El Ten Eleven, as well as the attached Fifth Arrow restaurant/lounge, which delivers imaginative cocktails, tasty pizza and even boasts three bowling lanes.    

14| The Midway | 900 Marin Street

Capacity: 1,700

Music, tech and the visual arts converge at this one-of-a-kind 40,000-square-foot venue in the Dog Patch. Midway is actually a multi-purpose complex of ever-changing performance and exhibition spaces, including Ride, Gods & Monsters, Envelop and Midway Gallery. A Funktion-One Evo sound system and cutting-edge visual effects make for immersive, participatory experiences.

15| SF Jazz Center | 201 Franklin Street

Capacity: 700

San Francisco was once the epicenter for all things jazz in California, even above LA. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, a stretch along Fillmore Street was known as “Harlem of the West,” with names like Coltrane, Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Parker and Holiday appearing on any given night. Efforts to revitalize the scene have produced mixed results. (Yoshi’s, which has thrived in Oakland, saw its SF location shuttered in 2014.) Enter the SF Jazz Center, which has been an absolute savior. The glass-wrapped Hayes Street wonder houses both the 350-700-seat Miner Auditorium and the smaller, 100-capacity Joe Henderson Lab. Here, you’ll find the leading forces in jazz (McCoy Tyner, Esperanza Spalding, Ahmad Jamal, Jack DeJohnette, etc.), as well as a smattering of performers from other genres (Van Morrison, Laurie Anderson, Vernon Reid, Maceo Parker, Eric Johnson, Marc Ribot, etc.). The San Francisco Jazz Festival and weeklong residencies are also among the highlights. Grab a bite before the show at the adjoining B-Side Restaurant & Bar.