Is a tiny, dingy rock club a better place to see a show than an ornate, historic theater? Maybe that’s not quite comparing apples and oranges, but it’s at least like comparing apples of many different varieties, shapes, sizes, and degrees of ripeness.
But here at City Pages, we’re never ones to back away from a challenge, no matter how misguided, so we used every means at our disposal to evaluate, describe, and rank the 20 venues listed below. We gathered up the opinions of staff, our most trusted contributors, and the most knowledgable experts we could find. We devised intricate algorithms. We dabbled in the occult.
We took every aspect of the concert-going experience into consideration, from sound and sightlines to beer selection and parking—even that one time in 2004 when that bar back was a jerk to us. (Just kidding about that last one. You know who you are though and you know what you did.)
Of course, we had to set some parameters—nothing with a capacity over 5,000, which means no arenas or stadiums, and nothing under 250, so no corner bars. Even then we had to leave venues out—the Armory’s off to a promising start, but there’s not enough data yet to make a clear call, and some terrific sites like the Orpheum favor live theater more than live music these days.
The competition was stiff, to say the least. Some of the venues ranked in the lower half here would be the hottest spot in some towns, and we’re glad we have them too. And if we left off or (worse still) badmouthed your favorite room, we’re sorry, but look at it this way: At least now it won’t get overcrowded next weekend with people who read about it in the newspaper.
Oh, and just to keep you on your toes, we deliberately slotted one venue several places below where it properly belongs. We’re not saying which one, though. What fun would that be?
But we guarantee that every single other room is ranked exactly where it belongs, with mathematical certitude. We’re sure you’ll agree, and that this will settle all arguments about the best places in town to see music, now and forever. We’re solving climate change next. —Keith Harris
1. 7th St. Entry
701 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
The good: It has just one-sixth the capacity of the adjacent First Avenue Mainroom but all the magic. No club in town matches the Entry’s grimy charm, and its schedule is crammed full of veteran cult acts, budding local artists, and buzz-worthy newbies who are just a tour away from hitting the big room next door.
The bad: As in all small rooms, crowding can be an issue. But as in all small rooms, crowding is kind of the point.
The verdict: If the definitive live music experience takes place in a small, loud, packed room, that makes the Entry an even better place to see a show than First Ave. And we’re not being contrarian here. (OK, maybe we’re being a little contrarian—otherwise what’s the fun of lists like this?)
2. First Avenue Mainroom
701 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
The good: Sightlines, layout, and soundsystem are as good as any venue of its size anywhere, and the staff’s top-notch too. But it’s the intangibles that set the room apart: Everyone who performs here knows the club’s storied history and feels compelled to earn their place on Prince’s stage.
The bad: Drink prices have crept up considerably in recent years, and with the opening of the Palace Theatre (which First Ave also manages), major shows that would’ve previously hit the Mainroom are now likely to stop in St. Paul.
The verdict: An institution run by pros who ensure that everyone who enters the club, whether a fan walking in through the front door or a band loading in from the back, has a memorable experience. Can you imagine Minneapolis without it?
3. Palace Theatre
17 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
The good: The century-old, newly rehabbed theater has jumpstarted St. Paul nightlife and dominated the Twin Cities music scene in its first year. The multi-tiered general admission floor offers a jostling rock club atmosphere, while the balcony is a terrific refuge if you’d prefer to be less vertical. Bars and bathrooms on multiple levels allow you to drink or pee (almost) everywhere you want.
The bad: Concertgoers are still familiarizing themselves with the club’s distinctive layout, often creating a bottleneck toward the rear of the main floor when there’s plenty of space up front.
The verdict: With its series of epic multiple-night events and the rustic but regal decor, the Palace is a flat-out game-changer.
4. Turf Club
1601 University Ave. W., St. Paul
The good: The acoustics are outstanding for an oddly shaped room, and the stage is raised enough to see from the high-tops in the back. Many of the best artist residencies in the Twin Cities occur here, the food’s good (get the bacon cheddar burger), and the Clown Lounge is the basement hangout of your dreams.
The bad: Navigating your way to the stageside bathroom can be tricky, as is parking if you show up late. (Though the Green Line will drop you off right at the Turf’s door.) And unlike those clubs back in the protective nanny state of Minneapolis, they charge for earplugs.
The verdict: The Turf may no longer be St. Paul’s little-neighborhood-bar-that-could, but Minneapolophobic fears that First Ave might kill any of its spirit (or scrub away too much of the grit) have proven unfounded.
5. Cedar Cultural Center
416 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis
The good: The nonprofit Cedar is a distinctly West Bank institution, where you can see an earnest acoustic singer-songwriter one night and a world-renowned Malian kora master the next, or hunker down for the weekend-long “Drone Not Drones” noise marathon. The layout allows you to get close up to the stage no matter where you are.
The bad: Parking’s mostly limited to a nearby UMN garage, and if you want anything stronger than wine you’ll have to stop off at Palmer’s. The hippie-ish crowd can get a little stinky in the summer.
The verdict: Staffed by friendly volunteers, and stocked with homemade treats, the Cedar is a genuine community space, where the shows are always all-ages, and often literally so, with toddlers boogieing next to seniors.
84 Church St. SE, Minneapolis
The good: After completing a massive renovation in 2014, this Beaux Arts gem on the U of M campus shines once more as a warm, inviting room with great acoustics for its size.
The bad: The stately vibe of the auditorium does cause audiences to be on their best—or at least most sedate—behavior. You might not get to rock out as much as you desire.
The verdict: Cold, outdated, and shabby no more, the stylish, newish Northrop is the best seated theater experience for live music in the Twin Cities.
2528 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
The good: A restaurant space with distinctively woody decor tucked into the Eat Street stretch of Nicollet, with music that ranges from twee, rootsy band jams to sweaty late-night DJ sets to all kinds of jazzy improvisatory experimentation.
The bad: Early on, you’ll feel like an oddball for being first on the floor while people are still sitting at tables and booths, but the intimate space can get tight in hurry, with crowds spilling to the bar and blocking your way from point A to point B.
The verdict: Flashy but fun, pricey but loose, Icehouse is the rare club that’s defined its own visual and sonic identity from the start, and expanded from there.
8. The Fitzgerald Theater
10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul
The good: Ornate, historic, and intimate, the Fitz can make you feel like you’re watching a concert from the inside of an old-timey photograph. There’s not a bad seat in the house, and there are tons of family-friendly shows full of lovable MPR dads.
The bad: Weird layout means you have to go upstairs to use the bathroom (where all those MPR dads are already standing in front of you), while drink lines often snake out into the lobby. And the creepy musk of Garrison Keillor still lingers.
The verdict: An important stitch in Minnesota’s cultural tapestry that can steal your heart after just one visit.
9. Varsity Theater
1308 SE Fourth St., Minneapolis
The good: After reopening in 2005 with a new emphasis on live music, the resurgent Dinkytown staple became a crowd favorite for its sound, spaciousness, and opulent upstairs bathrooms, which won Cintas’ “America’s Best Restroom” honor in 2013.
The bad: Sex abuse allegations against former owner Jason McLean spurred a boycott of the club, and the new ownership will have to work to regain prime booking and the goodwill of their former clientele.
The verdict: Everyone in town is rooting for City Pages’ Best Concert Venue in 2007, 2009, and 2012 to return to its former glory.
10. Dakota Jazz Club
1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
The good: Classy and sophisticated without being stuffy or pretentious, the Dakota is an intimate space where you can witness the artistry of jazz or folk musicians close up in a setting where the food is almost as good as the music.
The bad: Depending on where your table is, the sightlines can be odd, and you can find yourself straining to hear a bass solo as the next table over orders another round of drinks or, on more infuriating occasions, simply chats away.
The verdict: The Dakota was the Twin Cities’ premier jazz club even when it was stranded out in St. Paul’s Bandana Square. Now celebrating 15 years downtown, it’s at the center of Nicollet Mall’s nightlife.
11. Uptown VFW
2916 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
The good: With its expanded venue space, upgrades to sound and lighting, and two new bars, the James Ballentine VFW Post #246 has been attracting even better acts, both on a local and national level, without losing its casual neighborhood bar vibe.
The bad: Uptown bros threaten to commandeer the joint, and the VFW’s rough-and-tumble rep and cheap drinks can lead to drunken scenes that turn ugly real quick.
The verdict: With all of Uptown’s old indie landmarks torn down in the name of progress, the VFW stands proud as one of the area’s last bastions of understated cool.
12. State Theatre
805 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
The good: Classy and historic, with a gorgeous restored proscenium and dazzling chandeliers, the State is one of those venues whose very existence seems to say “art matters”—to you, to me, and to the city of Minneapolis.
The bad: As with all fully seated venues, you might welcome the opportunity to take a load off, but that drains the energy from certain shows. And the line to get a drink at the State’s one bar can be as messy and gridlocked as the traffic on Hennepin outside.
The verdict: For the right show—veteran performers in particular shine on the State stage—it’s ideal.
13. Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge
3010 Minnehaha Ave., Minneapolis
The good: Nestled in “Downtown Longfellow,” at the junction of Lake, 26th, and Minnehaha, this nonprofit upstart is the sort of hangout where you can hear music, drink craft beer, and maybe see somebody grilling in the parking lot. “Independent and artist-driven” means not just music, but theater, comedy, even weddings (probably invite-only). Shows are cheap.
The bad: Beer and wine only, sorry, liquor drinkers. And though the Hook has hosted some highly respected names in original local music, its calendar can still be a bit of a crap shoot—tribute bands, anyone?
The verdict: This charming, cool little spot may yet be where bands and fans that used to frequent the Triple Rock Social Club or Turf Club or the Entry find a place to build a scene, but it hasn’t quite clicked yet.
14. Amsterdam Bar & Hall
6 W. Sixth St., St. Paul
The good: With a good bar, decent food, and both a large “Hall” stage for big events and a more casual “Bar” stage for the likes of singer-songwriters and karaoke, this venue caters to everyone from the downtown St. Paul business-casual set to diehard concert-goers to hockey-jersey crowds.
The bad: The “Hall” has only one small through-way in and out, along with a subtle high school auditorium vibe, and it can be tough to get to the bar on busy nights.
The verdict: The Amsterdam is an underrated, chameleon-like venue with good sound. Not much of an identity beyond “Hey, we’re in downtown St. Paul,” maybe, but hey, that’s kind of a cool identity to have.
913 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis
The good: The neon marquee gives the marooned island on which the Cabooze sits a touch of Vegas Strip dazzle that contrasts with the club’s biker-bar staff and vibe. The expansive interior is all one big room, so you can order a PBR tallboy from one of the two bars while still watching the show. And the huge outdoor patio is ideal for a smoke break or an outdoor summer jam.
The bad: The weirdly shaped room has its disadvantages too, especially if you get stuck behind a pole. And the location, pinched between desolate strectches of Franklin and Cedar, is less than ideal.
The verdict: A decent place to see a show, with its own unique character, but a touch isolated.
16. Myth Nightclub
3090 Southlawn Drive, Maplewood
The good: Attracts decent rap and R&B acts, both up-and-comers and veterans, as well as rockers not quite cool enough for First Ave, and books lots of all-ages shows. Good security and, if you get there early enough, free parking.
The bad: The floor isn’t pitched at all, so it’s nearly impossible to see the stage from any given vantage point unless you’re up in the balcony. Also, the venue bills itself as being in St. Paul, but it’s really in Maplewood. That has to be illegal, right?
The verdict: Recommended if you’re young enough to want to get in the thick of the crowd and go wild, or you’re tall enough to play in the NBA.
17. Music Hallof Minneapolis
504 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
The good: An almost hidden club with no gaudy marquee—you queue on the street bending left at nowhere and suddenly there’s a ticket booth. The interior is essentially all venue, and you can either cram up near the front or spread out elsewhere in the surprisingly spacious room.
The bad: On the wrong night, the packed room can have an ugly vibe—maybe nothing’s going to go wrong, but there’s a sense of foreboding.
The verdict: On the right night, in the right frame of mind, a cool space, and peeling out of that environment into the heart of Minneapolis afterward can be truly glorious.
18. Skyway Theatre
711 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
The good: Downtown Minneapolis’ other multi-room concert venue, except this one has three stages—and tacos. The venue hosts the kinds of metal, EDM, hip-hop, and out-of-left-field indie shows you’re less likely to see at its older, more storied competitor up the block.
The bad: The former movie theater dates back to the 1970s, and the club has tried to repurpose space without doing much to improve it. This is especially glaring in “Studio B,” a terrible-sounding concrete cavern. We’re fairly certain the carpet is older than you. All of you. Yes, even you.
The verdict: It’s where you go when your favorite artist isn’t performing anywhere else—the Spam of concert venues.
19. Roy Wilkins Auditorium
175 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
The good: Designed by the first African-American municipal architect, Clarence C. Wigington, the Roy boasts a layout that makes concerts feel both more epic and more intimate, at a capacity that can accommodate major acts.
The bad: Legendarily bad sound. City Pages’ Michaelangelo Matos recently wrote that only “saturating the inside of the ceiling with Super Glue and shooting sandbags at it” might cure its acoustical woes, while the Strib’s Chris Riemenschneider, calling for the Roy to be shut down, said “on mustier nights I swear you can still smell beer spilled at the 1973 Doobie Brothers concert.”
The verdict: The most loathed, most disparaged, most dreaded major venue in the metro area. But, as you’ll soon discover, not the worst.
20. Fine Line Music Cafe
318 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
The good: Convenient downtown location and above-average sound. If the show isn’t sold out or you get there in time to snag one of the excellent balcony seats, you might just be able to make the Fine Line experience work.
The bad: Those high-quality speakers? They’re placed directly in the sightlines. No matter where you stand, you feel like you’re in the wrong spot. And good luck getting to the bathroom, though the drink prices ensure that you can’t afford to fill your bladder.
The verdict: A great way to have a bad time watching your favorite band.