Chicago is a music town, full stop. The city has given rise to more eminent musicians, bands, singers, and performers than any one place has right to claim, and the very history of such foundational genres like jazz, rock, and the blues wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the influence of Chicago and its music-loving people.
So now you find yourself in Chicago—you’ve got to go to a gig, right? Here are ten great places to enjoy some live music while you’re visiting Chicago.
Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park
Chicago is home to a remarkable array of summer music festivals and seasonal concert schedules, with perhaps the crown jewel of the city’s venues that cater to outdoor live music being Millennium Park’s spectacular Pritzker Pavilion. World-famous architect Frank Gehry designed the pavilion, and its sound system is impressive. The summer programming is high-end and varied and free, so don’t miss the chance to pack a picnic dinner and spread out on the venue’s Great Lawn for an unforgettable evening. Even if you’re not super-interested in that night’s performance, the setting is breathtaking—a truly quintessential Chicago experience.
Metro is a Chicago music institution, having hosted thousands of acclaimed shows in the thirty-some years of its existence. Metro’s reputation as a career-making space was cemented in its early days, during the 1990s, when artists like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sleater-Kinney took the stage here. Today it’s known for being an intimate venue where well-known acts can connect with their audience. Metro’s location on bustling Clark Street in the heart of the lively Wrigleyville neighborhood just down the street from the one-and-only Wrigley Field means there are an abundance of fun things to do near the venue before or after any show you attend.
Constellation on Western Avenue in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood may not look too exciting from the outside—just a long, one-story brick building—but on the inside, something special is usually taking place. The live programming at Constellation tends toward the forward-thinking, so if you find yourself craving thought-provoking jazz, boundary-pushing classical, or just want to catch something new and different, it’s the spot for you. For an extra-good time, pair seeing a show at Constellation with a trip to Metropolitan Brewing, whose popular taproom—with perhaps the city’s best riverside patio space—is located just a half-mile away.
The Empty Bottle just celebrated its 30th year of live music in Chicago, and the venerable indie-rock club shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. Located in the heart of the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, the Empty Bottle is that rare performance space that’s built up an incredible resume over the years—so many fantastic bands have played here—yet never hesitates to give an up-and-coming performer the opportunity to shine. As a result, from night to night you never know just who you might see: established stars, next big things, or good local groups having great nights. Did I mention many Monday night shows are totally free?
Another longtime staple of the Chicago live music scene, the Hideout has been going strong for over a quarter-century now in a historic balloon-frame house that itself is almost 100 years old. This quirky space is perfect for fostering an environment that’s suitable for an assortment of eclectic indie-rock bands, comedy acts, and legends of Chicago music reuniting older bands for small gigs (think David Yow and Scratch Acid, as well as Steve Albini and Big Black).
Locals lovingly refer to this established concert venue as The Vic, and a night out on the town anchored by taking in a performance at this Lakeview neighborhood classic is a rite of passage for music-loving Chicagoans. All types of different national and international acts play The Vic throughout the year, and the spacious club holds about 1,500 when the show is a general admission gig, or just over a 1,000 when seating is provided for guests. Line for a beer too long? The Vic has several bars scattered throughout its multiple stories.
Logan Square’s Elastic Arts Foundation has developed quite the following over the years, establishing itself as one of Chicago’s most welcoming spaces for everything from free jazz to electronica to body-awareness workshops and more. Longtime home of the Elastic Improvised Music Series—the fabulous creative-music concert series curated by legendary saxophonist and Aerophonic Records founder Dave Rempis—Elastic Arts’ calendar of events is full of groundbreaking local artists on a regular basis. Cool bonus fact: Elastic Arts streams most of their live performances through their website, so if you want to check out a performance or two before you head their way in person, go for it, you won’t be disappointed.
One of Chicago’s larger old-school theatres turned modern rock club, the Aragon Ballroom can accommodate 5,000 people. Coming up on its 100th birthday, the Aragon has hosted some of the world’s most popular rock bands for decades now—you’d be hard-pressed to name a star who hasn’t played this space while in Chicago. It’s such a renowned venue, in fact, that numerous bands like Mastodon, Green Day, Metallica, and the White Stripes (just to name a few) have released live performances recorded during shows at the Aragon.
When it comes to the blues, contemporary jazz, and modern improvised music, it’s really difficult to top Chicago: the city is full of supportive arts organizations, tremendous live venues, and most importantly, a wealth of local artists all devoted to their craft and community. The Hungry Brain is one of these tremendous live venues, a small, intimate room (with a great patio!) that’s been graced with the presence of such musical talent as William Parker, Ken Vandermark, Jeff Parker, Wadada Leo Smith, and so many, many more.
It’s difficult to put together a list of notable Chicago performance spaces and not include the Loop’s Chicago Theatre—so you know what, we won’t make that mistake either. The Chicago Theatre’s iconic marquee has become an unofficial symbol of the city, and this historic venue regularly hosts a who’s who of big-name bands, traveling Broadway shows, and stand-up comedians. Spending the evening being entertained within the elegant space’s ornate auditorium is a bucket-list item for anyone who wants to be able to say they’ve experience live performance firsthand in the Windy City.