Anytime is the perfect time to explore California’s unique musical history. Certainly, the Golden State is home to a variety of eclectic music landmarks—like a haunted brothel-turned-rock-club and a honky-tonk that launched its own genre. Over the second half of the 20th century, they all greatly affected the evolution of rock and pop music.
These venues offer more than just quality sound and marquee names: Something about each of them has led to longevity in the music industry. “I think what makes a great venue is hard to quantify,” says Tom Windish, the owner of L.A. concert-booking firm The Windish Agency. “But people talk about the magic dust—there’s just something magical about certain places.” Listed from north to south, here are seven venues where your ticket still gets you an evening with musical bragging rights.
Few venues can be credited with launching a music movement the way The Fillmore did in the 1960s and ’70s, when some of the most innovative music emerged here, thanks to acts like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix. “The Fillmore is the birthplace of the modern pop music concert industry as we know it,” says Michael J. Kramer, author of The Republic of Rock. “It's the place where an older kind of entertainment industry gave way to light shows, LSD, and the rock music of hippies.”
Before the hippie era, the 1912 building had been a dance hall through the ’30s, a roller rink in the ’40s, and a venue for performers like James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner in the ’60s.
The venue hasn’t thrived just by banking on its psychedelic rock past, either; it has showcased everyone from Radiohead to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (who have appeared on stage 27 times), and continues to book in-demand artists. At shows today, you can still grab a free concert poster and an apple on the way out, in true Fillmore tradition.
As the oldest music club in the city, the Great American Music Hall has a long (and scandalous) past, which preceded its current position as a popular indie-rock venue. Built the year after the 1906 earthquake demolished much of the city, the concert hall was originally a symbol of new growth—and was frequented by gamblers, prostitutes, and crooked politicians up until the Great Depression. A few years later it re-emerged as a swanky dance club, then transitioned to a jazz club, restaurant, and eventually a music venue in 1972. The 600-capacity hall has a distinctive opera-house aesthetic—marble columns, high ceilings, detailed murals—and its stage has featured classic artists such as Duke Ellington, as well as cult favourites Arcade Fire. Adding to its mystique, rumours have long swirled that the building is haunted by ghosts (dozens of them, according to one account) from the hall’s colourful past.
After 40 years of closed doors, it took a $91 million restoration project to make Oakland’s Fox Theatre what it is today: one of the most unique live venues in the area. The opulent art deco building, which opened in the 1920s, resembles a Middle Eastern temple, with gold statues and intricate mosaics surrounding the stage. The Fox first served as a movie theatre, showcasing “talkies” and even live performances by such as legendary triple threats as Frank Sinatra and Ginger Rogers. The movie house closed in 1966 (partially due to the advent of television), and it wasn’t until 2009 that the Fox, in a 2.0 version, came back to life. By day it serves as the Oakland School for the Arts, and by night as a music venue, hosting acts such as Bonnie Raitt, Father John Misty, and Vance Joy in the coming months.
There’s one remaining honky-tonk bar that seeks to preserve one of California’s homegrown genres, the “Bakersfield sound.” Opened in 1931, Trout’s helped foster the musical style that hit big in the 1950s—a grittier, more rockin’ version of the country music made famous in Nashville. In the honky-tonk bars of Bakersfield, locals would dance to the strong beat and electric guitar of artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Ultimately, the genre didn’t find the same mainstream popularity as its Nashville counterpart, but it influenced musicians of the future, and continues to hold a special place in California’s music history. Stop by Trout’s to peruse the club’s historic memorabilia, ride the mechanical bull, or join locals for line dancing.
The Troubadour occupies a special place in L.A. music history: Neil Young played his first solo show here. Elton John made his U.S. debut on its stage. A band formerly known as Mookie Blaylock announced their new name: Pearl Jam. History buffs will appreciate the venue’s storied mix of folk and rock ’n’ roll; music fans will love the unprecedented access that the 400-capacity venue allows. “The stage almost feels like it’s in the audience,” Windish says. “And when you’re in the balcony, you feel like you’re on top of the band.” Having attended and booked dozens of shows there, he credits great sight lines, quality sound, and excellent booking for making Troubadour what it was and continues to be—a great place to hear up-and-coming bands and singer-songwriters.
Every Sunday throughout the ’50s and ’60s, The Lighthouse featured a house band that would invite guest players, including Miles Davis and Chet Baker, to come onstage. Not surprisingly, the pier-side club became a jazz hot spot. “You think of all the big name players and this was just the place to go—we were the first landing spot for East Coast jazz musicians,” says Lighthouse general manager Steven Grehl.
Although other kinds of music have crept onto the calendar nowadays—there is salsa, country, top 40 nights, and even the occasional DJ—The Lighthouse continues its legacy during weekend jazz brunches and a Wednesday performance every week. Gloria Cadena (now 90 years old) has booked jazz acts here for the past 30 years, an homage to her late husband Ozzie, who was once a well-known jazz record producer. “There’s so much history here, and I want to keep it alive,” she says.
Rock fans haven’t flocked to The Casbah for the past 27 years because of its beautiful architecture or lavish seating options; they attend a show at the divey club for the rowdy, up-close-and-personal experience. The grungy feel is part of its charm, and it suits the genre of music it continues to support—edgy, emerging rock. “I love the intimacy—it’s teeny,” Windish says, “and it still has the era vibe that I grew up into.” Early in their careers, both Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins played at the original Casbah—a 75-person venue—before it moved to a new 200-person space in 1994. The stage has been graced by artists such as MGMT, Death Cab for Cutie, Weezer, Cold War Kids, and many more.