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For Those About To Rock
A Salute to San Francisco's Live Music Venues
by Lisa Butterworth on Aug 23, 2004
San Francisco is a city bursting with live music every night of the week. With so many shows and so little time one must ask, "What makes a good show great?" Invariably one will answer, "Why, the venue of course!" The right band at the right venue can turn a mediocre performance into the live set of a lifetime. When you live in a city where the music scene is so prolific you actually have to pick between bills, a venue preference can make or break your night. Here is an extremely subjective list of one music lover's venue favorites (and not-so-favorites).
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell Street
You can always count on the Great American for a good show. Neighbored by gentleman's clubs and cheap take-out in the Tenderloin, the space is damn near perfect - not overwhelming but far from cramped. Its line-ups are solid, geared toward medium-sized bands that don't quite draw a Fillmore-sized crowd and varied, from electro-clash to bluegrass within a week. If you arrive early, take advantage of the balcony seats - great views that don't tire your feet. No venue being perfect, I have to mention the extraordinarily long lines for the one-stall bathroom. A little restroom tip - try the lesser-used facility upstairs by the bar, nary a line in sight.
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th Street
This venue in the heart of Portrero is the most intimate spot to see live music in San Francisco. The dim light, secluded location, guys named Guido stamping your hand at the door and twinkling Christmas lights strung in front of the stage, make Bottom of the Hill so personable it's like watching a band in your friend's rec room or basement. Their Sunday barbeques, replete with Jello and potato salad, seal the deal. Most of the bands that come through are of the indie pop variety from local darling Track Star to revered Built to Spill front man Doug Martsch. Check the calendar often and act fast; popular shows sell out before you can tie your Converse and run to the box office. For the icing on the cake, Bottom of the Hill has the best bathroom graffiti in town.
333 11th Street
It's Slim's lack of ambience that makes it so endearing. A medium-sized SOMA warehouse space with dark walls and no décor to speak of, makes the music a crowd's only focus. The smell is somewhat dank and grease from the kitchen hangs heavy in the air but a good view is attainable from almost any spot on the floor. Slim's caters to a grittier crowd, often booking hard-edge rock and punk bands. Many of their shows are all ages so be prepared for kids with braces wearing spiked collars exploring their moshing capabilities in the pit.
982 Market Street
Though it lacks the immense pop cultural history of the Fillmore, the Warfield has surpassed its fellow poster-giving concert hall as the most popular large-scale venue in town. Tickets can be pricey, but if you get there early, views from the two-tiered floor are plenty and the stage is clearly visible from every seat in the balcony. Although I'm not a fan of the bigger venues, I have to admit the Warfield doesn't feel as large as it is. If your favorite band hasn't played there in the past year, they just haven't been on tour.
1805 Geary Blvd
Gone are the Fillmore's glory days, and what we're left with is a venue with some really great posters on the wall. While it still boasts some of the most impressive bills in San Francisco, I can't help but feel that the magic is gone. Shows are often too crowded and too hot and the blacklit chandeliers score very few style points. The trough full of red apples by the entrance does add a bit of personality though too often I find myself more enthralled by the posters, mentally ticking off the shows I wish I'd seen, than I am by the band onstage.
Café du Nord
2170 Market Street
No matter what band is playing, no matter where you see them, the people behind you will be talking. Usually this is something you can overlook, albeit annoyingly, but at Café du Nord the acoustics are such that any bit of conversation swells to the size of the room, reverberates off the walls and hits your eardrum before any bit of the music has a chance. If you're lucky enough to be part of a respectful crowd then Café du Nord, a former speakeasy, is nipping at the heels of Bottom of the Hill in terms of intimacy which is perfectly suited for it's singer-songwriter booking tendencies. The two room basement space, shrouded in red with pleasantly gaudy wallpaper patterns and antique furniture, feels like a secret oasis of drink and debauchery. The perfect place to enjoy some so-good-you-feel-guilty music.
Bimbo's 365 Club
1025 Columbus Avenue
Though you may recognize it as the set of HBO's now defunct The Chris Isaac Show, chances are you haven't been to this oft-overlooked venue hidden in the outskirts of North Beach. It's too bad the caliber of Bimbo's calendar isn't more consistent because it's by far the swankiest venue in town. Boasting a chalet-looking lounge complete with a crackling fire, two stages and bathroom attendants who actually enjoy their job, Bimbo's whisks patrons away to an era when music was classy and performers drank dirty martinis instead of Budweiser. While I've seen an upswing in the accessibility and popularity of acts billed at Bimbo's (next month's Neko Case show for example), it's got a ways to go before it reaches the top 5 venues list of live music junkies. Don't think all that class comes cheap. A couple drinks at the bar will bleed you dry.
by Lisa Butterworth on Aug 23, 2004