20 Great College Town Music Venues

By: Gabrielle Kratsas

What better way to escape the grueling academic schedule of a college student than with some loud, live music, inexpensive drinks and a sweaty dancing mass of fellow students?

While some campuses rely on their sports stadiums and arenas to host musical concerts and special events, many students are lucky enough to have off-campus music venues that reside within their college towns and host varying musical artists on a nightly basis. And for those even-luckier students, a few of these locations are listed among Rolling Stone’s top 20 clubs in the U.S.

The venues were selected for this list based on their proximity to a college or colleges, awards won and Yelp ratings. The order in which they’re presented is not intended to imply a ranking.

20. Toad’s Place

Rating: 3.5 Stars, 55 Reviews
College/Town: Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

According to their website, Toad’s Place is “where the legends play!” Doubling as a concert venue and dance club, this site has a full bar, a laidback ambience and an intimate feel. Tickets are available at their box office, over the phone and online.

Conveniently located just a few minutes from campus on York Street, Toad’s Place hosts all genres and types of performers, such as smooth jazz musicians, New Found Glory and comedians. This venue also hosts Barstool Sports’ black light party tour and other similar dance parties for students. According to reviewers on Yelp, Toad’s Place is low key, so the ticket prices are typically cheap. They also love how close they can get to the performing artists on the low stage.

19. 40 Watt Club

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 41 Reviews
College/Town: University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.

Dubbed “one of the most famous and iconic music venues in the world,” The 40 Watt Club began as the local rock band, Pylon’s, rehearsal space in the 70s; although, it has relocated a few times since then. This venue hosts performers of all genres, such as Nirvana, Snoop Dogg, The Strokes, John Mayer, Kenny Chesney, The Killers and Gnarls Barkley.

This 500-person capacity venue is one of the 20 listed as Rolling Stone’s top clubs in the U.S. According to their website, this venue has helped launch the careers of hundreds of bands, including R.E.M. Yelp reviewers say that 40 Watt is unparalleled to other music venues. They love the intimate atmosphere and the fact that it’s surrounded by other bars and restaurants. It also doesn’t hurt that the beers are nicely priced and the staff members are even nicer.

18. Fox Theatre

Rating: 4 Stars, 52 Reviews
College/Town: University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo.

Not only is Fox Theatre also on Rolling Stone’s list, but the magazine ranked this venue at No. 4 and said, “The former movie house mixes modern elegance with the everybody’s-welcome warmth you’d expect from an old hippie town.” The venue has a 625 capacity, but the performers feel up-close and personal. After being around since 1926, this building has become a historic spot in Boulder.

Although Fox Theatre is just a six-minute walk from campus, the bartenders do give any designated drivers free drinks, according to Yelp. Fox has hosted artists like Aaron Carter and The Oh Hellos; they also have Bluegrass Tuesdays and other specialty nights. The space is standing room only, but the staff is friendly, the drinks are inexpensive, the bathrooms are nice—for a concert venue—and the sound system and acoustics are great for a venue of its size.

17. The Middle East Restaurant & Nightclub

Rating: 3.5 Stars, 432 Reviews
College/Town: Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Rolling Stone included yet another college town venue: The Middle East Downstairs. Located less than one mile down Massachusetts Avenue from campus, this Lebanese restaurant actually consists of three live-music performance rooms and three restaurants. Several of these rooms double as art galleries, showcasing local and international artists every month.

The 550-capacity Downstairs venue hosts world-class music performers, top indie acts and WBCN’s “battle of the bands,” which has come here for the last two decades. Downstairs has a more-than-physical underground feel to it. If you’re looking for a more-intimate setting, just head on to the Upstairs—the venue’s smaller performance room. All reviewers rave about the versatility of this one-stop shop. One said, “This is a place to go for all things – shows, dates, family dinners or just a drink.”

16. Lincoln Hall

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 264 Reviews
College/Town: DePaul University in Chicago, Ill.

In 1934, FBI sharpshooters were stationed atop what is now Lincoln Hall to prevent American gangster and bank robber John Dillinger’s escape from the Biograph Theatre across the street on the night he was killed, according to their website. This historic building has since changed hands a few times before Chris Schuba opened it as a concert venue in 2009. While it was under construction, he had called Lincoln Hall “a building that would create a human-scale, intimate experience where we can put the music first.”

This building has a bar and restaurant in the front and a 600-capacity, two-story music venue in the back. Motion City Soundtrack, Ellie Goulding, Mumford & Sons and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are just a few examples of artists who have performed here. While it’s easy to get close to the performers and other concert-goers around you, Lincoln’s balcony allows additional elbow room, and the stage is raised enough so that performers are visible from anywhere within the crowd. This venue is also known to blast the air conditioning so that no one leaves in a sweaty mess.

15. Joe’s Pub

Rating: 3.5 Stars, 164 Reviews
College/Town: New York University in New York, N.Y.

According to their website, “Joe’s Pub at The Public is one of New York City’s most celebrated venues for emerging and established performance artists.” This part supper club-part theater venue hosts approximately 800 shows and serves over 100,000 audience members annually. Performances have included—but are not limited to—Broadway, GRAMMY award winners, singer-songwriters and well-known celebrities like Anne Hathaway, Elvis Costello, Adele, Lady Gaga, Hugh Jackman, Lady Antebellum and Sarah Silverman. Joe’s Pub is where Amy Winehouse made her stateside debut, and Alicia Keys called it her “favorite rock and roll venue.”

The venue has an elegant neoclassical design, warm atmosphere with seating up to the stage and a capacity of 190. In purchasing a ticket for a show, you are required to purchase $12 of food or buy two drinks. Considering Joe’s is just a five-minute walk from campus, that’s not too much to ask. Plus, the service is impeccable, and the experience makes the cost well worth it, according to reviewers.

14. Bowery Ballroom

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 300 Reviews
College/Town: New York University in New York, N.Y.

Although the walk to The Bowery Ballroom from campus is 15 minutes rather than five, this venue was rated No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s top 20 list. You won’t find high-priced meals here, but there are chairs and tables as well as plenty of standing room on the floor and on the balconies. Rolling Stone calls this 550-capacity club a “must-play for bands on the way to stardom.”

This venue can be whatever you make it. Stand up front for a comfortable closeness, or hang out on the balconies for a grander view. Originally built in 1929 as a high-end retail store, the venue still contains a bit of old-school charm with its 84-year-old brass rails. The Bowery Ballroom appeared in the movie Coyote Ugly as well as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. But don’t be put off by its age, the sound system and acoustics make this one of the best music venues in the city, according to reviews.

13. Greek Theatre

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 547 Reviews
College/Town: University of California in Berkeley, Calif.

This theater’s full name is The William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre, but it’s known locally as the Greek Theatre. The university owns the 8,500-seat amphitheater and holds graduation commencements here. The Theatre’s style is based directly on the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus, according to the website. Aside from commencements, it hosts the Berkeley Jazz Festival, pop, rock and world music concerts and occasional addresses by noted speakers annually.

This venue officially opened in 1903 with a student production of The Birds by Aristophanes, and it has recently hosted artists like Dave Matthews Band, John Legend, Rebelution, Counting Crows, Sara Bareilles and more. As a result of its design, the sound quality is incredible, according to reviews. And it’s easy to get out of once the show is over. Food and drinks are a bit overpriced, but you’re allowed to bring in your own drinks and snacks as long as the container are sealed when you enter the venue.

12. Hole In The Wall

Rating: 4 Stars, 128 Reviews
College/Town: University of Texas in Austin, Texas

The Hole In The Wall is very conveniently located in the West Campus of the university, and it is very appropriately named. This venue is a no-frills, laidback dive-type bar and music venue with a wide variety of live bands and draft beer. The building consists of two indoor stages and three bars as well as outside seating and a 1970s-style wood-paneled interior.

Here, you’ll find live music every night from a multitude of small and local performers. It’s open until 2 a.m. daily. “Don’t assume the bands playing will be great, but know they’ll seem better basking in the vibe here,” said one reviewer who had performed at THITW. Students and non-students –some as old as those students’ grandparents—gather here, making it a great venue for people watching and meeting unlikely friends.

11. Newport Music Hall

Rating: 4 Stars, 51 Reviews
College/Town: Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio

Newport Music Hall is the “longest continually running rock club in the country,” according to their website. It was originally built in 1923 as a movie theater, but reopened as the music hall in 1984, and the new owners preserved the historical ballroom architecture.

With a 1,700-person capacity, this venue hosts over 150,000 guests annually, who come to see artists like The Ramones, James Brown, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kings of Leon, Slightly Stoopid and many more. All concerts are open to all ages, and most shows are general admission with standing room only. The second level’s wraparound balcony makes it easy to see for even the shortest concert-goers, and a late-night pizza shop recently opened inside. This reasonably-priced hall is the most beautiful music venue in the Midwest, according to reviews. It also comes with a lot of character.

10. Exit/In

Rating: 4 Stars, 56 Reviews
College/Town: Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

As expected for a venue in Nashville, The Police, R.E.M., Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffet, GWAR, Steve Martin, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Etta James, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and Train are only a small sample of those who’ve played at Exit/In.

According to the venue’s website, “the Exit/In is quite simply one, old, dark, loud piece of Nashville rock stuck right in the middle of the Music City,” and they are located just one minute from campus. It is a smaller venue with a balcony, which makes it easier to see from any position. Unlike many concert venues, the drinks inside are just as affordable as the shows, and the décor is “rad,” according to reviews. Above the bar, you’ll find a sign containing all of the artists’ names who have performed here since they opened in 1971.

Exit/In “isn’t fancy, isn’t expensive, and isn’t really touristy,” said one reviewer. “Although if you dig live music and happened into this place on a trip I doubt you would be disappointed.”

9. Santa Barbara Bowl

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 174 Reviews
College/Town: University of California, Santa Barbara City College and Westmont College is Santa Barbara, Calif.

For a great concert in Santa Barbara, you can buy tickets over the phone and online, but the Santa Barbara Bowl Box Office is the least expensive way to go; the service charges can be as much as $10 less per ticket than those online.

Originally built in 1936, this venue has been renovated for the last 14 years, and it is finally complete. Through these renovations, the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation’s goal is to become the leading outdoor performing arts center in the country. It has become “one of the most scenic and intimate amphitheaters in the world, attracting the biggest names in music with its million dollar view from its landmark stage, the Pavilion,” according to their website.

This amphitheater has hosted performances by the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, Jack Johnson, George Lopez and many more. But what’s most memorable about this location is the phenomenal view from the higher seating, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But as far as concerts go, this location has great sound for being outdoors, an ample variety of beer, wine and food, and very pleasant employees. One reviewer drives from Las Angeles to this venue for concerts, and many others call it the best concert venue in Southern California.

8. High Noon Saloon

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 45 Reviews
College/Town: University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis.

Just over a mile from campus, the High Noon Saloon features rock, alternative, metal, indie, alt-country, pop, punk, bluegrass, folk, jam, hip hop, world music and more. They host large national acts, smaller touring bands and plenty of local music seven nights a week, as well as Happy Hour Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. with live music and two-for-one drink specials.

Artists like Afroman, The Black Keys, Amos Lee, Eric Church, We Are Scientists, Pretty Lights and Ra Ra Riot have performed here, and the performance ticket costs are always worth the caliber of the acts. High Noon Saloon has an outdoor patio with cocktail service, a wide variety of liquors, beers (none over $5) and wine, and Happyoke—a happy hour version of their live band karaoke.

They’ve won the Madison Area Music Award (MAMA) for “Best Live Music Venue” from 2005-2013, and they were voted Best of Madison for “Live Music Venue” 2006-2014, “Performance Venue” 2013-14, and “Nightclub” in 2006 by Madison Magazine.

7. Auntie Mae’s Parlor

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 14 Reviews
College/Town: Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

Auntie Mae’s began as a Speakeasy, created by Dora Mae Walters out of a basement under and her husband’s plumbing business in 1930. The wonderful locals chose to return the favor and reopened the bar in 1974 in her honor. Today, Auntie Mae’s features various live musical artists almost every night.

Auntie Mae’s has hosted Trivia Smackdown every Wednesday night for the last seven years—the granddaddy of all Aggieville bar trivia nights—open mic comedy nights, drunken bingo and musical performances a few times each week. Local and student reviewers call this venue a classic of Aggieville. The atmosphere is laidback and fun, and the music is awesome. The dimly-lit basement bar still feels like a real Speakeasy with vintage posters advertising the bands on the walls. And all of this is just a 10-minute walk from the campus’ Memorial Stadium.

6. Varsity Theater

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 90 Reviews
College/Town: University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn.

The Varsity Theater really can be anything you want it to be. This venue has hosted a multitude of wedding services and receptions, Shakespearean drama, modern dance performances, psychedelic folk festivals and a lot of live music. The main floor and surrounding areas are constantly changed to fit whatever happens to be going on each night.

Varsity Theater boasts a well-preserved classic Deco-era exterior and a million-dollar interior makeover. Disco balls and antique gothic chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and couches and Persian rugs are artistically placed all around. But this venue is even more well-renown for the last thing you’d expect—the bathrooms. The Varsity’s legendary bathrooms won Cintas’ “America’s Best Restroom” contest in 2013, and are described as an Alice In Wonderland-like grotto with a lounge area where you can still view and hear the music. All of this greatness is just a quarter-mile walk from campus.

According to their website, “The Varsity has garnered an internationally-renown reputation for being one of the premiere music venues in the country; hosting such diverse and defining artists as Mumford and Sons, Feist, Brandi Carlile, Saul Williams, Phoenix, Mayer Hawthorne, Cloud Cult, Janelle Monaé, Shellac, The XX, Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Sia, Ra Ra Riot, Thurston Moore, Regina Spektor, The Hood Internet, Bob Mould, The Civil Wars, Ghostface Killah, Jamie Lidell, Low, and the late Amy Winehouse to name just a few.”

5. Club Congress

Rating: 4 Stars, 113 Reviews
College/Town: University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz.

Within the historic Hotel Congress, which was built in 1919, Club Congress is “one of the 10 best rock clubs in the United States,” as well as the city’s best dance club, according to their website. Depending on the day of the week, the Club alternates among DJs, dubstep, live music, karaoke and dance parties.

For a one-stop great night out, the Hotel Congress houses multiple bars as well as a restaurant. The Club is intimate with nice lighting, and the shows vary from underground hip hop to foreign DJs and national touring acts. It has an old vaudeville stage with the characteristic red curtains and ornate iron lattices (pictured above). Not only is there a bar in the back of the Club—so you don’t have to leave the room—but there are plasma screens high on the walls for the viewing pleasure of those at the bar.

4. Rialto Theatre

Rating: 4 Stars, 72 Reviews
College/Town: University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz.

Just across the street sits the Hotel Congress’ sister structure, The Rialto Theatre. Back when it was opened in 1920, “’Rialtos’ were plazas where the common man could go for fun, as ‘Theatres’ were reserved for the nobility and the wealthy,” according to the theater’s history. This place is full of rich history and ghost stories, which can be read on their very entertaining website.

In 2004 they hosted “over 700 shows from some of the best-known artists of popular music, including The Band, Black Crowes, Maroon 5, Dave Chapelle, String Cheese Incident, White Stripes, Modest Mouse, Merle Haggard, and The Roots.” At the Rialto Theatre, you can come to watch bands, comedy, drag shows, speakers, the occasional film screening and more. Shows are mostly general admission, standing, with occasional seating in the back orchestra level. Reviews say this venue is intimate enough to feel part of the mix and large enough so that you don’t feel overcrowded.

3. Urban Lounge

Rating: 4 Stars, 38 Reviews
College/Town: University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah

Within walking distance from campus, Urban Lounge hosts concerts and dance parties daily. Many are free, and most come at a very low price, but all shows are 21+ admissions, only.

This 400-capacity venue has cheap drinks (between $2.50 and $5), loud music and raised VIP booths in the back for those willing to spend a little extra for nice seats and privacy. They host a wide variety of locally and nationally touring, unique artists like Built To Spill, Spiritualized, Stephen Malkmus, Aesop Rock, Xavier Rudd, The Heartless Bastards, Peter Murphy, Camera Obscura and more. Because of the less-common performance lineups, some refer to Urban as a “hipster hangout.” But most reviewers regard it as a chill bar with amazing live music you won’t hear anywhere else.

2. Historic Tennessee Theatre

Rating: 5 Stars, 30 Reviews
College/Town: University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn.

The Historic Tennessee Theatre has proved favorable enough to get a rare five-star rating on Yelp, and this 1920s-era movie palace is just a 15-minute walk from campus.

The interior has been completely restored, including the venue’s famous Wurlitzer organ, to its original lavish décor from when it opened as a movie theater is 1928. One reviewer mentioned how his father, a UT alum, frequented the theater in the 1940s. Today, however, this relic hosts music concerts—like instrumental electronic rock band STS9, Neon Trees and Michael McDonald—as well as comedy, symphony orchestra and Broadway shows.

These shows are more expensive than those of other venues, but the grandiose architecture, atmosphere and experience you would have at one of these shows is worth the extra cost. “You get a sense of history even if you’re seeing a modern act,” said a reviewer.

1. Gypsy Sally’s

Rating: 4.5 Stars, 32 Reviews
College/Town: Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

According to their website, ”Gypsy Sally’s is the music venue for serious music lovers who don’t take themselves too seriously.” Conveniently located just a nine-minute walk away from campus, this venue aims to prevent all that reviewers could think to complain about—lack of seating, having to wear ear plugs, lack of food and bad sightlines. They cater to adults of all ages, who enjoy great food, drink and music. And according to the reviews, they’re accomplishing their goals.

This venue even has a separate section—and entrance—for those who don’t want to pay cover to listen to good music. The Vinyl Lounge is a separate eating and drinking lounge where featured vinyl albums are played most nights, and patrons are invited to bring music from their own collections.

The live music side of Gypsy Sally’s features free open mic nights as well as performances by Larry Keel, River Whyless, Victoria Vox and other unique artists. The band genres tend to focus on bluegrass, Americana and a little jam music. The food is delicious, the prices are reasonable, the staff is friendly and the space is a comfortable size with three different levels for spectators (standing, tables and countertop seating).

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