Houston's 10 Best Singer-Songwriter Stages
Neil Young at Jones Hall in 2010
Photo by Jay Lee
10. JONES HALL Definitely one of the fanciest places on our list with its wall-to-wall red carpeting and fine wine bar, Jones Hall is the permanent home of the Houston Symphony Orchestra and the Houston Society for the Performing Arts, as well as a venue for popular contemporary musicians and other artists. Some have criticized the theater as being dated, but the seats have been comfortable and the room has sounded great when we have visited.
Jones may not be a place that up-and-coming performers get a chance to play, but it can be a good place to catch some big names; Neil Young stopped by during his 2010 solo tour with the late Bert Jansch opening, as did Young's friend and sometimes musical collaborator Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam for a 2012 solo show. Currently the venue has several Christmas programs scheduled, but Sarah McLachlan does drop by on March 1.
615 Louisiana, Web site
Tip: try the "Bird's Nest" seats at Dosey Doe sometime.
9. DOSEY DOE (BIG BARN) Dosey Doe's "Big Barn" is aptly named, as it is literally a 165-year-old barn that was originally located on a Kentucky tobacco farm. Turns out that this barn is a pretty great place for music, acoustically speaking, as artists and music fans from around the country have discovered when they have visited; the seating and interior design is fantastic as well.
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Shows at the Barn come at different price levels, with obstructed-view seats costing less than their with unobstructed counterparts; those who purchase obstructed-view seats can also head on up to the third level, known as the "Bird's Nest" for its overhead view of the stage. The food here goes over as well as the music, with patrons arriving early to enjoy dishes like the Ginormous Chicken Fried Steak or South Texas Antelope Burger.
25911 I-45 N., Spring, doseydoe.com
8. UNITUNES COFFEEHOUSE Many Houstonians may not have heard UniTunes, the name given to a series of acoustic concerts held at the Emerson Unitarian Church near the Galleria. Both established singer-songwriters and up-and-coming artists play here, with all proceeds going to the performers as well as local charities, as UniTunes is a volunteer-run nonprofit organization.
The past few years, proceeds have gone to the Houston-based Hospitality Apartments, which provides free temporary housing for out-of-town patients in the Medical Center and their caregivers. Past performers have included Bob Livingston, Terri Hendrix, Jeff Black and many other notable artists. UniTunes does not book many shows, usually just one a month, but next up is Grammy-nominated guitarist and singer-songwriter Bill Kirchen on January 3.
1900 Bering, unitunes.org
John Legend at Cullen this past May
Photo by Marco Torres
7. CULLEN PERFORMANCE HALL An intimate venue located on the University of Houston campus that hosts lectures, opera, dance, musical acts and theatrical events; Cullen is now the Alley Theater's base of operations while its downtown home is undergoing renovations. Cullen's permanent seating capacity is a little north of 1,500, and UH non-students are welcome to come hear its great acoustics the next time a national touring singer-songwriter visits.
Some noteworthy performers who have played at Cullen Hall in 2014 include Jason Mraz and John Legend; Grammy winner John Prine is scheduled to return here in 2015, with tickets going on sale today.
4800 Calhoun, Web site
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Main Street also features a full-service espresso bar to keep you awake for the drive home.
6. MAIN STREET CROSSING Most Houstonians who live inside the Loop don't think of traveling far when they make plans to go out and see some live music. However, Main Street Crossing, which opened in 2004 in historic downtown Tomball, hosts a lot of good folk and country singer-songwriters and is worth the trip.
Like most venues on this list, Main Street is a small, intimate place with good sound where patrons come out and enjoy the music, with not a bad seat in the house. In addition to the established musicians who come through, the venue also allows young performers a chance to get up onstage and play before a crowd. Also a nonprofit organization, Main Street appreciates any donations you can give to help keep the place going into the future; you can also help out by buying some beer, wine and/or bar food when coming out for a show.
111 E. Main, Tomball, mainstreetcrossing.com
Dave Rawlings (left) and Gillian Welch at the Cullen Theater in 2012
Photo by Jason Wolter
5. CULLEN THEATER/WORTHAM CENTER The 1,100-seat Cullen Theater is the smaller of Wortham Center's two theaters; the larger Brown Theater is used primarily by the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera. The Cullen is primarily used for smaller ballet and opera productions, productions by Houston-area arts groups, chamber music, small touring shows, recitals and -- most importantly for our list -- singer-songwriters, where the intimate setting and fantastic acoustics makes the venue ideal for solo performances.
For the audience, meanwhile, the seats are very comfortable and offer actual leg room. Climbing up to the mezzanine level means negotiating some steep steps, but this steepness ensures that every seat in the house has a great view of the stage. Friendly ushers will assist any patrons that need help up or down the stairs and guide them to their seats.
500 Texas, Web site
The "country store" vibe is in full effect at the Music Cafe.
4. DOSEY DOE MUSIC CAFE Dosey Doe's Music Café arguably has even better sound than the Big Barn location does, with more affordable admission prices for shows and even some free ones now and then. At the Café, dinner is always an option while attending a musical performance, whereas at the Big Barn some shows require a dinner purchase, hence the savings here.
You can even just stop in for a meal at the Music Café and skip the concert, but we have no idea why you would want to, as the small intimate space allows you to see and hear your favorite artists up close in a way that only a handful of other venues in the Greater Houston area do, most of which are included on this list.
463 F.M. 1488, Conroe, Web site
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3. OLD QUARTER ACOUSTIC CAFE Another legendary listening room on our list, the Old Quarter is somewhere everyone In Houston should go check out if they have not done so already. Townes Van Zandt was close friends and bandmate to owner Wrecks Bell, once recording a song inspired by Bell titled "Rex's Blues." Old Quarter declares itself the place "Where lyrics still count," and singer-songwriters who currently stop by on a regular basis include Guy Forsyth, Shake Russell and Ruthie Foster.
Old Quarter is a historical place that continues on the tradition of the original Old Quarter in Houston; located downtown at the corner of Congress and Austin, its where Van Zandt recorded one of his best albums, 1973's Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. Bell opened the "new" Old Quarter in 1996, and it was resurrected yet again thanks to the series of fundraisers thrown by patrons and musicians after the Old Quarter was shut down for several months in 2008 following Hurricane Ike. The late Van Zandt played here twice before passing away in 1997.
413 20th St., Galveston, oldquarteracousticcafe.com
2. ANDERSON FAIR RETAIL RESTAURANT Anderson Fair has been hosting original singer-songwriters from its Montrose location on Grant Street since back in 1969, making it one of the nation's oldest music venues in continuous operation. Its small main room has been praised by many musicians throughout the years for its fantastic sound; Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett are two of the most noteworthy performers to play here, among many other greats.
This should be placed on your must-visit list, but only come out if you can remain silent and turn off your cell phone during a performance; it's a listening room and not a place to chat. Anderson's volunteer staff sells a generous selection of beers and wine as well as bar food, but be sure to bring cash, and stick around after the shows to meet and greet the artists (and buy some of their CDs) if you like.
2007 Grant, andersonfair.net
The Mucky Duck is also one of Houston's most social-media-savvy venues.
1. MCGONIGEL'S MUCKY DUCK Established in 1990, McGonigel's Mucky Duck is a music venue as well as an Irish pub/restaurant; patrons who dine in receive preferred seating for live performances. Ray Wylie Hubbard, James McMurtry and Shake Russell are just some of the artists who perform at the Duck on a pretty regular basis, and the venue is unique in that musicians visiting here often play both early and late shows on the nights they perform.
Management enforces (strictly) the Duck's "Silence is Golden" rule, which requests that people who want to talk step outside to the patio so as not to distract from the performance onstage. In addition to the touring and local musicians who come through here, aspiring singer-songwriters get a chance to perform before a live audience at the Duck's weekly open-mike night.
2425 Norfolk, mcgonigels.com
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