The paint is hardly dry on White Oak Music Hall, but the multi-stage Near Northside venue has already been a game-changer for Houston’s live-music scene. Explicitly inspired by numerous well-known concert destinations across the state and beyond — Stubb’s in Austin, Houston’s own Fitzgerald’s, Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club — White Oak was meant to send a clear message that Houstonians take live music seriously, something that hasn’t always been a sure thing in this city. On that count, White Oak has succeeded handsomely since it opened in April (outdoors) and August (indoors), even as questions may loom over the permitting status of its outdoor stage, which in turn continues to chafe some neighbors by simply existing.
Although an exact number in a metropolis this vast would be almost impossible to determine, we’d guess, roughly, that the businesses across the Houston area that offer live musical performances on a fairly regular basis might number in the low hundreds. Just keep in mind this count encompasses the intimate atmospheres of Anderson Fair and Tomball’s Main Street Crossing, palatial edifices like the Wortham Center or Jones Hall, gritty and glorious rock dives like BFE and Acadia Bar & Grill, and the acoustically pristine environments of Dosey Doe’s Big Barn and Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House — all the way down to every cafe, coffeehouse, Tex-Mex joint and neighborhood tavern with a tiny stage tucked in a back corner. These places and the audiences they attract are as different from one another as so many different species of birds. Therefore, attempting to create a definitive list of the very best among them raises one simple question: Why would anyone even try?
The short answer is we wanted to do something special for this year’s Best of Houston issue. Thirteen regular Houston Press music contributors were asked to come up with a list of no more than ten of their favorite music venues, and rank them in order. That’s all we asked; these people are all regular concertgoers in Houston, so we trusted them to use whatever criteria they saw fit to arrive at their choices. The venues that surfaced again and again on their ballots are what you see below; the music editor (who has been to all ten, and also cast his own ballot) broke any ties and ultimately determined the final order. So please don’t make the mistake of thinking that these are the only places worth attending a concert in this sprawl we know as home; nothing could be further from the truth. This list is meant more as a conversation-starter than as the last word on anything, and as a means of encouraging our readers to (please) take advantage of the multitude of superb venues this area has to offer — these ten and many more besides.
10. HOUSE OF BLUES
As far as music venues go, the one on Caroline Street in downtown Houston is absolutely exceptional. All the guys would say that she’s mighty fine (mighty fine!). Although just under a decade old, House of Blues has already catapulted itself into becoming one of the best stages for live music in the city. With a capacity in the main room of almost 1,000 attendees, shows range from fairly civilized to downright chaotic. Elevated drink prices aside, every show is a masterful experience of sight and sound. (Pros know to get their fill at Dirt Bar across the street both before and after the show.)
From Jay-Z to the late B.B. King, the Wall of Fame behind the stage is full of the signatures of some of the most electrifying artists ever to play in Houston. There’s a certain charm to the place, a mix of intimate and exotic, colorful and welcoming. For a change of pace, the smaller Bronze Peacock Room provides an up-close experience in a dark yet lively space. The Foundation Room is where all the players play, where the city’s movers and shakers like to drink and mingle, forgetting their troubles and responsibilities, if only for the night. The soundtrack of Houston can often be found in this house, one filled with blues and just about every other genre of music imaginable. 1204 Caroline, hob.com/houston
9. THE NIGHTINGALE ROOM
Houstonians may assume The Nightingale Room takes its name from the songbird and not Florence, the founder of modern-day nursing, but the Main Street music venue may have more in common with the matron of health care professionals than you might think. After all, Flo was known for her commitment to those in need and didn’t just soothe patients’ aching souls; she pioneered brilliant administrative notions that would make any enterprise successful. Owner Mike Criss’s gift to music fans is closing on two years of that sort of success, giving the area a welcome shot in the arm when it opened in November 2014.
There’s lots to love about the intimate room, like a wall full of vinyl its own music-lovin’ bar staff plays when live music isn’t being performed, or the decadent craft cocktails to sip upon while you’re listening. Or perhaps best of all, a live-music schedule painstakingly pieced together by professionals with skin in the game and presented by top-notch engineers who ensure the sound quality stops sidewalk-trekkers in their tracks. A particular favorite is how The Nightingale Room’s inside marquee allows bands to see their names “in lights,” right there at eye level, while playing a set. Interested passersby must actually walk into the venue to learn the name of the band that has caught their passing interest — and once they’re in, they’re frequently in to stay. 308 Main, nightingaleroom.com
8. CONTINENTAL CLUB
The Continental Club may have started out as a local branch of an Austin institution, but its Houston doppelganger has likewise embedded itself near the Bayou City’s musical aorta. Not many other venues in town, if any, can claim an integral role in the revival of an entire neighborhood. Fifteen years ago the Continental was one of the first businesses to invest in the area that’s now known as Mid-Main but was then a desolate, urban no-man’s-land; today it’s surrounded by in-progress apartment blocks, a new performing-arts center and a vibrant cluster of small businesses. Attendees might say the Continental counts as a community center as much as it does a music venue, but on that note, it’s a party spot of the highest order.
The club is proud to welcome vintage R&B stars like Archie Bell and Barbara Lynn, the annual Rock Baby Rock It rockabilly blowout, monthly A Fistful of Soul danceathons, Beetle’s long-running Fab Four happy hours and lots more besides. There’s even a friendly ghost or two; R.I.P. Little Joe Washington. In some respects the Continental counts as two venues, thanks to its younger and smaller sibling the Big Top, which pours on the deliciously cheesy lounge-lizard vibe but showcases rootsy, homegrown performers who are anything but. 3700 Main, continentalclub.com/houston
7. CYNTHIA WOODS MITCHELL PAVILION
For Inner Loop dwellers, driving to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion can be a nightmare. Just thinking about the 30-mile trek can be enough to produce flashbacks of inescapable gridlock and a sea of brake lights, a trigger for Houston commuters who have already spent more time in traffic than they would care to. And yet this faraway venue remains one of the best in town. Consider its merits: For one, its lineup is unmatched. From chart-topping, modern pop icons to seasoned veterans and comedians alike, the Pavilion consistently boasts a robust schedule spanning many genres. In August the Pavilion played host to Rob Zombie, the Dixie Chicks, Sublime with Rome, Hank Williams Jr., Gwen Stefani, Heart, Snoop Dogg, Def Leppard, Slipknot and Marilyn Manson. All in a single month.
Second, the amphitheater’s capacity of 16,500 makes it one of the most coveted touring arenas besides Toyota Center, which is oftentimes busy hosting other events, like Houston Rockets games and wrestling matches. Its distance from the city proper makes visiting it an event in and of itself, but at least once every week the Pavilion provides music fans of many kinds more than enough reason to make the drive. 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands, woodlandscenter.org
Rudyard’s patrons are likely to go there for a big-ass hamburger, a cold-ass beer or a badass band, but have frequently been treated to a hat trick of all three in one night. This is not a new phenomenon; everyone’s favorite Montrose-based British pub has been at it for a long time, and no one does anything for 38 years without doing many, many things correctly. For one, the venue is spacious. It’s equipped with video monitors to track the action onstage and is blessed with an ample and deftly handled sound system.
Its tireless booking agent is beloved by area acts who simply and affectionately refer to her as “Punk Rock Stacy”; that’s how comfortable bands are playing Rudyard’s. Audiences are comfortable there too — heading beyond the quaint curtain into a show there feels like walking to an upstairs rec room at someone’s home, outfitted with pool tables, beer coolers and amazing bands. Rudyard’s is in an echelon of Houston music venues like Fitzgerald’s and Numbers, places with histories that border on ancestral, but it thrives because it doesn’t feel antiquated at all. 2010 Waugh, rudyardspub.com
5. MCGONIGEL’S MUCKY DUCK
Houston may have plenty of music venues, but few indeed can approach the level of intimacy the Mucky Duck offers. Outwardly disguised as a cozy pub lifted straight from the British Isles, with eccentric signage and the kind of paneling any Cambridge professor would be proud to own, the Duck cultivates a loyal and discriminating clientele who have learned to appreciate live music with minimal distractions (perhaps only a helping of shepherd’s pie and a pint). For more than a quarter-century, owners Rusty and Teresa Andrews have run their small little room near Richmond and Kirby like the best kind of family business: with great attention to detail — including their online brand, for which the Duck has long stood at the head of the local pack — and exceptional customer service.
Evidence of its success can be seen in how much artists enjoy playing the Duck; just come out early one night and linger over the dozens upon dozens of autographed pictures on the walls. Some of these artists have long since graduated to playing much bigger venues, while many others may well be on the club’s current calendar. Just leave plenty of time, because almost any night of the week it’ll be tough to find a seat less than half an hour before showtime. 2425 Norfolk, mcgonigels.com
4. WALTERS DOWNTOWN
Look to the things that last. Walters Downtown, nee Walters on Washington, has been a go-to for local and touring bands and the people who love them since 2000. What’s more, the club absorbed much of the staff, the vibe and some of the storied tradition of Toby Blunt’s, Mary Jane’s and the Shimmy Shack before that. Which is to say that Walters is really something of a nesting doll of continuous rock action. Allowing that Houston is a self-destructing place, constantly remanding its past to the wrecking crew, Walters is downright venerable. Since making a pilgrimage east to its new home in a glittering cement bunker of dreams, tucked away in a DMZ just north of downtown, Walters has kept on keeping on, its family-that-likes-to-party vibe surviving real hardship, namely the loss of matriarch Pam Robinson.
It’s no fan appreciation day at the ballpark putting on shows night after night in a city that hasn’t made up its mind about music. Maybe it’s not exactly the Lord’s work. Just the same, the staff at Walters are the same people attending shows on their off nights. Their doors are open to everyone: punks, freaks, rappers, rockers, geeks, metal scum, even the kids from the infinite suburban expanses doing their learn-as-you-go hardcore bands. 1120 Naylor, waltersdowntown.com
3. WHITE OAK MUSIC HALL
There have certainly been growing pains and bumps in the road for Houston’s most noteworthy new live music venue, mostly involving noise and congestion complaints from those who live in the vicinity. That said, from a purely musical, concertgoing perspective, White Oak Music Hall has delivered on its promise to be the venue of choice in Houston…and then some. The club-like upstairs area fits around 350 and is perfect for local showcases and the like, while the 1,200-capacity theater-size downstairs stage has already played host to such major players as Dinosaur Jr. and Okkervil River.
But the major draw is the 3,000-capacity Lawn at White Oak, which is downright picturesque — particularly as the evenings cool a bit heading into the fall. In less than six months since its grand opening, The Lawn has hosted such acts as Flaming Lips, Sturgill Simpson and M83; on tap later in 2016 are Gogol Bordello, Morrissey and Pet Shop Boys. In addition to a great setup and general layout, White Oak gets extra points for not completely gouging concertgoers on parking and concessions (they’re still expensive, but not so bad compared to other area venues). Expect even bigger shows in 2017 as White Oak Music Hall continues its transition into Houston’s go-to live-music venue. 2915 North Main, whiteoakmusichall.com
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Fitzgerald’s has been dutifully fulfilling the Bayou City’s musical needs since 1977. At the helm since the beginning, Sara Fitzgerald has not only done every job imaginable under its roof — door teller, booking agent, bouncer, etc. — but now she’s steering the ship herself again. After the historic venue passed through several tenants, Fitzgerald gave Fitz a swanky makeover and added a variety of genres and acts. Be it comedians, spoken word, experimental noise or punk and death metal, nearly every kind of avant-garde and groundbreaking sound has made waves through one of this place’s two famous stages since the days of Zelda’s and before.
Thousands of locals not only have witnessed some of the best gigs in H-Town memory under that wooden structure that still dominates the corner of White Oak and Studemont, but have been a part of many. Who hasn’t had a smoke or two on the second-story porch while heckling roller skaters? Or been sucked into an angry circle pit upstairs? To know Fitzgerald’s is to be familiar with the Houston music scene and all its rich history. Never forget, its first show was a sold-out performance by none other than Lightnin’ Hopkins himself. Love it or hate it, Fitz remains a landmark on our musical map, a beacon that continues to be a bright spot in our scene. 2706 White Oak, fitzlive.com
1. WAREHOUSE LIVE
Warehouse Live is a venue on a tightrope. It’s not a big-shot corporate music space like the House of Blues, but it’s also not an intimate neighborhood spot like Rudyard’s. Nor is it the underground, warehouse venue that its name might imply (that description better fits a place like Walters). Warehouse Live, in fact, is an amalgam of all these things. Each of its three stages offers just the right space for a wide range of performing artists, which means Houstonians get treated to a wildly eclectic lineup here. You’d be hard-pressed to find another venue that could book progressive death metal gods Opeth, local trap star Maxo Kream and the sultry burlesque dancer KiKi Maroon. But Warehouse booked all those acts...in October. Its location also makes for a great scene; while a few nice condoplexes now dot those few blocks of St. Emanuel, the area is still dominated by (you guessed it) warehouses, which means you can still find street parking and cheap Vietnamese food. We’re lucky to have a top-notch venue do such a good job of walking the line. 813 St. Emanuel, warehouselive.com
Written by Chris Gray, Clint Hale, Matthew Keever, Tex Kerschen, Kristy Loye, Jesse Sendejas Jr., Katie Sullivan and Marco Torres. Ballots also cast by Brandon Clements, Jack Gorman, Chris Lane, David Rozycki, David Sackllah and Nathan Smith.