If You’re Going to San Francisco: Six Musical Venues Worth Checking Out

All year round, San Francisco is replete with the sound of music

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Jerome Brunet / ZUMA Press / Corbis

The hallowed Fillmore doesn’t rest on its laurels, continuing to offer shows by some of the most compelling acts in modern music

Twenty-one years ago, Kevin Arnold decided to marry two of his favorite things about San Francisco: its vibrant music scene and its entrepreneurial spirit. He booked a modest evening of his favorite bands, then lucked out on marketing it. “The first Noise Pop was really conceived of as nothing more than a single night with five bands playing for five bucks,” he admits. “I called it a ‘festival’ more or less as a marketing ploy to make it seem more exciting.” Turned out Arnold knows how to put together a rocking roster. Fans begged for an encore the following year, and an annual event was born. Today, the Noise Pop Festival draws top names in music, art and performance, from Yoko Ono and Frank Black to comedian-actor David Cross. If you’re in San Francisco from Feb. 26 to March 3, then don’t miss this year’s event. Visiting at another time? No matter. San Francisco rocks year round, as these six venues attest.

Built as a symbol of hope and rebirth after the 1906 earthquake flattened most of San Francisco, the Great American Music Hall (gamh.com) has served time as a brothel and jazz club and survives today as an indie-rock venue. The club, which is the city’s oldest, features wraparound rococo balconies, ceiling frescoes and marble columns that are more opera house than music hall, but the period fittings add a classy intimacy to the midsize space. Go for the show, but don’t miss the hearty menu of updated bar classics like a pulled-pork sandwich with vanilla-ginger coleslaw, and falafel with tzatziki and grilled flatbread. Buy the $25 prix fixe dinner and you get early admission, which means you can linger over a local Lagunitas pale ale during sound check. Acts coming up in March include Mika and Billy Bragg.

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After scarfing down some delicious fare along Divisadero Street—famed for its multicultural eats—head into this affordably priced club (theindependentsf.com) where bands and fans are electrified by the intimate space and state-of-the-art sound. If you don’t score VIP balcony seats, arrive early to nab a bench seat in the raised sections along either wall. Tip your server well, as they’re often the only person working the venue (which makes the Independent’s cleanliness something of a miracle—no sticky sneakers as you shuffle out for a cab). Pick of March’s calendar: Toro y Moi, on March 2 and 3.

The Mission’s newest concert venue (thechapelsf.com) is equal parts neighborhood bar and laid-back concert venue. The beveled glass windows of the 100-year-old former mortuary now look into a convivial pub where locals flock to watch televised sports and sample French-Mediterranean bar chow. Soaring ceilings in the adjoining music room, a former chapel, amplify the quietest acoustic crooner, and mezzanine seating puts fans a bit closer to heaven. The wondrous Ducktails and Amor de Días both perform over the coming weeks.

This small Potrero Hill neighborhood bar (bottomofthehill.com) has been a part of Noise Pop virtually since the beginning, being in its 20th year as a festival partner. The quirky venue is plastered with memorabilia from concerts past and can hold a sizable crowd. Unlike at most San Francisco venues, free street parking is plentiful if you’re driving to a show. With bands on stage seven nights a week, the calendar tends to feature an eclectic mix of regional acts and national touring artists and has included local garage rockers the Fresh & Onlys and indie-folk heavy hitters Fleet Foxes. Ask one of the unusually friendly bartenders for a cold pint of Anchor Steam to enjoy on the outdoor patio along with some homemade black-bean hummus.

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The list of acts that have played this storied venue—from Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin—reads like a history book of rock music, and on the mezzanine level there’s an unmissable chronological display of psychedelic posters spanning several decades. But the Fillmore (thefillmore.com) doesn’t just trade on its past. Edgy combos from Alt-J to Beach House and Foals take to the stage during the next couple of months.

The T-shirts for sale at this North Beach dive proclaim that it’s the city’s oldest bar. Regulars are likely right that the Saloon, tel: (1-415) 989-7666, was given its terse name in 1861 because, being the only tavern in town, it had no need to distinguish itself from any other. These days, the cash-only pub is best known for live jazz and blues. Go for the mixed crowd of barflies and bikers, plus the odd hipster swigging ironically on a Pabst.

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