Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Venuology - Reviews of Many San Francisco Venues

     We received an email from our friends, Blisses B, lamenting the loss of some of the music clubs that provided opportunities to “cut their teeth” and “hone their sound.” Cafe Du Nord, Kimo's and Red Devil Lounge were specifically mentioned. The email also looked to the positive, noting there are open venues that gave Blisses B a boost, including Bottom of the Hill and Amnesia. But Blisses B does more than draft email messages - they released a video giving tribute to all five venues.

     We don’t have the creative genius of a Blisses B. But over the years, we have attended events at many of the Bay Area venues. Below is our informal analysis of those venues. There are other venues that should be included. But we haven’t stopped going to concerts, so this list will be updated as we expand our horizons.
     We would also like to add other Bay Area venues. 
For now, the venues are:
1. The Independent
2. The Fillmore
3. Great American Music Hall
4. The Chapel
5.  Bottom of the Hill
6. Rickshaw Stop
7. Masonic Auditorium
8. The Warfield Theatre
9. Bimbo’s 365 Club
10. Amnesia Bar
11. Brick & Mortar
12. Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
13. Neck of the Woods
14. Slim's
15. The Monarch 

1.  The Independent – 628 Divisadero, San Francisco
            The Independent is perhaps the most desirable of the San Francisco indie venues when all factors are considered, including coziness, performer visibility, acoustics and venue history (the history is best evidenced by the framed, high-resolution pictures of past performances along the hallway to and from the main door).  The Independent has a no-frills appearance, with a generally rectangular floor plan and a limited amount of VIP balcony area. But the configuration works well with the sound system in limiting acoustic interference.  The height of the stage is perfect, since it is elevated enough for people in the back of the room to adequately see the performers but low enough for the people close to the stage to feel a connection with the performers.  This is a general admission venue, with a very limited amount of seating (first-come, first-serve) on the sides. 
Capacity: about 500
Sound: 5/5 – The recently upgraded sound system provides good fidelity and power. 
Visibility: 5/5 – As noted, the stage is at the near-perfect height. It's in the Goldilocks zone of being high enough that the bands are relatatively visible throughout the venue, but not so high as to have fans feel that the band is disengaged from the attendees. Of course, the level of view obstruction is proportional to the height of the viewer.
Prices: 4/5 – Tickets are typically $20 or less, and The Independent uses Ticketfly, which has a processing fee about $5 and which permits selection of an option to print the tickets at home.
Accessibility: 2/5 – Finding street parking is often very difficult.  No easy access from a freeway. There are parking locations that require payment - typically $10 (well worth it, if you're running late). 
Refreshments: 4/5 - “Drinks are less than ballpark prices.”  For many performances, a friendly and efficient server will travel through the patrons and distribute glow sticks to mark people after the place orders. The Independent also has Patrick, the best bartender of the SF music clubs.

2.  The Fillmore – 1805 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco
Giving proper respect to Rock history in the Bay Area, walking into the Fillmore is similar to entering a temple. The historical significance of The Fillmore is reflected by the walls, which are decorated with posters from past shows. And The Fillmore attempts to carry on many of its original traditions, such as the greeter at the top of the stairs, the free apples, and the poster giveaways after soldout events. The venue is larger than most “music clubs,” and prices are slightly higher, which gives The Fillmore the flexibility to book more established bands (opening and/or headlining). The stage is large, which accommodates entertaining antics of some performers. 
Capacity: about 1,150
Sound: 4/5 – The power and fidelity of the sound system exceed reasonable expectations. If there is a problem, it’s the underestimation of the power. Too often, the volume is too high. Honest, that’s not us making a statement along the lines of “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” We agree that the volume at clubs should be high. But…
Visibility: 4/5 - The stage height is about right and the floor layout is good. There is a limited amount of space in a balcony area. But a large general admission area is always far from perfect.
Event Prices: 3/5 – Tickets are reasonable. However, you have to factor in the processing fee, which is typically at least $9 per ticket.
Accessibility: 3/5 – Street parking is available if you do a little hunting.  No easy access from a freeway.
Refreshments: 4/5 - Beverages are reasonably priced and the selection is good.

3.  Great American Music Hall - 859 O'Farrell St, San Francisco
Website: (Note: The link redirects you to
     This is another building with history. And it was identified by Thrill List as one of the 15 most beautiful music venues in the world (if interested in the other 14, CLICK HERE). While the ranking seems high, we agree that Great American Music Hall is a treasure. It includes an ornate ceiling (fresco-decorated), impressive marble columns and an elegant U-shaped balcony.  
Capacity: about 600
Sound: 5/5 – It’s slightly better downstairs, than in the balcony.
Visibility: 4/5 – Unless you’re fighting a one-sided battle with a marble column, visibility is good.
Event Prices: 4/5 – On average, tickets are about $22.
Accessibility: 3/5 – Street parking is available with a little hunting. But read the signs, since many of the streets require that you leave by midnight to accommodate street cleaning.
Refreshments: 4/5 - Beverages are reasonably priced. Good to know: the upstairs bar is typically less crowded than the main bar downstairs.

4.  The Chapel – 777 Valencia St, San Francisco
     We are fans of The Chapel. The converted mortuary (honest) opened as a music venue in 2012. Initially, they struggled with sound quality, since the ceiling established challenges that music venues seldom face (40-foot, inverted V-shaped roof). But they found the solution. The interior is charming. The building is part restaurant and part music venue. Both are recommended, so take advantage. The music venue has a floor area and a small balcony area with some seating and with its own speaker system.  
Capacity: about 500, but it seems more intimate.
Sound: 4/5 – Note: if you’re close to the stage, the speakers are actually behind you. This doesn’t always affect your perception of the mixing, but there are times when it does happen. The sound ‘sweet spot” is not adjacent to the stage.
Visibility: 4/5 – As always, visibility depends on your height and that of the people in front of you. Ideally, the stage would be slightly higher, but it’s not bad  
Event Prices: 4/5 – An average ticket price is $20, and the process fee is reasonable.
Accessibility: 3/5 – The venue is not near a freeway. But there are mass transit opportunities
Refreshments: 4/5 ­– Because there is a bar in the restaurant area and two others in the music venue area, there are good choices. Prices are reasonable.

5.  Bottom of the Hill - 1233 17th Street, San Francisco
            What a great place!  If you use a GPS system the first time you go to Bottom of the Hill, you may find yourself saying, “This can’t be right, there’s nothing here.”  But sure enough, the blue neon sign of the venue suddenly appears.  Once inside, you see the main area, but through the window at the back of the stage, an additional room is visible.  In fact, there are two publically accessible backrooms (one inside, one out), as well as a third one at the top of stairs visible through the stage’s window.  At other clubs, band members wait in inaccessible backrooms, but at Bottom of the Hill, the increased accessibility allows you to personally voice your appreciation for the band’s music. 
Capacity: about 350
Sound: 3/5 – It’s a smaller club, so a powerful system is not needed. A feature that seems unique is the placement of speakers on the floor with the patrons. That doesn’t affect the sound as much as it might seem.
Visibility: 4/5 – It is a “5” unless you’re at the
Event Prices: 5/5 – Tickets are typically between $8 and $15.  Interestingly, every advanced sale requires a will call pickup.  That is, an on-line purchase doesn’t result in you receiving a ticket, even if you buy tickets months in advance.
Accessibility: 3/5 – Lots of street parking, since the club is not in a congested neighborhood.
Refreshments: 4/5 - Beverages are reasonably priced.
6.  Rickshaw Stop - 155 Fell Street, San Francisco
            By paying attention to the calendar, some amazing values are available at the Rickshaw Stop. The venue brings in talent that defies expectations, given its size. The booking personnel attract bands and artists from distant cities, London in particular. Sam Smith performed at Rickshaw Stop shortly before his popularity explosion. We have seen The 1975 and Bastille at the venue. But with all the positives, it is easy to find yourself thinking about improvements.  The stage is too low, so that people who arrive late may have difficulty is catching glimpses of the performers. 
Capacity: about 400 (although some sources say 350)
Sound: 4/5 – The system solid. Mixing is almost always near perfect.
                      Visibility: 3/5 – Raise the stage and this goes up.
Event Prices: 5/5 – It cannot get much better for the quality of events.
Accessibility: 3/5 – Street parking is available with some effort.  If you are willing to walk a few blocks, BART is an option.
Refreshments: 4/5 - Beverages are reasonably priced.

7.  Masonic Auditorium – 1111 California St, San Francisco
   It’s deceptive to refer to the venue as the Masonic Auditorium, since auditoriums are usually buildings with a plain exterior and a rectangular interior having seats on all four sides of a playing area. The Masonic is attractive and inviting on its exterior and has an interior that is designed for maximizing both sight and sound quality. It’s the Hollywood Bowl with walls and ceiling. The balcony is reserved seating, while the floor changes from general admission to reserved seating, depending upon the event. 
Capacity: about 3,165
Sound: 5/5 – The sound system is remarkable and the shape of the interior minimizes reflections that would reduce the sound quality.
Visibility: 5/5 – Can’t speak for general admission attendance, but if you have a seat, you will be comfortable and will have a good sightline.
Event Prices: 3/5 ­– Tickets run higher than other SF venues, but it’s worth the extra charge. The process fee is high.
Accessibility: 2/5 –If you can avoid driving, do so. Street parking is sparse and paid parking is expensive ($30-$50).
Refreshments: 3/5 ­– Prices are slightly higher and there aren’t enough points of sale.  

8.  The Warfield Theatre – 982 Market Street, San Francisco
            The Warfield is small enough to be considered “intimate,” but large enough to attract bands having notoriety.  For visits from Indie bands, typically there is a large general admission area downstairs, but reserved seating in the balcony.  The slope of the balcony seating permits good visibility of the stage, even for people in the very back.  The Warfield has a lot of charm, with a feel of an upper-class theater with outdated décor.  The interior has aged well, unlike the neighborhood in which the Warfield resides.
Capacity: about 2,250
Sound: 3.5/5 – The fidelity drops off significantly if you are not in the center area of the balcony. It’s more consistent, if you’re on the floor.
Visibility: 4/5 – The floor is tiered, which is always a positive.
Event Prices: 3/5 – Tickets are priced higher than many of the other SF venues and the convenience fee (per ticket) is significant.  Still, it offers some good values, if you pay attention.
Accessibility: 4/5 – Easy walking distance from mass transit (e.g., BART).
Refreshments: 4/5 - Beverages are reasonably priced and the selection is good.

9.  Bimbo’s 365 Club – 1025 Columbus Ave, San Francisco
            Bimbo’s is not a regular host of Indie Rock bands, but its calendaring should be monitored.  One positive feature is the configuration of the suspended speakers.  Rather than a single sound face, the sound projects from three faces (a flattened pyramid), so that the music distributes relatively evenly.  There is a tiered dining region in the back, a large floor space in front of the stage, and a single row of raised tables along each side. In a separate room, a full service bar offers a wide range of beverages.  Selected beverages are also available at a couple of less elegant temporary bars.
Capacity: about 685
Sound: 4/5 – The speaker system distributes the sound well 
Visibility: 4/5 – The raised tables at the sides and the back help distribute the crowd.
Event Prices: 3/5
Accessibility: 2/5 – There isn’t easy route for those of us traveling from the lower peninsula.  Of course, people traveling from another direction will have a different rating.
Refreshments: 4/5 - Beverages are reasonably priced and the selection is good.

10.  Amnesia Bar - 853 Valencia St, San Francisco.
   Amnesia Bar accurately describes itself as being “cozy.” The layout has the bar running almost the full length of the area occupied by patrons, promoting the feel of coziness by minimizing the travel in order to “refresh.” Amnesia offers music most days of the month, with many of the events being free of charge. Currently, there are “Bluegrass Mondays” and “Wednesday Night Jazz,” in addition to visits by Indie bands and comedians. This venue is one of the best in terms of providing opportunites for local bands.
Capacity: about 200
Sound: 3/5 – The sound system is solid.
Visibility: 4/5 – The stage is too low, but this is not a large venue.
Event Prices: 5/5 – Inexpensive; great bargains are available.
Accessibility: 3/5 – Street parking is available with a search.
Refreshments: 4/5 – A full bar is within a few feet of a majority of the patrons.

11.  Brick & Mortar – 1710 Mission Street, San Francisco
     Brick & Mortar is a no-frills venue that doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. As a result, periodically there are up-close opportunities to attend performances that you would happily pay more to see from a greater distance. One example is our first time to see the band DIIV.
Capacity: about 250
Sound: 3/5 – Given the size of the venue, the sound system doesn’t need to be powerful.
Visibility: 3/5 – Clearly, the floor plan isn’t ideal. Maybe half of the audience is aligned with the stage, while the remainder is in a stage-right area. 
Event Prices: 5/5 – The notoriety of the bands varies more than most of the other venues in this list. Tickets are unbelievably low for some events. Even if the obscure bands are taken away from the comparison, the prices are very attractive.
Accessibility: 4/5 ­– Accessibility via the freeway is very good, since the venue is one block from a freeway exit (off Hwy. 101). Less desirable if you’re taking mass transit.
Refreshments: 4/5 – Good selection, reasonable pricing.

12.  Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – 99 Grove St, San Francisco
     The Bill Graham is large and isn’t well designed for music. The acoustic interferences aren’t readily apparent on the floor, but can play a significant role in the balcony. For most Indie-related events, almost all of the tickets are general admission.
Capacity: about 7,000
Sound: 4/5 – But the quality is reduced if you’re in the balcony
Visibility: 4/5 ­– Because the balcony is large, the views are good for a venue of 7,000. In the balcony, the slope is sufficient that views are usually not obstructed by persons in closer seats.
Event Prices: 3/5 – Ticket prices are higher than most of the other venues in this post, but the performers tend to be more well-known. The processing fees are higher than most.
Accessibility: 5/5 –.Easy access from Bart and other mass transit.
Refreshments: 4/5 – The number of stations is sufficient to accommodate the thirsty. 

13.  Neck of the Woods – 406 Clement Street, San Francisco
     Neck of the Woods functions as two venues. The upstairs venue has a greater capacity, and therefore tends to have the bands with greater drawing power. This is another location with an event calendar that should be monitored by a greater number of concert-goers. Some strong bands perform at Neck of the Woods with tickets remaining unsold.
Capacity: About 150 for the downstairs venue. The website of Neck of the Woods states that the capacity of the upstairs venue is 500, but that certainly includes the areas in which walls block any chance of seeing the stage (but the music can still be heard).
Sound: 3/5 – The sound systems are not strong, but the sizes of the rooms don’t require more.
Visibility: 4/5 – Good lines of sight to a person on the stage. The obvious exception is if you decide to remain at the opposite end of the upstairs venue, where walls prevent stage visibility.
Event Prices: 5/5 – Excellent bargains.
Accessibility: 3/5 –.Bus lines pass nearby. But if you are driving from outside SF, it is not convenient.
Refreshments: 4/5 ­– The people behind the bars are efficient and the prices are reasonable.

14.  Slim’s – 333 11th Street, San Francisco
   It is the collection of features that makes Slim’s an attractive place to attend a concert. It is very convenient for people driving from the lower peninsula, the L-shaped bar provides easy access for the thirsty, and the stage is at a good height. Note: if you pay for the reasonably priced dinner ticket, you have access to a balcony area that provides a better vantage point.
Capacity: about 500 (although some sources say 400)
Sound: 3/5 – There’s room for improvement without breaking the bank.
Visibility: 3/5 – The stage is at a good height. The problem is the positioning of columns that must be avoided.
Event Prices: 4/5 ­– Well priced.  
Accessibility: 4/5 – It’s a “5” for those of us driving from the south. Plenty of parking. It’s less convenient for others, but that can be said for all venues.
Refreshments: 4/5 ­– Good choice and the L-Shaped bar area is a convenience. 

15. The Monarch - 101 6th Street, San Francisco
     The Monarch is a multi-functional venue. Upstairs, a wall with a large circular opening separates the bar area from a DJ/dance room. Downstairs has another bar, a DJ booth, floor space for approximately 100 people, and the stage for the bands. A nice touch to the downstairs area is a recessed area next to the stage, with ottomans that accommodate about 15 people. Importantly, the sound system is more than sufficient for the room.
Capacity: Reports say 300. But that must include the upstairs bar. The bands play downstairs and it is too cozy to be anything close to 300.
Sound: 5/5 – Very good for the size of the club
Visibility: 4/5 - The stage is low, but the club is small.
Event Prices: 4/5 - Good bargains are available. 
Accessibility: 2/5 – In the heart of the city, so Bart is an option.
Refreshments: 4/5 - A wide array of drinks.

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