Seattle has earned a well-deserved reputation as a great music city, with a full-service array of clubs and concert halls, an alternative radio station envied nationwide (KEXP), more great bands than you can shake a glowstick at and a vigorous music press that tries to keep everyone on their toes.
That said, the physical experience of hearing music in the Emerald City isn‘t always the greatest. Many clubs are charmless black boxes where the object is to sell as much alcohol in as short a time as possible; acoustics are often an afterthought.
But as Mick Jagger once sang, you can’t always get what you want — at least all of the time. What follows is a list of the best night spots for listening to live bands and DJs so you can take yourself, or your summer visitors, out on the town. Just don’t expect all the venues to live up to the cool factor of the fare on stage.
(Note that most Seattle clubs offer all-ages shows, some more frequently than others. Those that do not are flagged here as “21 and over.”)
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Rock and Pop
The Neptune Theatre: Refurbished as a concert venue in 2011 by Seattle Theatre Group, which also operates the Paramount and Moore theaters, this 800-seat, 1921 vintage University District movie house has become a prime destination, hosting everyone from Patti Smith to Shabazz Palaces. With its raked seating, curved balcony, upstairs bar and — pride of STG — restored, glowing eyeballs of its namesake god of the underworld, the Neptune offers intimacy with a touch of ’20s grandeur (1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; 877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
The Showbox: The 75-year-old Showbox walls would tell many stories if they could talk, from late swing-era dancers cozying up during shows by Paul Whiteman to punk rock raves in the ’80s by the Gang of Four. Not to be confused with its big brother, the Showbox SODO, this Pike Place Market area institution is a multilevel land of many railings and cocktail bars. But whether you scooch up to a table up top with your date, bounce on the springy dance floor or sulk with a friend over a drink in the Green Room downstairs (recently renamed Kerns Music Shop, after a business that once occupied the space), you’re sure to be listening to music on the cutting edge. Seattle rock fans recently jammed the place to hear Lorde, just before she got really famous (1700 First Ave. S., Seattle; 800-745-3000 or showboxonline.com).
Neumos: With its location on hipster Capitol Hill and 20-year history as Seattle’s central rock club (it started out as Moe), Neumos really should have more than just seven walls (four downstairs, three for the loft). But ignore the music at your music-cred peril. Some of the best acts pass through. In one week earlier this year, the Posies, Thermals, Hey Marseilles and Goodness all held forth (925 E. Pike St., Seattle; 206-709-9467 or neumos.com).
Barboza: Most people use basements for storage, but Neumos has developed a gem in its underground, with softly lit sconces, a sweet little stage, bar and booths in back. It’s a great place to dance to a DJ or catch up-and-coming bands that can’t fill the big club upstairs (925 E. Pike St, Seattle; 206-709-9442 or thebarboza.com). 21 and over.
The Crocodile: “The Croc’s” green, reptilian sign has been a signature in the Belltown nightlife district for 25 years. Opened in 1991 by Stephanie Gorgan (who later married R.E.M.’s Peter Buck), this 475-capacity room is famous, among other things, for having hosted not only R.E.M. but Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie and many, many others. Closed for a couple years in the aughts, the renovated Croc continues to host a stream of cutting-edge talent, from Tuneyards to Sean Lennon. The main room is plain but the vibe is always positive; it’s open till 2 a.m., and the wood-fired pizza is solid. In the cozy back bar, classic grunge-era photographs by Charles Peterson adorn the walls (2200 Second Ave., Seattle; 206-441-4618 or thecrocodile.com).
Cha Cha Lounge: If any club in Seattle corresponds to the word “grotto,” this is it. Though not a live full-time music club, per se, this atmospheric, below-ground cavern beneath Bimbo’s Cantina is decorated with glowing colored lights and Day-of-the-Dead décor and serves as Seattle’s unofficial musician headquarters. That’s partly because of the cheap drinks and Mexican hors d’oeuvres, but also because you never know who will show up for Monday karaoke or Sunday local bands (1013 E. Pike St, Seattle; 206-322-0703 or chachalounge.com). 21 and over.
The Tractor Tavern: Known in an earlier incarnation as the folksy New Melody Tavern, this homey Ballard tav has become Seattle’s prime alt-country joint, though you’ll hear rock, folk, jazz and world music from time to time, too. Here’s where you can sit in rows of folding chairs (or stand at the well-stocked bar) and listen to Cahalen & Morrison, the Maldives or Sarah Jarosz, or swing your partner on square-dance night (5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; 206-789-3599 or tractortavern.com). 21 and over.
The Paramount Theatre: Erected in 1928 as a grand movie palace (where live bands played before and during the films), this 2,800-seat, two-balcony theater was treated to a multimillion dollar, velvet-seat-to-chandelier renovation back in 1999. It’s one of the city’s gems. Host of musicals (“The Lion King”) rock and pop (Morrissey, John Legend) comedy (Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld) and dance (Alvin Ailey), the Paramount can magically invert its ground floor seats to become a flat-floor dance hall or banquet room (911 Pine St., Seattle; 877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
The Triple Door: Another gorgeous night spot, the Triple Door was an underground burlesque house that had fallen into disuse until Rick Yoder, the imaginative and successful restaurateur who runs Wild Ginger upstairs, decided to throw a million or so bucks into renovating it in 2003. With its tiered booth seating and black tables, crystalline sound system, starry-night light show and Asian fusion-food service, the Triple Door has earned its reputation as one of the most elegant, upscale venues in town. The club presents jazz, folk, blues, rock, pop and, in the spirit of its heritage, burlesque. In the entryway, called the Musiquarium, local bands entertain a lively bar crowd (216 Union St. Seattle; 206-838-4333 or thetripledoor.net).
The Royal Room: Seattle keyboardist and composer Wayne Horvitz and his wife, singer Robin Holcomb, opened this unpretentious Columbia City pub (with grub) three years ago, and it’s become a major hangout, not only for jazz musicians and their families but for folkies and bluegrassers, too. The food is best avoided, but decent beer and wine can be had. If you’re there to hear the music, be sure to reserve a table by the stage, as the din by the bar is not conducive to listening (5000 Rainier Ave. S.; 206-906-9920 or theroyalroomseattle.com).
Bake’s Place: Proof that suburban Bellevue has an authentically urban downtown, Bake’s Place — named for its congenial owner, Craig Baker — is an airy, friendly room with a high ceiling, loft, fabulous sound system and excellent food. The musical fare is a mix of jazz, pop, blues and world, played by locals. Be on the lookout for Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto, who is a regular (155 108th Ave. N.E., Bellevue; 425-454-2776 or bakesplacebellevue.com).
The Century Ballroom: Salsa dance lessons, anyone? Bachata? Swing? This is for you. With a bouncy dance floor, great arched pillars, high ceiling and two ballrooms, this Capitol Hill emporium has been, to coin a phrase, “the home of happy feet” for Seattleites for many years now. Lessons precede the dances, sometimes accompanied by live music, sometimes by recordings (915 E. Pine St., Seattle; 206-324-7263 or centuryballroom.com).
Q Lounge: For dancers with roots in disco, house or trip-hop — and more currently, EDM — this spacious, high-tech, high-design gay-friendly Capitol Hill bar is the “it” lounge of the moment. Creative EDM DJs like Steffi and Funk D’Void spin on a state-of-the-art sound system. The lighting is as much a part of the ambience as the sound (1426 Broadway, Seattle; 206-432-9306 or qnightclub.com). 21 and over.
Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley: Musicians who tour the world will freely tell you that Dimitriou’s is one of the best jazz clubs in the world. Jazz Alley has great sightlines, a crisp sound system and a stage that accommodates everything from solo acts to big bands. A full-service, sit-down restaurant with good, if pricey, food, and a full line of wines and cocktails, the club has an upscale, genteel vibe — great for a date. The music lineup features not only jazz, but smooth jazz, funk and world music (2033 Sixth Ave., Seattle; 206-441-9729 or jazzalley.com).
Paul de Barros (206-464-3247 or email@example.com) covers music at blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/ or on Twitter @pdebarros