Why San Diego’s Live Music Scene Is Best in U.S.

1,438 live music venues makes San Diego County the second best music city in the U.S., just behind Austin TX!   According to Move.org, San Diego has 431 more live music venues than Austin, but because it also has a million more residents,  Austin snuck into first place on a per capita basis.   Move.org states: “With iconic venues like the House of Blues and a year-round festival schedule, San Diego’s music culture is rich enough for any music lover to find a home.”   While the House of Blues (HOB, in San Diego-lingo) is a fine place for live music, it isn’t our favorite.   HOB is one of a number of large music venues, like SDSU’s Amphitheater,  Chula Vista’s North Island Amphitheater, Viejas Arena (the old Sports Arena) and Petco Park.  But the best music in the area is found in some of the more intimate venues.  Here’s our list top 10 live music gems scattered throughout San Diego County:

  1.  The Belly-Up  –   it is the preeminent intimate venue for national and local artists.  Tucked away in Solana Beach, it has attracted top musicians since 1974.   The place is a blast, and the Wild Note Cafe adjacent to the Belly Up offers fine food and early entrance into the concert room.  The big dance floor makes it almost impossible not to break into a break dance if the room isn’t too crowded.
  2. Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay –  offers an intimate outdoor setting for national music acts.  Artists are likely to be golden-oldies acts, but they are increasingly booking emerging artists.    And don’t miss Humphrey’s Backstage, a small room that features local artists.  Great for dancing and fine libations.
  3. The Music Box –  is an amazing location to hear emerging and cutting edge bands along with some local artists.   The first owner poured a lot of money into the making a world-class live music venue.  Financial complications forced a sale and the new owners have benefitted from great acoustics and sight-lines.
  4. The Casbah –  like the Belly-Up, this music hall has been around longer than most San Diegans.  But it continues to be the place to go to see emerging and cutting edge bands.  The prices are reasonable, given the quality of the shows.  Even the drinks are reasonably priced.
  5. The Observatory –  is part of a SoCal chain of music venues.   A converted theater, it offers great seating and good acoustics.  Like the Belly-Up, it attracts national artists but the seating makes dance pretty much impossible.
  6. Tio Leos – one of the better places for dancing in San Diego.  This Mexican-restaurant turns into a great music venue after 8pm.  It attracts dance bands — mostly but not all of the cover variety — whose primary interest is to give the patrons a good workout on the dance floor.
  7. Patrick’s Gaslamp Pub –  a long standing home for the blues in San Diego.   The bands are excellent but the room is narrow and packed.  Don’t plan on dancin’ and as much gawkin’ at the outstanding musicianship and old-time vibe.   If blues is your thing, but jam-packed rail-car rooms aren’t, check out Proud Mary’s Southern Bar in Kearny Mesa.
  8. Dizzy’s –  If jazz is your thing, then Dizzy’s is your place.   It is the go-to showplace for all forms of jazz. The room is threadbare and a bit out-of-the-way, but that’s makes Dizzy’s that more memorable.  It’s all about the music, and many of the musicians are world-class good.
  9. Navajo Live – along with Dirk’s and Pal Joeys are East County’s best venues for good music and dancing.   Navajo is less divey than Dirk’s but all of them are worth checking out.
  10. Lestat’s West –  this venerable coffee house chain features singer/songwriters (along with some spoken word performers) almost every night of the week.   The downside is that it doesn’t serve any liquor.   However, it has some decent coffee-house nibbles and a relaxed vibe that will take the chill out of any San Diego evening.
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