Cincinnati is a music town. We're also home to several killer live music venues that don’t charge anything to see bands you’d spend a wad of cash on in any other city.
While we may not have as many rock clubs per square block as Austin or Seattle, on any given night you can see a handful of great national acts from downtown to Northside and across the river. And the best part? A bunch of them won’t charge you a penny for the pleasure!
From small clubs to mini-amphitheaters and renovated classic theaters, the city has a lot to offer music fans of every persuasion. Here are 12 of our favorite Cincinnati area venues:
Southgate House Revival
The old Southgate House was one of the most beloved venues in the area. A family dispute forced a move, but music fans got lucky that the new owners set up shop in the 150-year-old Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, a red brick treasure that still has a beautiful stained glass window behind the main stage. The 600-capacity, high-ceilinged performance space/sanctuary has hosted everyone from the Breeders to Built to Spill, Drive-By Truckers and hundreds of other bluegrass, punk, rock and folk bands to date. There’s also the cozy lounge (with free shows most nights) and the even more intimate, neon-lit Revival Room upstairs. All three spaces have their own special magic you just have to experience to understand. Consider it your non-denominational church of rock ’n roll.
website, 116 E. 6th St., Newport, Ky (859) 431-2201
MOTR Pub/Woodward Theater
These sibling bars have brought some of the best shows in recent memory to the revived Over-the-Rhine neighborhood downtown. The 150-capacity MOTR, with no cover charge (ever), is a music discovery zone where you might have caught soon-to-explode acts such as Alabama Shakes and Margo Price, plus some of the best and brightest punk, psych and rock bands in the country. There’s not a bad spot in the house and the PA system shakes the walls late into the night. Across the street is sister act Woodward Theater, an elegant 600-capacity, 104-year-old reclaimed beaux-arts style theater with a classic proscenium stage and wide balcony. It’s quickly become the go-to space for such indie icons as Dinosaur Jr. and Guided by Voices, as well as right-now country and rock acts including Nikki Lane, Betty Who and Diarrhea Planet. Prices are reasonable and there’s not a bad spot in the house. Plus, Woodward shows end before midnight so you can roll across the street to keep the party rolling for free at MOTR if you haven’t had your fill.
Website, 1345 Main Street/ 1404 Main St., (513) 381-6687, (513) 345-7986
When you’re sick of the sticky floors vibe and want to have a seat, this classic 2,500-capacity art deco gem of a downtown theater with unobstructed views and great sound is the place to go. The eclectic menu on tap recently ranged from jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis to Monty Python legend John Cleese doing bits from The Holy Grail and rockers Primus to country singer Rodney Carrington and the 2017 edition of the venerable MidPoint Music Festival. The building also houses the renovated 500-capacity downstairs standing-room Ballroom, a long, low-ceilinged space that’s hosted tons of great bands on the way up (J Roddy Walston and the Business, Frontier Ruckus) as well as big names that you can catch in a unique, intimate setting (Dawes, Blitzen Trapper, Melvins, Sam Bush) that is quickly gaining a reputation as the place to be.
Website, 317 E. Fifth Street, (513) 232-6220
Housed in a former vaudeville theater that dates to 1890, this 1,500-capacity, 40-year-old club in the University of Cincinnati-adjacent Clifton neighborhood is one of the city’s busiest. From rock and jazz to comedy, world, country, pop, hip-hop, R&B acts and everything in between, Bogart’s is Cincy’s music venue workhorse. Now operated by Live Nation, the club hosts music multiple nights a week, with clear sight lines on the floor and an upstairs balcony as well as a new outdoor patio that offers refuge from the booming sound system. For early adopters it has been the place to catch future superstars including Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Lenny Kravitz and The Police, as well as such legends as James Brown, the Ramones, Beastie Boys and Snoop Dogg. There was also that secret show in September 1984 by the “Red Hot & Blue Band” to celebrate the release of Purple Rain that was headlined buy some guy named Prince.
Website, 2621 Vine Street, (513) 872-8801
Come for the killer burritos, stay for the eclectic music nearly every night of the week at this beloved no-frills Northside dive bar. Renowned for its Sunday night standing date with the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars, the Comet also hosts experimental acts on Monday night, a “Bike night” for motorcycle enthusiasts, a reggae dance party every other Saturday, a punk/no wave series and plenty of garage rock, noise, bluegrass, world and avant garde bands from around the corner, around the region and around the world. It’s a grungy little slice of Brooklyn in Cincinnati, except without the attitude or $12 cocktails.
Website, 4579 Hamilton Ave. (513) 541-8900
20th Century Theater
This neoclassical art Moderne-style building has been hosting killer shows for more than 20 years in the Oakley neighborhood just north of downtown. With dramatic lighting and both seated cocktail tables and a wide-open floor that lets you get up and close to the bands, the 600-capacity 20th Century (listed on the National Historic Register) has hosted everyone from emo popsters Panic! at the Disco to rapper Aesop Rock, jam band Galactic, rockers The War on Drugs, Best Coast and Father John Misty and Phish’s Mike Gordon.
Website, 3021 Madison Road, (513.731.8000)
Madison Theater/Madison Live
Since this classic Covington, Kentucky, theater re-opened in 2001 after years of neglect it’s been a draw for a wide variety of great shows across the musical spectrum. With a classic theater set-up — including a large upstairs balcony with plenty of standing and sitting space and a tiered downstairs that offers a variety of spots to watch the stage, the Madison has hosted everyone from hometown heroes The National to Luke Bryan, Arctic Monkeys, Adam Lambert, Ed Sheeran and, more recently rapper Big Boy of Outkast . The owners also opened a second, smaller space next door, Madison Live, that hosts music almost every night in both a 600-capacity room and 450-capacity rooftop venue for developing and up-and-coming acts. All three are excellent spots to discover new favorites and see some of your heroes up close and personal.
Website, 730 Madison Ave. Covington, KY, (859) 491-2444
Live at Ludlow Garage
If you’re a classic rock fan, this revived venue’s name might ring a bell as the site of the Allman Brothers’ classic 1970 live album. The former auto shop-turned-venue reopened as a 292-capacity basement nightclub in 2015 (beneath a delicious restaurant upstairs), where it has quickly gained a reputation as a comfortable, relaxed environment to see world-class singer-songwriters and jazz acts while seated in comfy, cushioned movie theater-style seats in air-conditioned elegance with no seat more than –about 50 feet from the stage! A recent sampling of upcoming shows: Martin Sexton, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Carl Palmer, Tim Reynolds and Blues Travelers’ John Popper.
website, 342 Ludlow Ave., (513) 221-4111
PNC Pavilion at Riverbend Music Center
This one isn’t a club or bar, but rather the little sister to the city’s huge amphitheater. Located east of Cincinnati along the banks of the Ohio River, Riverbend Music Center’s large lawn and covered seating venue welcomes popular names and serves as the summer home of the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops orchestras for nearly 4 decades. PNC Pavilion is a 4,100-capacity venue-within-a-venue opened in the shadow of the 20,000-capacity Riverbend amphitheater in 2008 and has hosted a wide variety of country, folk, metal, pop and jazz acts since in a state-of-the-art setting. Among the shows on tap for the 2017 season: Steve Martin & Martin Short, Young The Giant, Jason Isbell, Megadeth and Willie Nelson.
website, 6295 Kellogg Ave., (513) 232-5882
After its earlier life as a house of ill-repute in the early 1800s, this tavern has operated almost continuously since 1861 as one of downtown Cincinnati’s premiere live music venues and restaurants (you have to try the Very Deviled Eggs and Arnold’s Hot Brown). The winner of Esquire magazine’s “Best Bars in America” in 2013 is renowned for its delicious eats, as well as hosting world-class folk, jazz and blues artists in its legendary open-air courtyard. Tuesday nights will find the Cincy Blues Society taking the charming stage that’s often as packed with musicians as the tables are with patrons, while most other nights you can expect to hear everything form jug bands to ragtime piano, Americana, reggae and funk.
Website, 210 E. 8th St., (513) 421-6234
Located next door to historic Music Hall and across the street from the gorgeously revived Washington Park, this 109-year-old National Register of Historic Places monument to the city’s veterans of the Spanish-American and Civil War is a throwback wonder of downtown. A recent restoration brought the 500-capacity space up to the modern era, while keeping its marbled staircase, Tiffany chandeliers, proscenium stage and historical mural legacy intact. With the ability to host shows year-round now, Memorial hall welcomes comedy, family entertainment, soul (Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires), bluegrass, roots music and classical concertos into its eclectic mix of mostly acoustic-based shows suited to its intimate theater configuration. Website, 1225 Elm Street, (513) 977.8838
Big Crowd Venue: US Bank Arena
If you’re traveling in town for a big contemporary names (the Weeknd or Chainsmokers for example), US Bank Arena is located right in the core of downtown right next to Great American Ballpark, the Banks neighborhood and Paul Brown Stadium makes going to a big concert or event an ease. Lots of parking and ample places to eat and drink before or after a show.
Website, 100 Broadway, (513) 421-4111
To search upcoming shows, visit http://cincinnatiusa.com/events/music.
Gil Kaufman is a Cincinnati-based writer/editor whose work you’ve surely read in MTV.com, Billboard.com, Rolling Stone, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Spin and Wired.
Top Image, Photo Credit | Travis Estell*