Anderson Fair — Anybody who was anybody had to pass through Anderson Fair in the 1970s. The venue has hosted Texas singer-songwriter favorites such as Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith and Eric Taylor. Taylor remains a regular as the venue continues to favor smart songwriters with a folky bent, though artsy guitarists such as Adrian Legg are also regulars. AF has high ceilings and an assemblage of folding chairs that fall short of cozy, still it is much closer to comfortable than claustrophobic, and the sound is usually very good. This might all sound very coffeehouse-ish, but the poorly lit venue serves cold beer. Just try to minimize bottle clanking during the performances. There’s also food — the nachos, in particular, are good to plug a mild hunger hole. Anderson Fair sits just a block off of Montrose and has a big sign boasting its name, which is fitting: It’s big and little in its own way, and a Houston gem.
Goode's Armadillo Palace — If you're good with Jim Goode's brand of Houstonianism — part wild West, part individualism, part meat -- then you'll feel just fine at Goode's Armadillo Palace. It's a crowded room despite its large size — tables cover the floor, saddled barstools surround the four-sided bar and waitresses are everywhere. Live music is almost an afterthought, given that you can't see the stage from most places in the room, but if you grab a seat at the front-third of the bar, you'll be happy. Bands range from traditional country to slightly more alt, and locals mix with regional favorites, but it's all twang. There's not a lot of room to two-step, but a few couples will try. Everyone is welcome, even if you're not wearing a cowboy hat.
The Big Easy — Set next to a glowing Dominos Pizza, the Big Easy is easy to miss while flying down Kirby. But the venue is a great dive-bar haven for the blues in a city with a deep history in the form. The layout is genius: The stage sits immediately to the right upon entering the front door, so if you have any interest in quaffing a beer, you’re going to have to move in and move back to the bar. The musical menu contains blues and zydeco, and is consistently excellent. Blues legend Earl Gilliam is a monthly regular, and for rockier fare, the venue often hosts the Mighty Orq. Smokers can perch on the picnic tables out front.
Big Top Lounge — This unassuming bar is like the Continental Club’s slightly cooler cousin. Or sister. You get the point. It's draped in velvet shadows and red light and black dye jobs. The music can get loud, but it's still a nice respite from the rest of the action on Main street.
Blanco's — There’s a wooden rail — practically a fence — that surrounds the dance floor at this well-seasoned venue tucked away on an unlikely block on Alabama. It cordons off a sacred space. If you want to stand around Blanco’s and swill beer, you can drop anchor in a DMZ between the bar and the dance floor. If that seems curt and exclusive, well, Blanco’s bills itself as “the only place to be if you want to dance” (“since 1982”). Less old than old-school, Blanco’s exudes an authenticity reflected in the artists it books, world weary honky-tonk types like James Hand and Billy Joe Shaver. But the kids are welcome too, as John Evans and Sean Reefer are regulars.
Cactus Music — If you get jostled a lot at a Cactus in-store, well, it’s because it’s a record store first and a music venue second, so you’re dealing with other listeners AND the guy looking for Supertramp (actually he’s likely to be in the adjacent vinyl-friendly Record Ranch). That said, the reopened store is at the former location of a Tae-bo center, and its riser offers artists a much better place to perch than the old Cactus had. The music store has hosted singer-songwriters playing alone and full-fledged bands performing as though they were in a bar. It’s a great place to sample local talent or hear the front man for a favorite band unplug. And the refreshments from St. Arnold’s Brewery do nothing to dampen the mood.
Cezanne — Any city this size deserves a bigger jazz club than this tiny, chintzy room above the Black Lab, but Houston hasn't been kind to its jazz musicians and their stages, hence the survival of Cezanne. Locals and the occasional touring artist perform in a space the size of a living room on Friday and Saturday nights. The good news is that the music is always excellent; the schedule is filled with Houston's jazz professors. The lighting is very low and the small tables are squeezed together, making an intimate night on the town that much more intimate. Come prepared: there's a one-drink-per-set minimum on top of the cover charge, which is usually around $10. Why spend the money? Because it's an important place worth supporting.
Continental Club — The Continental Club's goofy charm offers welcome relief from the seriousness of nearby Midtown. Vintage concert posters line the wall behind the bar, cool neon lights buzz overhead — but all eyes are drawn to the red velvet stage. The Main Street hangout continues the live-music tradition of the original Continental Club in Austin, where the music can go from folk to blues to rock in the blink of an eye. The clientele is young and old, modern and vintage, and pretty friendly. There are also pool tables, shuffleboard and another bar in the back room should you require a quieter place to nurse your beer.
Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar – The scrappy Heights venue has a strong blues rep, and with good reason. The oldest blues jam in town started there in 1988 and has boasted drop-ins like Tab Benoi, Greg Allman, Billy Gibbons and, um, Richard Gere. But it’s not really about A-list talent, is it? Dan Electro’s is a hub for some of the city’s hardest-working musicians, including Carrie Ann Buchanan, Opie Hendrix, Carolyn Wonderland (now based in Austin), Beans Barton, the Fondue Monks and Plump. It’s nothing fancy, folks, and music is the focus. That’s just the way we like it.
Dean's Credit Clothing — Has anyone actually bought clothes here? Or even looked through them while sipping a frozen cosmo or whatever? Ignore the name and hit Dean's for the chill atmosphere, nice variety of local acts and increasingly eclectic assortment of DJs. Don't forget the people-watching via the front windows. Look, honey! There's a posse of downtown douchebags!
Discovery Green — Houston has a unique opportunity with its newest downtown green space, Discovery Green. It's a lovely park with modern-art elements mixed with comfortable places to lounge, including a large lawn in front of an attractive performance stage. The schedule tends to be safe and uncontroversial, but that's a problem with any city venue. Regardless, shows here are fun and the surroundings make you feel like you're living in another city. If you can't get through a show without a drink, there are concessions available in the form of bottled Bud and plastic cups of wine. Or you can pack a picnic, take a bottle of screw-top wine, don't let anyone see you, and save yourself a few bucks.
Dosey Doe — Way up 'round The Woodlands is a place that looks like a barn and is in fact an old barn building, we're told, from Kentucky, where they know how to make barns. Inside you will find a huge room with two levels, all with a cozy, log-cabin aesthetic. The Dosey Doe is a restaurant with a full menu of comfort food, a full bar, a coffeehouse that roasts its own beans, and a live-music venue with excellent sound. It's hard to believe that more people don't know about this place, but it is in The Woodlands, after all. It's certainly worth the trip to see an artist such as Colin Hay, who performed there recently.
Firehouse Saloon — You know the blurring sight along 59: tire shop, car dealer, cell phone retail, tire shop, car dealer… And then there’s the Firehouse Saloon, a big barn of a dance hall with a sprawling floor space that never feels congested. The venue is a generous mix of dance hall and social bar. For those who want to gab, a comfy area of benches and tables is blocked off on one side, though it has portholes to allow the songs to break through. The vast bar is in the back with plenty of open space to prevent congestion as dancers and sitters converge. The music ranges from honky-tonk types like Billy Joe Shaver and Two Tons of Steel to singer-songwriters like Cory Morrow to the rockier side of Americana.
Fitzgerald's The legendary, decades-old venue reopened in 2010 with new management and a new attitude. The sounds now coming from Fitz — a broad spectrum of independent-minded rock — are very different than those heard in either the its rootsy heyday or the recent decade-long nadir that saw the club fall into creaky disrepair. The crowd varies: music fans, musicians, hipsters, aging hipsters, young kids dressed up like hipsters, dressed-down hipsters mocking other hipsters, and on Whiskey Wednesdays (a regular event featuring Robert Ellis and the Boys) hipsters dressed up like cowboys and/or motorcycle enthusiasts. There are stages upstairs and downstairs, often running at the same time (plus the occasional DJ spinning on the patio out back), featuring a healthy mix of rising local and buzzy national acts. Best of all, many shows are free for the 21+ crowd. Newly (and quite nicely) remodeled with a vastly improved soundsystem, Fitzgerald's still retains a good chunk of its murky punk-rock appeal.
Hickory Hollow — This Heights eatery combines two of our favorite things in the world: chicken-fried steak and country music. (With a side of bluegrass.) It's really that simple. Kimberly M’Carver and the Lonestar Bluegrass Band are onstage regulars. Did I mention the fried okra? Pull up to a wooden table and dig in.
House of Blues -- This is, cynicism be damned, a pretty wondrous venue and a much-needed shot in the arm for downtown Houston nightlife. It’s elegant but not stuffy and attracts a wildly diverse crowd thanks to a lineup that includes everything from country newcomers and R&B legends to pop starlets and Spanish-language stars. There’s not a bad seat – er, standing area – in the house. The décor is lush and tasteful and the restrooms have been consistently clean upon repeat visits. (That’s big news for a busy music venue.) Snag a trip into the adjoining, ridiculously swank Foundation Room if you have an IMPORTANT BFF. And do not miss the Sunday Gospel Brunch, which is truly a terrific experience. Caveat: drinks cost a hundred million dollars.
Jones Hall — Known primarily as "that place I have to take my girlfriend to see the goddamn symphony, goddamnit," Jones Hall also plays host to the occasional non-Houston Symphony performance by artists that think their art deserves a true concert hall — recent seasons included Neil Young, Flight of the Conchords and David Byrne, to name a few. Jones Hall is about what you would expect for the home of the Houston Symphony. Red carpet, high ceilings, dramatic stairs, comfortable theater seating. Try not to get there late; you might have to stumble over dozens of people to get to your seat, which sucks.
Last Concert Café — It's a Tex-Mex hole-in-the-wall and a thriving scene for jammy Houston musicians. Carolyn Wonderland, Plump and David Fahl probably have stock in the place, which has a ramshackle, rinky-dink vibe. Walk in any given night, and you’ll likely end up enjoying a jam session — or taking part in one. Knock three times.
McGonigel's Mucky Duck — There are only two bad seats — both behind the sound board — in this immensely comfortable Upper Kirby venue that caters predominantly to music enthusiasts who’d rather not wear earplugs. The venue seats around 100 or so, with a bar and some pockets in the back that offer standing room. If you require elbow room, that can be a problem, but the payoff is the intimacy. The Duck puts listener and performer so close together that it hardly needs amplifiers. And it strikes a generous balance between veteran singer-songwriter types like Greg Trooper and Texas favorites such as Terri Hendrix and the Asylum Street Spankers. There’s also a clever, forward-thinking bent to its booking, which means the Duck is often a fine place to discover acts such as Okkervil River and Old Crow Medicine Show before they move into larger confines. And the pub fare food is good for the soul.
Meridian — This cavernous club on the outskirts of downtown is all function, no flash. The small attempts at dance-club chic follow years of disrepair: dimly lit alcoves and banquettes set in a "red room" that also hosts smaller live-music acts. The larger room has a large stage with nice lighting.
Miller Outdoor Theater — Where Discovery Green's performance space is a light, airy morsel, Miller Outdoor Theater is a stalwart rock: this dark, heavy, imposing stage in Hermann Park is large enough to hold the symphony or a full-scale play. It works for productions, which is why you won't find much live music on the lineup, but there is the occasional concert. Last season's offerings included Mavis Staples and Diane Schuur. Performances are free, nearly everyone brings their own wine and sandwiches, and it's a lot of fun to roll or run down the hill to get back to your car after the show.
The Mink — So close to the Continental Club in distance; so far away in attitude. Houston's scene whores love the Mink, and if you're not a scene whore, you'll probably spend a few minutes wondering why everyone is eyeing you. The music happens at the "backroom," so don't give up until you've made it all the way through the front bar, out the door, left at the wall, right by the smoking "patio" or whatever they would like to call it -- the outdoor space where kids in skinny jeans seem to have dropped perfect and whole by Hipster Jesus onto chairs and stairs with cigarettes in their pale, skinny hands -- and up into the next building, up the stairs to a miniscule stage. During particularly raucous shows, you'll feel like the floor is going to give way, but so far, so good.
Numbers — It's a little sad, really, that this once-mighty haven for edgy and exciting touring acts has dwindled into a hangout for B-list hipsters, emo kids and go-nowhere local bands. Regular goth parties still draw crowds. But remember when Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, Erasure and Macy Gray were listed on the marquee? These days, the most exciting thing happening inside is the biannual Westheimer Block Party.
Puffabelly's — Old Town Spring is a prim collection of old buildings that house antique stores, gift shops and clothing boutiques — all great places to shop for women of a certain age who love tiny, ornate picture frames and turquoise belt buckles. In the midst of all this Texas suburbanite perfection, there's Puffabelly's, a ramshackle burger/CFS/beer joint where the most exotic thing on the drink menu is Zima. This isn't a regular music venue, but the sole night of music — Wednesday nights with country singer-songwriter Davin James and his special guests — makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. Guests have included Susan Gibson, Jesse Dayton, John Evans, Hayes Carll, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Ain't nothing refined about this place; the tables are cheap veneer, the chairs are ripped, there are car dealership posters behind the performers; but it's a fun, intimate evening with great singer-songwriters.
Rudyard's — Montrose's neighborhood live-music bar is a melting pot of that particular part of the city. It's a proving ground for genuinely good local bands; not like suburban bars, which are more like missile testing sites. Downstairs is for socializing and dodging darts; upstairs is where you'll find the stage. And just as the crowd doesn't lean in one direction or another, neither do the bands: rock bands, indie bands, pop bands, singer-songwriters, country bands, noise bands are all free to call Rudz home. The room is nothing special, just some tables and chairs and pool tables and a bar that chugs out Shiners; it's the people that make Rudyard's special.
Sambuca — Sambuca is the type of place people who are trying to be cool go to when they really have no idea what the hell they're doing. It's sort of trendy. The food is sort of good. And the atmosphere is sort of plastic, but not in that sickly trendy way. More in a, “See, we're sickly trendy, too!” way. The regular music lineup — Yvonne Washington, Norma Zenteno, Tianna Hall — is established but reeks of unoriginality. How about some hip-hop up in this place? Or some actual jazz?
Scout Bar — If you're a total jackass douchebag and you just want a place to chill with like-minded jackass douchebags, Scout Bar couldn't be more up your alley. The Buzz makes its home there Sunday nights, it's owned by a guy from alt-rock has-beens the Hunger, it smells like a bowling alley, everyone two-fists their plastic-cupped beer with a plastic-cupped cocktail, and the only bands that play there are over-serious rock and metal bands with wildly varied levels of talent. Oh, and Vanilla Ice KILLED there, whipped the crowd into delirious frenzy, and has been asked back multiple times. Seriously.
Stafford Centre — A cozy theater, the Stafford Center is a little gem off the beaten path that boasts fantastic sound and sight lines. Its real draw, though, is the talent it brings in. The Centre is a sanctuary for country and rock legends from yesteryear, hosting the likes of Charley Pride, Ray Price, Johnny Rivers and homegrown favorites such as B.J. Thomas. For those who prefer theater and musicals, they also pass through. The venue feels intimate with just over 1,000 seats, but it can still host an old favorite backed by the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra.
Verizon Wireless Theater — There's not much rhyme or reason to this downtown venue. A lobby that’s too narrow. Cluttered lines at the entrance. Oddly placed bars and stairwells. But it does the job when the right biggish act is onstage. Standing-room-only concerts are probably the most common, which means you need to get there early if you want to be near the front. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck behind frat boys trying to prove their manhood by grabbing on their girl and leaving for drinks every five minutes.
Toyota Center — Let’s be honest. You don’t go to this part-time concert venue for the atmosphere, the crowd or the overpriced (and underpoured) drinks. You spend anywhere from $40-$500 a tickets — what?! — to see Barry Manilow, Miley Cyrus, Bruce Springsteen or Britney Spears. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Merch lines are long, and parking can be a bitch. But the concession stands actually serve decent food, the sound is solid and the bathrooms are clean. Plus, certain seating sections allow access to private(ish) bathrooms and bars. It beats the hell out of rank club toilets.
Walter's on Washington — With Mary Jane’s shuttered, Walter’s is one of only a few remaining Washington Ave. venues where a discerning hipster can see a band before they have to share with thousands of others at the next size venue. The layout isn’t the friendliest. The door opens in the back middle and people tend to drop anchor a few feet inside, which blocks travel to the bar (on the left) and the merch table (on the right). But the sound is good (unless it’s too loud, then it’s Taser time), as are the sightlines. The stage is also fairly generous and can accommodate more than a basic guitar/bass/drum ensemble. Beer is reasonably cheap and cold and occasionally served with a smile. If you like to see a band moving from baby steps to a light jog, this is the place.
Warehouse Live — The ceilings are way high, the furniture is kinda Ikea tacky and the wide-open layout gives it an emptyish feel even during packed shows. Yes, we get the whole “warehouse” thing. But it's not necessarily visually appealing. Plus, the small side bar is sorta pointless. But Warehouse Live has its charms, mostly thanks to the impressive lineup of acts that have played its two stages. And who can argue with a 2006 grand opening that featured Prince? Bonus points for regularly featuring solid Houston bands.
West Alabama Icehouse — The folks are scruffy and often in shorts. The décor is, well, nonexistent (unless you consider beer bottles art). Dogs roam amid the benches. Benches, people. It’s like some sort of white-trash oasis amid Montrose condos and restaurants. But this venerable outdoor bar is friendly, there’s often food and the live music lineup is first-rate. Just try to keep from stumbling onto the street.
Woodlands Pavilion — This outdoor venue is a fact of life if you plan on seeing Dave Matthews before you die. Or Cher, whose un-retirement tour should start any day now. Or any geezer-rock combo tour that passes through every year. The worse news? It’s hell in the summer. It’s hell in the parking lots. It’s hell to weave through the crowds. Security guards can be brutal. And the frozen margaritas couldn’t knock out a newborn. The good news? It doesn’t matter, because you’ll be there at some point, anyway. So just tell yourself it’s going to be fun.