There’s little as dreamy as realizing two songs into a concert that you’ve developed a crush on a new band. The dizzy, breathless, magical feeling that comes from discovering something you never knew you needed and—now changed—never want to live without. That’s a risk you take when you get tickets to The Shitty Barn Sessions in the venue of the same name (pardon our French; we didn’t name it) in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The Barn draws artists that deserve household-name status—hypertalented performers like indie darlings Phox (who’ve had gigs at Coachella and South by Southwest), blues-folk player Charlie Parr and Americana group The Pines. Amid the warm wood, green lawn and lights twinkling against the falling dark, the hundred or so ticket holders are set up to fall in love.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow missed something big when he drew up his Hierarchy of Needs: Nowhere in his list does he include music. That’s quite an oversight, considering that music has proven as fundamental as language across eras (the oldest discovered musical instrument, a bone flute, dates to some 40,000 years ago). Music can help premature babies thrive, help stroke victims retain memories, help runners race faster. Plus, just like eating a slice of decadent chocolate cake, listening to music—especially new music— can make you feel really, really good.
So where do you go to feel really, really good? Well, being in the Midwest is a strong start. While certain regions of the country are well-known for their distinctive styles (looking at you, country music in the South), the Midwest is perhaps best known for its embrace of everything. “It really is an amazing scene,” says Paul Natkin, a Chicago photographer who specializes in shooting concerts. “There’s every musical form here you can imagine.”
And venues across the Midwest specialize in curating the diverse scene. Some, like Kansas City’s Green Lady Lounge, guarantee a certain style of music (in this case, jazz). Others, like Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, bring in a variety of styles. Each promises a chance at love.
Concerts held under the eaves of these barns have all the kicked-back ease and coolness of a friend’s kegger, if that friend was a scout for the music industry. Get tickets early (they sell out fast) and prepare for a night sipping PBR from a can, noshing grub from a food truck and taking in the music an arm’s length from the band.
The Shitty Barn | Spring Green, Wisconsin | Don’t be fooled by the drive through the industrial park: The barn setting truly is bucolic. In-the-know ticket holders arrive early and picnic on the lawn until the first notes play, just before sundown. shittybarnsessions.com
Codfish Hollow Barnstormers | Maquoketa, Iowa | Pre- and post-show activities center on the cow pasture, which doubles as the parking lot and a free campground. Visitors catch hayrides to the concert hall (aka barn) and local art gallery (aka farmhouse). codfishhollowbarnstormers.com
The Shitty Barn, inside and outside
These once-smoky jazz and blues rooms make for a great postdinner relaxation destination. Expect stiff drinks, small tables and no pressure to carry on long conversations. You’re here for the music after all, so just sit back and take it all in.
FitzGerald’s | Berwyn, Illinois | “Some of the greatest blues, jazz, roots-type music that you’ll hear comes from FitzGerald’s,” says concert photographer Paul Natkin. This 1920s roadhouse in a western Chicago suburb looks so stereotypically vintage (a mural-backed stage, people huddled around small tables, a dance floor) that it’s been cast in films such as A League of Their Own and The Color of Money. On the main stage, catch acts like singer-songwriter Sarah Borges, or head to The SideBar next door for jazz sessions or an open mic night. fitzgeraldsnightclub.com
The Blue Room | Kansas City, Missouri | In the 1930s, jazz clubs like the Street Hotel’s Blue Room helped earn Kansas City’s 18th and Vine district a reputation for innovative sounds. Today, the American Jazz Museum honors the “cradle of jazz” district with a new version of The Blue Room, where jazz bands play four nights a week. Keep an eye out for Blue Room Live concerts pairing two bands—one jazz, one other genre—for live-recorded sets. americanjazzmuseum.org
Green Lady Lounge | Kansas City, Missouri | Oil paintings hang on the red walls, and the cocktail waitresses wear cocktail dresses in this intimate space. Jazz players take the stage seven nights a week, and there’s never a cover. The main stage upstairs supports a Hammond organ; a grand piano graces the Orion Room stage downstairs. greenladylounge.com
The Raven Lounge | Detroit | The Raven is the best kind of secret: The (alleged) oldest blues bar in Michigan stands nearly alone, the last blues house in a formerly hopping music neighborhood. This is the kind of place where you want to stay late: As other shows end, blues players often wander in to jam with whoever’s on stage. theravenloungeandrestaurant.com
Green Mill Cocktail Lounge | Chicago | The oldest continuously running jazz joint in the United States used to maintain tunnels for Al Capone’s illicit liquor deliveries. Today, the cocktails are all aboveboard, and musicians still play late into the night (sometimes past 3 a.m.). They’re a cash-only venue, so arrive prepared. greenmilljazz.com
Outside The Blue Room (left); A performance at The Green Lady (right)
It’s little more than an open room large enough to hold hundreds, a stage and a bar. Consider it a blank canvas for the music: Quiet subdued singer-songwriters make it a chill escape from the hectic city; metal bands make it a mosh pit. General admission makes these venues a great equalizer, where millionaires and hundredaires stand shoulder to shoulder.
First Avenue | Minneapolis | “I would definitely start with First Ave,” says Andrea Swensson, writer and host with the Twin Cities’ public radio station The Current. “They book all the hot bands that come through town, plus there’s such a history there with Prince.” (He filmed his 1984 rock drama Purple Rain here.) With a capacity of 1,700, the hall gives last-minute concert- seekers a good shot at getting in. In the same building, the smaller 7th Street Entry welcomes up-and-comers. first-avenue.com
Schubas Tavern | Chicago | To get into the tiny venue (capacity: 200, max) tucked behind a set of wooden doors at the back of the rehabbed Schlitz Brewery Taproom, buy tickets early. Not so lucky? You might still be able to listen in from the barroom. lh-st.com
Shank Hall | Milwaukee | First, let’s address that name: It’s a reference to the movie This Is Spinal Tap. (The namesake band appeared at then-fictional Shank Hall.) The 300-person venue sports a gallery of famous artists that have played the stage. shankhall.com
Northside Tavern | Cincinnati | Tags for upcoming shows include dance party, haunt-pop and volume rock. Not sure what some of those genres are? Become one of the 200 music-curious ticket holders. northsidetav.com
The Beachland Ballroom and Tavern | Cleveland | The 1950s Croatian Social Hall (known for good music and dancing) now hosts two venues: the spacious 500-person Ballroom and the intimate 150-person Tavern. beachlandballroom.com
The First Avenue stage (left); First Avenue venue (right)
If “bigger is better” is your mantra, then music festivals could be your scene. One ticket grants access to multiple stages and the stylings of dozens—or hundreds—of performers. Expect fresh air, fried foods, and great music in the great outdoors.
Walnut Valley Festival | Winfield, Kansas | This gathering (September 18—22, 2019) is part concert, part extended jam session, part proving ground. A sprawling acoustic music festival, it blends instrument-specific competitions (fiddle, Autoharp, mandolin, dulcimer) with a dedicated grandstand stage where Americana, folk, Celtic and western swing groups play. Many attendees show up with an instrument and join the campsite bonfires where novices and experts enjoy impromptu lessons and opportunities to play. wvfest.com
Summerfest | Milwaukee | The self-styled World’s Largest Music Festival brings hundreds of bands to play on 11 stages over two weeks bridging June and July. Many of the evening headliners come from Billboard Top 40 lists, but during the day, regional musicians from nearly every genre play. summerfest.com
WE Fest | Detroit Lakes, Minnesota | Country music stars (Tim McGraw, Eric Church) provide the big draw to this early-August Up North country music extravaganza, but the not-traditionally-country musicians (Steven Tyler), karaoke contests and lake-country location set the fest apart. wefest.com
Remember college? You will when you’re here. The small bars, the neon lights, the $5 cover—it never changes. But the music does. And that band tuning up in the corner might be on the radio next year.
O’Leaver’s | Omaha | “It’s a little place wallpapered in LPs, and it’s the size of my living room,” says Kevin Coffey, music critic for the Omaha World-Herald. “The band plays on the floor—it’s barely a stage—and it feels like a show in somebody’s basement. The Lumineers played there five years ago.” liveatoleavers.com
O'Leaver's stage (left); O'Leaver's Pub (right)
The Dinner Dates
When the meal is as important as the music, these are the places to go. You may pair fried chicken and country or steak and jazz, but the duos are always on key.
BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups | St. Louis | This brick-walled eatery with neon lights conjures an easy-going atmosphere. Live music plays every night, and Southern favorites, like gumbo and red beans and rice, join the menu’s ever-changing selection of soups. bbsjazzbluessoups.com
Honky Tonk BBQ | Chicago | In the Pilsen neighborhood, nosh on slow-smoked brisket or pulled-pork sliders while groups like Wilkinson’s Quartet play what it calls “western swing hillbilly boogie” or other variations on country and Americana. honkytonkbbqchicago.com
Cliff Bell’s | Detroit | In 1935, John Clifford Bell introduced his namesake nightclub to Detroiters, drawing the well-to-do for steaks, jazz and dancing in a polished mahogany setting. Revived in 2005 with an eye toward original details, the new Cliff Bell’s quickly became an upscale date-night darling. cliffbells.com
Icehouse | Minneapolis | The former Cedar Lake Ice Co. loading docks now contain an eatery and a stage, where locally sourced describes both the seasonal entrees (petit ribeye Bourguignon, perhaps) and the jazz quartet playing. icehousempls.com
The Motel Where Songs are Born
Door County’s first motel, the 1950s Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, isn’t just a bastion of kitsch. New owners in 2007 turned it into a music-inspired destination, broadcasting Steel Bridge Radio online from the hotel. Three times a year, the 18 guest rooms are devoted to songwriter gatherings. Participating musicians play spin the bottle to pair off into writing groups, create new tunes and record them in pop-up recording studios. holidaymusicmotel.com
Check out Midwest Living’s "Music We Love" playlist on Spotify for 2-plus hours of tunes by some of our favorite Midwest artists. | midwestliving.com/spotify
A fan of Bon Iver? Check out Wisconsin’s PHOX.
A fan of Wynton Marsalis? Check out Missouri’s Hermon Mehari.
A fan of The Smiths? Check out Minnesota’s Low.
A fan of Mumford and Sons? Check out Minnesota’s Trampled by Turtles.
A fan of Queen? Check out Iowa’s Christopher the Conquered.