Keystones of Chicago's Music Scene

Chicago has one of the richest music scenes the country, and its reputation as a blues mecca makes it a destination for musicians and fans from around the world. Jazz, world music, hip hop, house, and various other genres thrive here, and the city also has served as home to the likes of Wilco, Steve Albini, Kanye West, Common, The Jesus Lizard, Smashing Pumpkins, Fall Out Boy, R. Kelly, Curtis Mayfield, Syl Johnson, and Buddy Guy. Today, Chicago has entrenched itself as the music-festival capital of America, hosting dozens of neighborhood fests in addition to mega-events such as Lollapalooza, Pitchfork Fest, Riot Fest, Taste of Chicago, Spring Awakening, North Coast, and Wavefront. The amount of options for catching music in Chicago can be overwhelming, but I like to take it all in with a steady, genre-dabbling approach. In the past, I’ve reviewed concerts for Time Out Chicago, and found out the hard way that sometimes ear plugs are essential.
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Jazz Record Mart

27 E Illinois St, Chicago, IL

Since 1959, Jazz Record Mart has been supplying audiophiles with hard-to-find vinyl records. Though the shop bills itself as the “World’s Largest Jazz and Blues Record Store,” there’s also a good selection of world music to unearth here. Jazz and Blues are a huge part of Chicago’s identity, and strolling the aisles is somewhat of a crash course in the city’s musical heritage.

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Rosa's Lounge

3420 W Armitage Ave

This Logan Square joint has been booking great blues-acts since 1984, and shows no signs of slowing down. Its location is a bit out of the way, but that doesn’t stop loyal patrons from trekking out, even on weeknights in poor weather. Surprisingly, it also attracts a good number of tourists who have the good sense to avoid the traps found downtown.

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Empty Bottle

1035 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

The Empty Bottle has been booking envelope-pushing musical acts since 1992, and has established itself as a mecca for Chicago’s bohemian, music-loving community. From bluegrass to bounce music, nearly every genre has been represented here, and the venue has also popped up at #12 on Rolling Stone’s list of The Best Clubs in America. Monday-night shows are often free, and a monthly soul-music dance party attracts big crowds.

Kingston Mines

2548 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

The oldest blues club in Chicago, Kingston Mines also serves up some pretty decent barbecue. Blues bands are showcased seven nights a week, and the bar also has two stages. The crowd is a mix of music fans and DePaul students, since the latter get free admission with their student IDs. Kingston Mines is also open until 4 a.m., so things can get pretty rowdy after other area bars close.

Metro Chicago

3730 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60613

Claiming the #4 spot in Rolling Stone’s list of The Best Big Rooms in America, Metro has played an integral part in Chicago’s music scene since 1982. Locals such as Smashing Pumkins and Liz Phair have graced the stage several times, and seminal acts such as Sleater-Kinney and Nirvana have also shredded here. The second-story balcony curves around the stage, offering fantastic views of concerts from up high—if you arrive early enough to snag a good spot.

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Jazz Showcase

806 S Plymouth Ct, Chicago, IL 60605

The oldest jazz club in Chicago, Jazz Showcase has been treating visitors to excellent music since 1947. Though it has changed locations a few times before setting up shop at its current Dearborn Station spot, attentive listeners and an intimate atmosphere have always been there. Talented musicians who have graced the stage here include Dizzy Gillespie, Chris Potter, and Frank Morgan.

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Double Door -- CLOSED

1572 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL, United States

As the neighborhood surrounding it continues to transform from iffy to bohemian to yuppie, Double Door remains one of the classic rock clubs in the city. It originally opened its doors in 1994, and over the years it has hosted the likes of Wilco, Kanye West, and Sonic Youth. However, its biggest claim to fame is when the Rolling Stones showed up for an impromptu performance in 1997.

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Reckless Records

1532 North Milwaukee Avenue #1, Chicago, IL, United States

Since 1989, Reckless Records has been catering to serious crate-diggers and cool kids, and has also expanded to two other locations over the years. A wide range of music is represented here, and the super-knowledgeable staff can help you find hidden gems. The shop also served as the inspiration for Championship Vinyl, the fictional record store that John Cusack’s character owns in High Fidelity.

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Gramaphone Records

2843 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL, United States

Gramaphone Records has been around since 1969, and today remains a bulwark of the city’s DJ scene. The store is stocked with tons of dance music, much of which consists of house—a genre that was born right here in Chicago in the 1980s. Even big-name DJs who are traveling through town stop in to peruse the selection of techno, electro, downtempo, and more.

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Green Mill Cocktail Lounge

4802 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60640

The crown jewel of historic-Chicago bars, this classic spot has been around under its current name since 1910. It’s hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra and Charlie Chaplin, and today continues to attract talented jazz musicians who keep the music blaring way past midnight. You can tell that people here care about the music, because the conversations are generally kept to a hushed tone. Patrons also keep coming back for poetry-slam events and a popular Thursday-night swing-dance shindig.

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The Hideout

1354 W Wabansia Ave, Chicago, IL 60642

One of the city’s finest “hidden” gems, the Hideout is located on an industrial stretch that’s also home to a garbage-truck parking lot and a municipal-car gas station. The bar is basically a 100-year-old balloon-frame house that serves booze out of its living room, and hosts comedy sets and concerts out of the back. In fact, this is a spot where Jack White has played, Mavis Staples recorded a live album, and Neko Case worked as a bartender. Imagining it as a speakeasy is so easy, one tends to wonder what else goes down here after closing hours.

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Lee's Unleaded Blues

7401 S South Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL, United States

Chicago is a big, diverse city, but most of its blues clubs are located on the North Side. Fortunately, this old-school joint is still championing blues on the South Side and is definitely worth a visit. Located near an auto wrecker, this spot definitely ain’t fancy. However, it has authenticity to spare and the music here is top-notch.

Last updated at Jun 29, 2016