Best Places: Where to listen to live music


“Live music,” to Berkeley High School senior Ruby Thompson, “is a really incredible way to connect people based on shared interest.” Throughout the Bay Area, these gathering spaces in the form of restaurants, city parks, and traditional concert halls serve music with a side of community, art, and food. BHS students Thompson, Georgia Fishman, and Jamie Bryan-Levy, who are enjoyers of punk, alternative, metal, rock, and swing, are connoisseurs of Bay Area live music, and its venues.

 At the music club 924 Gilman, at the very least you can come and see their varied shows, but more involved people can work at the venue and get first-hand experience in the world of live music. 

“They host a lot of local shows,” said Thompson, who’s “discovered lots of artists … (her) age.” Gilman, home of the Alternative Music Foundation, has its roots in 1990s punk, and remains a home for established bands and up-and-comers alike. 

“It’s a historic place. … Green Day got their start there; a bunch of famous bands have played (at Gilman),” said Fishman, who sings and plays guitar in her own experimental rock band, I’d Rather Sleep. She has found that 924 Gilman is one of the best places in the Bay for featuring young bands. “They’re really good at getting your band on a bill. … They put us in a headliner slot for our second show there, which was amazing,” she said. 

The scene is community run and community focused, and Thompson recommends it for anyone looking to dip their toes into the music scene while accumulating volunteer hours.  

Stay Gold Delicatessen is an Oakland-based restaurant specializing in barbecue, sandwiches, and music. 

“(They have) really good food and host really fun shows,” Thompson said.  Stay Gold features bands like hardcore punk group City of Industry, alternative singer Julia Blair, and local band Kilroi, featuring them on a large outdoor patio where customers can enjoy their food. 

Cornerstone also blends food and music: “The first time I was there, I wasn’t sure if it was like a venue or just a restaurant,” said Bryan-Levy. Tucked next to Pegasus Books, Cornerstone features every type of music, from Led Zeppelin to Tunnel Vision to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, even putting on wrestling shows and comedy acts. It does not treat music as a side hustle: “There’s a big stage, a lot of space for mosh pits,” Bryan-Levy said. They serve modern comfort food and specialize in craft beer, but their shows are open to everyone, not just those over 21. Fishman added that her and her band hope to play there one day. 

Art House Gallery and Cultural Center on Shattuck  Avenue has a reputation for being friendly and open to youth. Fishman’s band and another BHS band, Cascade, have played there and they were open to Thompson’s friend hosting some of their shows. 

“It’s very decorative. … It has a sort of neon kind of ‘60s type vibe to it, which is cool,” Fishman said. They also feature Berkeley art. “Shows are not just music, but people selling their art and food,” Thompson said.

Bryan-Levy’s favorite music venues have no spot on most maps or concert posters — “The best music is free music,” they said. Many of their strongest associations with live music come from “warehouses and basements,” underground shows that are gone the next day. Knowing the best venues is valuable, but so too is keeping your eyes and ears open for other musical opportunities.

For all three, there is a special something to hearing a performance live that they cannot find on music streaming services. “I like to support … artists that are local to me and my age,” said Thompson. Community is just as important to her as the music itself. Fishman feels the same way: “The Bay is really cool — there’s a small, local community; you’re (all) there for the same thing,” she said. 

When Bryan-Levy experiences music in the Bay, it is often a cathartic, surrounding experience. “It’s a different environment: (when) the music is so loud, and everyone is dancing around, it’s a really good way to get energy out — I feel like after a show, I’m relaxed,” he said. The Bay is full of these places that concentrate energy and passion into one place, one moment, all the more beautiful for fading the next day.