Local live venues
New to the city? Toronto has a variety of venues that regularly feature live music. Many of them specialize in certain types of music, and are worth checking out on most nights even if you don't know the band. Here's a quick guide to Hogtown's best spots for live tunes, plus a few of the super-sized places for the curious. By the way, all indoor venues in Toronto are non-smoking.
1150 Queen St. West (Google Maps)
Styles: singer-songwriter, lounge, indie
The multi-million dollar transformation of the Drake from dive into boutique hotel has helped change the surrounding section of Queen St. turning it into a rich, hipster haven (a similar renovation of the equally fleabag Gladstone Hotel down the street helped cement this strip making the grade). While the crowd and tastes in the Drake's upstairs lounge can be a little grating to folks who don't wish they lived in Manhattan (or even Yorkville), the Underground is a great basement venue. Comfortable, intimate and welcoming, the Underground's booking tends toward singer-songwriters as well as buzz-building first shows by artists about to move up to bigger things. Antony and M.I.A. both debuted locally here.
462 Spadina Ave. (Google Maps)
Capacity: two floors- 200 down, 350 up
Styles: rock, indie-rock, hip-hop
The El Mo is a Toronto institution with a history stretching back into the 40s. The Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello and Stevie Ray Vaughan have all recorded stellar live sets here during their heydays. It later became a punk/rock n' roll stronghold for much of the 80s and 90s. The club has undergone a strange last decade that saw it transform from dirty dive into dance studio and finally into a cleaned-up version of its former self. What it has sacrificed in dank rock atmosphere, it has made up in clean, open space and bathrooms now free of barf. No longer one of the town's leading lights, but the El Mo still a really good spot to see a show.
1197 Dundas St. West (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 350
Styles: indie-rock, experimental
The city's newest venue opened in October 2009 and certainly hit the ground running. The club hosted the last few months of Wavelength, a pay-what-you-can new music night that happened every Sunday night. Nearly every great local act of the past eight years received their start at a Wavelength show. The montly lecture series Trampoline Hall has also found a new home at the Garrison.
370 Queen St. West (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 400
Styles: indie-rock, alt-country, singer-songwriter
This club often gets tagged as "The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern" for good reason. It turned 60 in December of 2007 and has been the local debut for many an indie-rock legend. Often, the first step toward capturing Toronto's heart is a sold-out gig here. The live music stage is located at the back of the bar. It is dark with low ceilings, but the consistent quality of performers on its stage makes it one of the city's best live clubs, year in year out. Very friendly to unknown artists, it even hosts a free night called Nu Music Nite every Tuesday that features unsigned talent. The front room's bar also acts as a ticket box-office for the club and Lee's Palace.
2261 Dundas St. West (Google Maps)
Styles: folk, roots, world
This intimate dinner club is a great spot to catch all manner of folk/roots performers and have a relaxed meal at the same time. The booking is far from risky, so those with experimental tastes are wise to take their business elsewhere. That said, the club has close connections to the local folk community, ensuring that you'll get to see many artists who, just like underground indie rock bands, aren't exactly benefitting from mainstream radio or press. The environment is excellent and the triangular layout of the room ensures a great view from any vantage point. You have the option of either a dinner/performance ticket or a ticket for the performance only.
1 Jarvis St.
Styles: rock, punk, pop
Once known as the Warehouse and then renamed by a tribe of warring Teutonic dancers (OK, maybe not...), the Kool Haus is something of an airplane hanger, but such is the curse of many venues its size. The truth is that the sound has been greatly improved since its Warehouse days and all things considered it's not a bad place to see a big band. You can see everything from next-big-things to proven acts just below arena status. Its sister club in the same building is the smaller, also curiously misspelled Guvernment, but this club is mainly a dance venue.
529 Bloor St. West (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 550
Styles: indie-rock, alt-country
Originally the Midtown movie theatre from the 1940s, Lee's Palace has been a premier mid-sized rock club for over 20 years. Thanks to renovations in 2004/05, the club's sightlines have been greatly improved. The club has a high stage and good quality sound. Considered the next step up from the Horseshoe, it is also the 'Shoe's sister club as they are both owned by local promotion company, Against The Grain. Upstairs is the Dance Cave, a dark, unfettered club that has regular DJ nights.
1585 Dundas St. West (Google Maps)
Styles: salsa, Cuban, world, jazz, singer-songwriter
Found in the Little Portugal neighbourhood, this restaurant club has a full dance floor and numerous dining booths. It is well-known now for its salsa lessons on Friday and Saturday which include a spot-on band nailing the vibe of Havana, Caracas and other places a lot warmer than Toronto. In addition, Lula is a venue for touring live acts, particularly those of the world music and jazz persuasion. The relatively quiet sound system make a little bit of a stretch for rock acts, but Toronto never needed another rock club. Lula has done a great job of cultivating a musical niche that has many local fans but few quality venues to call its own.
722 College St. West (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 500
Styles: indie-rock, Brit pop, rock, soul/R&B, DJ
A newer addition to the city, this venue boasts a lighting rig and sound system without peer for local clubs its size. Like the Phoenix, it too has regular dance nights that can force early set times on some nights. Their Britpop Mod dance night is the club's calling card. The club has excellent sightlines and superb sound. Located just down the street from us, the Mod Club has become the venue of choice for popular acts to debut their new material, hosting preview concerts from MGMT, Stars, and Owen Pallett among others.
197 John St. (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 150
Styles: modern classical, jazz, experimental, folk, indie
A truly special Toronto institution, The Music Gallery began 30 years ago and has found its home in a variety of locations including an old YMCA basement. Since 2001, it has shared the St. George the Martyr Anglican Church in an agreement with that church's parish. This venue has provided the perfect setting for the exploratory, often transcedental acts that regularly perform there. Do Make Say Think, Final Fantasy and Sunn O))) have all had stellar recent shows here. Regardless of the act, you can be assured of something off the beaten path.
735 Queen St. East (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 800
Styles: indie-rock, metal, punk
The structure of this venue was a vaudevillian theatre from the 1930s. Today, it is one of the cities best (and only) venues of its size, boasting strong sound and good sightlines thanks to a multi-tiered floor and upper balcony. The booking ranges from indie-rock draws like Beach House and Mogwai to multi-band underground punk and metal tours.
1601 Lakeshore Blvd. West (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 1200 - 800 ballroom floor, 400 balcony
Styles: pop, world, jazz, DJ events
This ballroom right on the lake's edge is separated from the city by the major commuter artery of the Gardiner Expressway. Hidden here is a real jewel of a venue, especially after a chic renovation turned the clock back to return some Great Gatsby elegance to proceedings. Accordingly, its days as a venue for operatic rock acts such as Sigur Ros and Godspeed You Black Emperor are likely behind it. However, when the act matches the venue, the intent of the redesign is clear. Its low-rise, curved stage and hardwood floors are built more for the swing-band era premise of the band being there for dinner and dancing rather than being watched. Tickets can be a little dear, but the lake view is great and you won't get gum stuck to your shoes or have beer split on you.
410 Sherbourne St. (Google maps)
Styles: indie-rock, rock, dance, electronic, DJ
The Phoenix is a large club that features both live music and regular dance nights. On prime nights, live bands will have earlier start times (doors at 6pm rather than around 9PM) so that the dancing can still happen after their shows. The club is essentially a large, square room with a limited balcony at the far end. The stage is well raised and the sound in the club is good, especially when there are enough bodies in the house.
190 Princes' Blvd.
Capacity: about 1300
Styles: rock, pop
Located between BMO Field and the Press Building, its high ceiling and soft seats provide an ideal concert venue for mid-sized acts.
194 Queen St. West (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 250
Styles: jazz, blues
The Rex is simply all about jazz. Its live calendar boasts a staggering lineup of 18-19 shows a week, including two nightly sets and two matinees on weekends. Most of the talent is local, but acts cross-country and from places as far off as Brazil grace the stage. For jazz lovers, there is no better spot in town to just walk in off the street and try your luck.
334 Queen St. West (Google Maps)
Styles: indie-rock, singer-songwriter
The Rivoli is a two-floor restaurant and bar that has a back room live space. The club has always quietly gone about its business and its back room has never faltered as a good little live venue. The sound is great and the stage is well-raised. Intimate and casual, the room also hosts regular comedy and spoken-word events. Its small size is well suited to occasional residencies by local or out-of-town acts.
486 Spadina Ave. (Google Maps)
Styles: blues, garage, psych
This modest club has been the city's main home for blues acts for decades. Both local and international blues acts pass through regularly. The club is also the main home for local promoter Dan Burke, who originally acted as the El Mo's booker before that club was bought and renovated. Burke's tastes favour garage, psych and punk. He has formed long standing bonds with many acts, including a relationship with Japanese garage-band The Zoobombs, who recorded a live album when he still booked the El Mo. A good-sounding, cozy venue with a strong history that's unconcerned with trends.
431 College St. (Google Maps)
Capacity: upstairs about 250
Styles: indie-rock, punk, metal
Sneaky Dee's spent much of the 80s and 90s as one of the best starter clubs in town. Then near the end of the 90s it put a stop to live shows for several years. Around 2002, the club started back up and it has been going strong ever since. The quality of the sound is not the best, but Sneaky Dee's is one of the few places in town that remains unpredictable in its booking. You're just as likely to catch a local noise duo as you are the Blue Cheer reunion. Regardless of what happens upstairs, downstairs is a Tex-Mex restaurant that serves food nightly until 3 or 4 in the morning. So now you know how to satisfy that late-night nacho craving.
11 Polson St.
Capacity: about 3000 for shows
Styles: DJ, hip hop, dance, rock, pop, metal
Formerly known as The Docks, Sound Academy is more of a giant DJ-dance club than a live music venue. Which is to say that, despite its hopeful name, it suffers from many of the same difficulties as other large, open venues: muddy, inarticulate sound, and awkward crowd flow at sold-out gigs. If you're going to a show there, try to get a good space at the front or perimeter of the venue as the middle can get pretty crush-worthy.
292 Brunswick Ave. (Google Maps)
Capacity: two rooms - about 200 in the back, 40 in the front
Styles: jazz, experimental, folk, singer-songwriter, indie-rock
Like The Music Gallery, The Tranzac is an unconventional space hosting unconventional acts. It was started as a social hall for expatriate Australians and New Zealanders (The ANZAC in Tranzac stands for "Australia New Zealand Army Corps"). Today, the club also has a full schedule of artists who use the formulas of jazz, folk and pop as much as they skew them. It is in particular the unofficial residence of the Rat Drifting label, a local experimental collective.
1566 Queen St. W. (Google Maps)
Capacity: about 150
Styles: indie, punk, DJ
Opening to much fanfare in June 2010, The Shop (located in the heart of Parkdale underneath restaurant Parts & Labour) has already earned itself quite a reputation. Thanks in large part to it's unique setup without a stage - the bands literally play on the floor - it's the best place to get up close and personal with bands.
40 Bay St.
Capacity: 19000, 5000 in theatre set-up
Styles: rock, pop
Best known as the home of the Maple Leafs and Raptors, the ACC does also act as the town's main arena rock venue. Has all of the plus and minus factors associated with huge venues, although it also boasts a smaller theatre configuration for acts too big for Massey Hall but too small to sell the arena.
147 Danforth Ave.
Styles: pop, folk
This concert hall located at the edge of Greektown was built in 1919 as a vaudeville theatre. For many years, it was one of the cities' many rep movie theatres. Following extensive renovations, it is presenting enjoying a rebirth with recent performances including Emily Haines, Feist and Rufus Wainwright. The hall has great ambiance and unlike the similarly-ex-vaudeville Opera House, it has retained its soft seats and refined demeanour.
235 Queens Quay West
Capacity: about 2000
Styles: world, pop, folk, indie
The sprawling Harbourfront Centre complex contains numerous terminals, exhibits and an indoor theatre (the Enwave Theatre). The main draw is the outdoor stage which is right on Toronto Harbour. This beautiful outdoor theatre hosts a regular summer concert series that features many stellar free events. Past free concerts have included Orchestra Baobab, Terry Callier, The Constantines, Broken Social Scene and Hidden Cameras. If you have to pay to get in, it is still well worth the admission. Even amongst locals, it is one of the city's oft untapped gems.
178 Victoria St.
Styles: pop/rock, jazz, singer-songwriter
The most famous building on this list, Massey has hosted everyone from pianist Glenn Gould to the legendary Quintet session, known for being the only performance that featured jazz legends Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus together. The hall remains one of the most prized venues for local artists as shown by the decision of Canadian underground icons Rheostatics to end their 20-year career here. Young Canuck luminaries Arcade Fire and Feist also each did a pair of sold out nights in May of 2007. The acoustics of the hall are very strong, but somewhat better suited to quieter acts rather than loud rock bands. Also be wary of the several obstructed view seats in the venue--they are usually the last to go for any show.
909 Lakeshore Blvd.
Styles: rock, pop
The city's largest outdoor venue, it is located on the grounds of Ontario Place, a theme park on the shore on Lake Ontario. There are about 5500 seats under a roof, 3500 under the sky and then a lawn bowl that holds around 7000 more people. Like most venues its size, it uses two large video screens to project the action on stage. Generally good sound and the promixity to the lake makes for mostly cool, comfortable temperatures, even on humid days. The venue was opened in 1995 and replaced the Ontario Place Forum, an 8000 person venue famous for its rotating stage that slowly turned during a performance.
100 Princes' Blvd.
Capacity: about 7000 for shows
Styles: rock, pop
The home for the Maple Leafs farm team, The Marlies, Rioch Coliseum is also the site of several indoor concerts over the year. It takes care of acts that are too big for the Kool Haus and Massey Hall, but not yet ready for the Air Canada Centre. The building itself is quite a piece of history (it was built in 1921) and is located on the grounds of the CNE or Canadian National Exhibition. Other than that, you can expect much of the standard trappings of an arena gig. Recent shows have included Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party.