With the conversion last year of the old Jackie Gleason Theater to the Fillmore Miami Beach, Miami-Dade County gained yet another live music venue. And it was yet another enticement for bands to play down here, rather than make the rest of us trek up to Broward or even Palm Beach.
Which got me thinking: People are quick to say there's no live music in Miami, but that's becoming less and less true. While a couple of new spots have opened, others are being recycled. That doesn't mean it's all rainbows and lollipops, though. There are three things I think you should be able to do at a rock show: Get a drink easily, pee when you need to, and, um, hear the band. (I used to also think smoke a cigarette in peace, but with lungs newly starting to function again, I've realized the folly of that. Sorry, smokers.) The ease with which you can do these things can completely change your impression of a band from one venue to the next.
So for once I figured I'd review the places where I go to review shows. I stuck to Miami, and for brevity purposes, these are venues that mostly feature live pop music (as in, not jazz or classical), as opposed to DJs. I've also left out huge arenas and outdoor amphitheaters; considering all of those places would open a whole separate can of worms. For hilarious club reviews, visit www.miaminights.com; especially check the spot-on bathroom ratings, an idea I've borrowed in my thoughts on these places.
venue rankings|bathroom rankings
Overall: Confusingly named (sounds awfully close to the BankAtlantic Center, which is in Broward) and not very centrally located, it's on the grounds of the University of Miami in Coral Gables. Though there's lots of parking, this venue is dry. Literally, unbelievably, no booze, although, weirdly, they serve an array of junk food. Interpol fans want to drink, not eat nachos. It's also cold inside, and the managers' solution for smaller shows is a wall of tarps behind one row of seats that creates an apocalyptic feeling. And speaking of apocalypse, smokers are corralled into a patio on the ground level, although luckily for them, it's pretty spacious and partially sheltered.
Bathrooms: Stellar, with lots of stalls. I guess we can thank UM students' tuition for that.
Carnival Center/Adrienne Arsht Center/whatever it's called at press time
Overall: Although this is mostly a place for highbrow stuff, there have been several world and pop concerts here, or hybrid events, such as the Merce Cunningham troupe's performance accompanied by Sigur Rós last spring, in the Ziff Ballet Opera House. The sound is great; the sightlines are flawless. However, the niceness of the place makes it weird to see the chick next to you chowing on a sandwich pulled from her backpack (is that even allowed?), and the drinks are nine bucks and up.
Bathrooms: Lovely and spotless; they must be attended by bathroom fairies, because they stay that way with nary a staff member in sight. In Manhattan they would be considered luxury apartments.
Overall: This place's grime is its glory. If Churchill's glamorous squalor changed, I would be upset. It's about the history, the people-watching, the obscure bands you might never see again, the FTW attitude. But hey, it's not a bad place to see a show. You can get a great perch with a view of the main stage from the front bar. Said bar conveniently wraps around into the main show area, so it's easy to get a cheap drink. All things considered, the sound is pretty good, and the cover is always reasonable, even for semi-famous touring bands.
Bathrooms: The women's room has, of course, one stall, with an inexplicably tiny anteroom and double doors that don't always lock. This means you have to pee while leaning forward to hold the closest one shut, or while mashing your knees against the door (well it's tiny, so that's easy) to maintain some privacy. It's usually Trainspotting-style filthy, but that's fine with me.
Fillmore Miami Beach
Overall: Now inhabiting the historic Jackie Gleason Theater, it had to overcome the ho-hum reputation of its predecessor. They've gutted all the pastel grandma stuff from the inside and made it look like a proper rock theater with warm tones and sexy, low lighting. Lots of expensive bars are everywhere. You get great sound and unobstructed sightlines from anywhere, although sitting in the back rows of the main floor can feel distant, what with the looming mezzanine levels above. Smokers are screwed, banished to a scrap of side patio with no cover from the rain.
Bathrooms: Lots of 'em, and sparkling — hey, that $10-plus cocktail should pay for something.
Overall: Why don't they have more gigs here? Ben Harper and Café Tacuba both had the right idea to try out this lovely vintage theater in the heart of downtown. The Casablanca-style décor and faux starry-night ceiling are unmatched in vintage loveliness. While this place gets used for things like film festivals, music promoters should keep it in mind.
Bathrooms: Class, class, class.
Overall: A Miami Beach mainstay for a reason — whether showcasing jazz, reggae, or whatever else, it's a sure bet for free live music in a comfy setting. The main problem is it's tiny, so the downstairs can get packed. And it's so awkward to open the main door, only to be confronted with a crowd facing you, staring at the stage just adjacent.
Bathrooms: Only one stall for women, which lately does not seem to have a door handle. It also features one of those creepy light-up ads that magically turns on when you pass in front. I know it's only a sensor, but that little eye looks like a camera, and it's disconcerting so near a toilet.
James L. Knight Center
Overall: The venue that time seemingly forgot. The maze of one-way streets and highway exits surrounding it in the thick of downtown create a real accessibility issue, as does the lack of parking. Just to get there, one has to climb through an eerily quiet maze of a convention center and hotel lobby before finally reaching the concert space. The peeling paint and faded photographs are reminiscent of a college basketball arena. However, there's good, semicircular seating design with lots of sightlines, and lots of bars. But people queued up for drinks obstruct the flow of the milling crowd.
Bathrooms: Unremarkable but with the vague feel of a high school locker room.
Overall: The only place in town for midlevel touring acts, Studio A has attracted a diverse array of performers that would otherwise require a trek to, say, Revolution or Culture Room, or wouldn't appear in South Florida at all. For a standing-room-only venue with no seats, the layout is straightforward, and there are great sightlines. But drinks are definitely pricey for a rock club, and during an especially packed WMC party for the German techno label Get Physical, it once took me almost 20 minutes to walk from the front end of the club to the bathroom.
Bathrooms: There are mercifully several stalls, but the availability of toilet paper can be touch and go. And, while I know bathroom attendants need to make their money, if I've already tipped generously once in an evening, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect continued access to hand soap.
Overall: Like Churchill's, the Road is a Miami mainstay (it's been around for how long now, almost a century?). However, it often flies under many people's radar because it focuses on über-local acts thanks to tireless promoter and booster Oski Gonzalez. A mix of some slightly larger-name bands might draw in some new blood, but the place is small, and the combination of loungy furniture plus a ready-for-drinking crowd can pack it up quickly. Plus, where else can you wander downstairs and get a burger? Smokers, again, are pariahs. Welcome to 2008.
Bathrooms: Two stalls for women, usually clean, but the downstairs location can make them a pain to access if you're upstairs watching a band.
Overall: Another cool little spot where you can take people for a drink and impress them with your find — because so far it's attracted a niche audience. The acts have mainly focused on jammy, jazzy, fusiony stuff, and they've really fomented a scene. But rock kids would like it, too, if they had a reason to go. It has a great location in the becoming-more-high-traffic area of southish downtown, just around the corner from Tobacco Road, and just up the road from the Coral Way drag. There's lots of comfortable seating and a huge bar, with prices a little higher than you might expect.
Bathrooms: Is it possible to consider a club bathroom cute? These are, with painted wooden slat things for walls and doors. Recently renovated (or at least repainted) and usually clean. Yay.
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