Top 5 places to hear indie rock bands in Chicago

Today’s guest writer is Carol Hilker, a freelance music writer and blogger based in Chicago. Carol has a wide array of interests, from indie music to baking. She first entered our radar in 2009 with her budget living column on– and we’ve been following her tweets and posts ever since!

You can find Carol on Twitter (@CarolHilker) and on her blogs, and


Best places to hear indie bands in Chicago

Chicago Skyline

Photo: Ian Freimuth/Flickr Creative Commons

Chicago has one of the most active indie music scenes in America and is a place where independent bands can be heard. The Windy City shed its jazz vibe in the 1990s when the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Local H, Urge Overkill, The Tossers and Veruca Salt put Chicago on the map for alternative rock.

The city boasts legendary music halls, popular festivals and independent record labels. If you want to experience the indie music scene in Chicago, check out my top 5 venues.

#1. The Metro

The Metro in Chicago, IL

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Metro’s mission is to bring together a cross-section of local and national emerging artists. In the process, they have become one of the most famous places to hear up-and-comers.  On any given weekend you can find acts like Gang of Four, the Dismemberment Plan and Liz Phair gearing up for a set. The Metro is two blocks from Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs, but even White Sox fans will venture up to Chicago’s North Side for a show.

If you don’t want to go home after the concert, go right next door to the Metro’s trippy little brother, Smart Bar. It’s where Chicago’s resident DJ’s Orchard Lounge, Nate Manic, Major Taylor and Kid Colo mix music. The roster of spinners has included Paul Oakenfold, Fat Boy Slimm and Questlove.


How to get there: Take the Red Line EL north to Addison or the #22 Clark bus north.

Where to go after the show: Grab a Chicago Char-dog and watch as locals get insulted and  sworn at by the ladies at the Wiener Circle food cart. Just don’t order a chocolate milk shake…or if you do order it, consider yourself warned (see this YouTube video for details).

#2. The Empty Bottle

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Route 30 is one of America’s best-known highways and is known in Chicago as Western Avenue.  It’s the crossroad between two vibrant, artistic and diverse neighborhoods.  To the West is Humboldt Park, an up-and-coming area that features taquerias, trendy bars and cheap apartments.  To the east is Ukrainian Village, a Polish neighborhood where you can get a Żywiec beer or a Pabst Blue Ribbon, the hipster drink of choice.

The Empty Bottle is a haven for obscure bands and local legends.  You’ll find a farmer’s market right in the bar during “Free Mondays,” and patrons are encouraged to drink while they shop.  At the Empty Bottle, the beer is cheap and– contrary to its name—you’ll never find a bottle empty.


How to get there: Take a cab.

Where to grab dinner before the show: Don’t get scared by the prison theme: The Lockdown is a perfect pre-show spot. This bar and grill is located across the street from the Empty Bottle and offers up tasty fare like the “Buffalo Bill Burger” (Buffalo burger, bacon, white cheddar and a quail egg) and “Possession of ‘Shrooms” (goat cheese, Portobello and wild mushrooms).

#3. The Congress Theater

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Congress Theater hosts a variety of musical acts, from indie-pop band Belle and Sebastian to Mexican singer Alejandra Guzman. Although the Congress gets its share of Billy Idol, Chaka Khan, and Devo shows, it also hosts indie bands like Dropkick Murphys and Girl Talk.

The 2,890-seat theater was built in the 1920s as a movie palace and features Italian Renaissance and Classical Revival architecture. It is reportedly haunted (it was featured on the TV show Ghost Hunters) and has a secret tunnel in the basement that runs almost two miles from the theater to the intersection of North, Milwaukee and Damen Avenues.


How to get there: Blue line EL to Logan Square.

Best margarita within a block: El Cid, right next door, has the best mango margaritas, chips, salsa and chicken enchiladas in Chicago.  It doesn’t hurt that it is open late.

#4. The Double Door

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Double Door has a great energy because of its size.  It’s smaller than the Metro and bigger than the Empty Bottle; the same could be said about the indie bands that play here. It was featured in the movie High Fidelity and locals say you haven’t made it until you play the Double Door.  Artists like Billy Bragg, Sparklehorse, and the Lemonheads have graced its stage. The tradition continues with indie bands like the Damn Choir and Detroit Cobras.

If you get there early, go upstairs and snag a seat on the couch facing the stage for a more private viewing experience. Head to the newly remodeled downstairs for pool tables, a private booth, extra bathrooms and a calmer vibe.


How to get there: Blue Line to the Damen Blue Line.

Where to grab awesome cocktails after the show: Around the corner is a speakeasy called The Violet Hour. It boasts an ever-changing classic cocktail list, a fireplace that warms the room instantly, and a very long line.

#5. Reggie’s Rock Club

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Reggie’s Rock Club sits at 22nd and State Street, an area that used to be a shady part of town. The club has a raw, underground atmosphere and caters to an indie-punk and heavy metal crowd. Most of the shows are for ages 18 and older, which makes this a popular spot for college students.

Regular shows include the Screeching Weasel, Fashion Bomb and the all-punk Wrecking Ball Punx Fest on St. Patrick’s Day.  Reggie’s offers weekly food specials, laid-back security, cheap beer and live-band Karaoke (on Wednesdays).


How to get there: State Street bus south to 21st Street and State

Where to kill time before a show: Record Breakers Record Shop is adjacent. They carry hard-to-find albums and 45’s you can’t find anywhere else in the city.


Carol Hilker is a freelance music writer based in Chicago.  She has a hard time trying to decide what she likes best, which is why she is the author of two blogs, and (which is actually about baking).  She spends most of her time baking things she shouldn’t eat and listening to music most people haven’t heard of.”


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