Toronto is one of the biggest live entertainment markets in North America, so it’s no surprise that you can check out live bands any night of the week, in any genre you want, in all types of venues. It can be overwhelming to the point where staying home and cranking Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzo seems like a more viable option. But it’s doesn’t have to be daunting – just distill your options down to the city’s best spots and let your mood guide you.
Say you’re feeling a bit lonesome in the big city, a bit achy-breaky, and want to hear some twang. Check the Dakota Tavern (249 Ossington, 416-850-4579), a basement bar with warm lighting, a sizable dance floor and sound levels that cater to both rug cutters and back-table chatterers. Expect to hear anything from country-stomp Monday regulars the Rattlesnake Choir to surprise appearances by ex-DFA1979er Sebastien Grainger.
Photo By Mark Coatsworth
Dance to the rockin’ twang at the Dakota.
And staying on the outlaw music tip, don’t forget Parkdale’s venerable Cadillac Lounge (1296 Queen West, 416-536-7717). Imagine Elvis growing up in Toronto; this is would have been his juke joint, no question.
Perhaps you’re feeling a little out of touch with the local indie rock scene, the press is hyping Toronto bands you’ve never heard of and you’d like to get back in the mix. Despite its shady surroundings, the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina, 416-763-9139) is a sure thing for local upstart scenester bands. Silver’s sightlines are solid, the sound system is pro, and booker Dan Burke keeps his finger on the pulse.
Go a bit farther west on College and you’ll find Sneaky Dee’s (431 College , 416-603-3090), as much a Toronto institution as the Wavelength live music series it hosts every Sunday. Affordable booze, cute bartenders and a low stage that works both for intimate affairs and anarchic rock.
Sweat and spilled bottles of Labatt 50 maybe aren’t your vibe and you want something a little nicer. West Queen West is littered with clubs, but only the Drake Underground (1150 Queen West, 416-531-5042) holds it down as both an upscale club and a respectable live venue. Where did M.I.A. play her first-ever North American concert? Yep, the Drake Underground has cred.
And speaking of legends and lore, look no further than the bright, garish palm tree on the edge of Chinatown to find the El Mocambo (464 Spadina , 416-968-2001). Yes, the Stones and U2 both rocked its stage, but the El Mo isn’t resting on its laurels. Lately, it’s been one of Toronto’s go-to destinations for both buzzy mid-level touring acts and locals throwing CD release parties. Still a great place to see bands on the cusp of going big.
If you haven’t heard of the Horseshoe Tavern (368 Queen West, 416-598-4753), you’re either a tourist or a recently landed immigrant. There isn’t much else to say about this historic venue pumping live music nightly in the heart of the city except that if you haven’t been, what the hell is your holdup?
Same goes for Annex institution Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor West, 416-532-1598). Both are owned by the same promoters, and both strive to provide the best possible live experience. Lee’s has clearer sightlines and a higher capacity, making it a better spot for surging mid-level bands.
Despite its questionable early start time policy, you can’t deny that the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne, 416-323-1251) is one of T.O.’s best big-room venues. It rivals Kool Haus for 1,000-plus audiences but offers more atmosphere than its warehouse-like rival. Plus, the sound system is big, expensive and crystalline.
The same goes for the Mod Club (722 College, 416-588-4663). It’s sound is top-shelf, and the Carnaby Street design – though a little too anglocentric – gives the place a distinctive personality. Now go get rocked already!