Stadiums need not apply. Here are the six best ways to see live music in NC, combining great music, great sound quality, and great vibes.
True story about the pandemic: We couldn’t see live music. At least not without looking at it through a computer screen.
And with NC’s public health agency officially calling the emergency over Thursday, there’s never been a better time to go see a show, when you can see the performers breathe and sweat and inhabit their music.
Here’s a list of some of our favorite ways to see live music in North Carolina. There’s a lot to see, and some truly beautiful settings. If NC’s live music scene has a real shortcoming at all, and it does, the most established venues tend to cater to an exclusively white audience.
No list is ever truly authoritative. It’s always limited by the experiences of the writer or writers. So if you have a favorite venue you’d like to recommend, write and tell us why at [email protected]. You never know. We might feature you on our social media accounts.
Haw River Ballroom – Saxapahaw, NC
The sound is pristine at the Ballroom. So is the setting, a spacious mill on the banks of the Haw River. It has three floors, so there aren’t really any bad views. It’s also neighboring a local brewery, restaurant, and grocery, so make it a destination.
Living Your Best Life: Have a picnic on the Haw, then see a show.
Go For The: Folk/Rock/Country
The Orange Peel – Asheville, NC
An old skating rink turned soul club turned all-around venue, the Orange Peel in Asheville has a lot of history. This old mountain city is the cultural hub of western NC too, with one of the finest music scenes in the country.
It has a history as one of the more versatile clubs in NC, hosting acts like Lauryn Hill, Cyndi Lauper, the Beastie Boys, Ice Cube, and Blondie.
Living Your Best Life: Eat at Salsas downtown, a Mexican and Caribbean mainstay. The molcajetes, a mishmash of meat, rice, and beans in a stone bowl, are game-changers.
Go For The: Rock/Alternative
Blue Note Grill – Durham, NC
Sometimes the Blue Note is more of a barbecue restaurant than a live music venue, but only if you’re going at the wrong time of day. In other words, daytime.
Blue Note is a longtime blues destination in an intimate setting. The real draw is open mic nights on Wednesdays, if you can deal with being sleepy at work the next day. It’s worth it. For $5, you can see the not famous office worker down the street—and we’re thinking of an actual performer we saw there recently—belt out Aretha Franklin like the song belonged to her.
This is not an open mic for the faint of heart. In other words, it’s not karaoke. If you stink, you’ll be embarrassed by the quality of the talent that shows up. So book your bachelor party some other night. It’s also a remarkably diverse destination—drawing young, old, Black, white.
Living Your Best Life: Order the bread pudding. It’s stellar.
Go For The: Blues/Soul/R&B/Jazz
The Evening Muse – Charlotte, NC
A destination in Charlotte’s longtime arts district, NoDa, the Evening Muse has been around since 2001 but it feels older. It’s intimate. Really intimate. They say the capacity is 120, but that’s tight. Which means the Muse, as much as any venue, suffered a great deal from the pandemic.
Before he died in 2003, country legend Johnny Cash played here.
Living Your Best Life: Before you go in, eat at Boudreax’s the Louisiana restaurant across the street. You can eat an alligator there. For real.
Go For The: Folk/Country/Rock
Dreamville – Raleigh, NC
Eastern NC’s native son J. Cole made it big and then made good for his Fayetteville hometown. His Dreamville Foundation is a booster for low-income youth and families. His Dreamville record label is a home for R&B and hip hop artists. And his annual Dreamville Festival in Raleigh has become one of NC’s best, featuring an A-list of R&B and hip hop artists.
Live Your Best Life: The festival’s in Dorothea Dix Park, 300 acres of green close to downtown Raleigh. Come to picnic and cook out. Stay for the music.
Come For The: Hip Hop/R&B
Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre – Wilmington, NC
Wilmington—NC’s port city—is one of the state’s prettiest spots. It’s a picturesque spot in a picturesque city by the Atlantic. So hosting a show on Greenfield Lake, a city-owned park, is an easy call. They book mid-level artists and nostalgia acts like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nickel Creek, and more.
Living Your Best Life: The show’s on a lake, but there’s an ocean down the street too. Make this a beach trip too.
Come For The: Folk/Rock/Country