San Diego may never get the national recognition of being a trendy musical hotbed alongside the likes of Seattle, Austin, and Brooklyn, but for the adventurous fan seeking quality indie and garage rock, the city has always had plenty to offer. San Diego may have more clubs and bars offering up live music than at any time in its history, so let’s take a look at what’s out there.
3829 30th Street, North Park
3112 University Avenue, North Park
The best place to start is in North Park. The neighborhood has been the epicenter of the indie-rock scene in San Diego for some time now. Even though Bar Pink doesn’t host bands as often as it did when it first opened, they still pack their schedule with live goodness. National acts like the late Jay Reatard have graced the small stage and, if you’re lucky, you can catch local art-punks Ghetto Blaster blazing through a set of hardcore ditties on any given night.
Around the corner on University, U-31 hosts live bands as well, just not quite as often.
3054 University Avenue, North Park
The whiskey bar Seven Grand has a majestic-yet-intimate back room that feels straight out of The Shining. You are more likely to catch a jazz trio on the room’s small stage, but bands such as local indie-poppers Hills Like Elephants play here as well.
3090 Polk Avenue, North Park
2891 University Avenue, North Park
Up the street toward El Cajon Boulevard, The Irenic is an interesting new venue for neighborhood shows. It’s basically a church (originally constructed in 1945) that has been renovated to host live music. The 400-person venue has only been running since 2011, but they can already slice a couple of notches into their Bible-belts for booking national acts such as Of Montreal, Frightened Rabbit, and Titus Andronicus. A big new player is on the horizon in the neighborhood that may steal some of the Irenic’s thunder, though. The North Park Theater is going to reopen in June, starting with two nights of comeback kid Rodriguez. The venue apparently aspires to be the “Casbah meets Cineopolis,” so things could get interesting in this musical hotbed.
3615 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
3519 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
Venturing a bit out of North Park and into Normal Heights, you’ll find Soda Bar a venue that has established itself as a go-to joint for touring national acts. Califone, the Meat Puppets, and the Smoking Popes have all played the bar over the past couple of years. The venue still plays host to many top-tier local bands as well, such as San Diego’s beloved institution of sun-drenched, Laurel Canyon rock, The Donkeys. Walk a couple of blocks to the west from Soda Bar and you’ll run across the Hideout. Formerly the Void, which was formerly Eleven, which was formerly the Radio Room, which was formerly the Zombie Lounge, one would hope the Hideout is not “formerly the Hideout” too soon. Lady Dottie played there opening night, so I assume they will continue to have bands.
1271 University Avenue, Hillcrest
Turning west and heading into Hillcrest, the Merrow is still presenting live music in the spirit of the Ruby Room. Judging by a recent night I spent there, the somewhat legendary complaining neighbor of the past seems to be history. I caught a full set of the Touchies with their amps on full-crank that didn’t end with a visit from the cops. Maybe the local police just have a soft spot for quality pop-punk.
For the rest of the stops, you’re going to have to ditch your fixed-gear bike and call Uber for a ride. We are not venturing into territories unknown, just neighborhoods with their live-music choices (in this department) spread a bit thinner.
2501 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Head south from Hillcrest to Little Italy on practically any night of the week, and if you end up at the Casbah, you are nearly guaranteed there will be a quality show going on. Some of the more notable shows of recent years including the Jesus Lizard, Dinosaur Jr., Stephen Malkmus, and Swervedriver. This list goes on and on and on, in much the same fashion that Monday-night shows at the venue often feel for early-risers. The club is also known for its anniversary shows and one-off events, such as the 30 Years of Ugly Things three-night celebration last summer. Ugly Things is an underground music zine that was started by London transplant Mike Stax in San Diego circa 1983. The publication is all about lesser-known psychedelic acts from the ’60s and Stax’s current band, the Loons, is yet another fine representation of such nuggets.
1863 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Stroll back up the hill a bit and hit up the Tin Can Alehouse to catch local acts and lesser-known touring bands on the cheap. All the shows here are pretty much five or six bucks, which means that you can catch the crazy escapades of the Cramp-esque Shark Blood for less than it will cost you to drink an IPA downtown.
2236 Fern Street, South Park
Fly over to Whistle Stop Bar if you can, because there is no completely easy way to get in and out of this isolated neighborhood via freeway. Not a bad ’hood to get stuck in, though. The Whistle Stop doesn’t get a ton of shows, but it is always a good time when local acts such as Gone Baby Gone and indie-poppers the New Kinetics play the venue. Doesn’t hurt that they serve great beer as well.
4757 University Avenue, City Heights
Now it’s time to head back to up to 30th, turn right on University, and drive a gazillion blocks to the east until you hit the bizarre piece of architecture known as the Tower Bar. The Tower Bar is the ultimate “You can’t miss it” establishment. If you can’t locate the brightly colored, stand-alone corner bar with the 100-foot tower, you should probably be on the lookout for a quality optometrist. From the outside, the bar looks as if it could comfortably host about six people, but once you’re inside it’s easy to see it can fit seven no problem. Since the tight venue seems to specialize in garage, punk, and metal acts, you get in the mix as a fan, whether you like it or not. Check out local garage-blues spazzmasters the Schitzophonics there one night and see if that little alligator headstock on Pat Beers’s Stratocaster tries to take a bite out of your shoulder.
That’s the tour. Knock it all out in one night and consider yourself worthy of a pat on the back from that guy with the handlebar mustache that haunts you in your dreams, because you know he has completed this rotation six times in one hour.