20: Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa
The Surf is written into rock history for one reason: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played here on February 2nd, 1959, before the three young rock stars boarded a plane and crashed in a nearby cornfield. Many live-music theatres are older than this no-frills 1934 dancehall with a wooden floor surrounded by Fifties-style diner booths and (for some reason) palm trees. But few other clubs have booked rock & roll since the beginning, from the Everly Brothers and Little Richard to Santana and Lynyrd Skynyrd to, today, Willie Nelson and Cheap Trick. The plain-looking brick building with the rickety old marquee received landmark status from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
Fun Fact: Dion DiMucci won a coin toss in 1959 to join the others on the doomed plane, but the price was $36 – too high. He gave his seat to Valens, who said, "Thanks."
19: Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia
Long before Death Cab for Cutie and Toots and the Maytals were playing the main stage, the Troc's biggest stars were burlesque heroines such as Blaze Starr and Gypsy Rose Lee. The rock club in Philly's Chinatown district opened in 1880 as a vaudeville-and-minstrel-show outpost known as the Arch Street Opera House; its live-music incarnation began a century later. The club has persevered through financial trouble in recent years – its operators filed for bankruptcy in 2011, and blamed Ticketmaster, citing "burdensome" convenience charges.
Fun Fact: Although many of the old buildings on this list are historic landmarks, the Troc is the only 19th-century, Victorian-style theatre still running.
18: House of Blues in Chicago
When House of Blues first opened, the chain of rock clubs seemed destined to be one of those Planet Hollywood-style fads, frozen in the Nineties, with its Blues Brothers and porkpie-hat imagery and omnipresent merchandising. But a strange thing happened – HOBs in New Orleans, Vegas, L.A. and Chicago (this club opened in 1996) began to book killer shows in all genres, not just blues. "When it's packed," says Talib Kweli, "you can actually feel the building sway with the show." The food here is great, too. Don't miss the Sunday gospel brunch.
Fun Fact: Arena acts often stop by for a change of pace from their usual big tours – notable examples include Pete Townshend in 1997, Pearl Jam in 2005, Jay-Z in 2009, and Prince and B.B. King last year.
17: El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles
After almost 60 years as a first-run movie house in Los Angeles' Miracle Mile theatre district, the El Rey reinvented itself as a live-music club in 1994 – and hired Bob Dylan to christen its new stage with five shows. The club maintains its classic touches, including a giant staircase, ornate lobby and VIP balcony lounge, but the grand ballroom is simple, narrow and great for shows. Indie-rock agent Tom Windish calls the El Rey and the equally historic Henry Fonda Theatre "the best mid-sized venues in LA." Coming up this year: Dale Earnhart Jr. Jr., Shuggie Otis and, befitting its location, actor Jeff Bridges' band.
Fun Fact: At one point in its history, the space served as a flophouse.
16: Norva in Norfolk, Va.
The club with the hot tub, not to mention a sauna and game room on the premises, opened in 2000 after owner A. William Reid saw gold in Norfolk's rising downtown area. He sunk $6 million into the project, a Roaring Twenties movie hall that had evolved over the decades into an athletic club (thus the hot tub). The first show was James Brown in 2000, but over time, the Norva developed a reputation, drawing headliners from Prince to Dylan to Justin Timberlake. Reid later told the Virginian-Pilot that his only regret was not asking the Godfather of Soul to join him in the tub, thus reprising Eddie Murphy's famous Saturday Night Live skit. "Because he was so gracious," Reid said of the headliner who established his club, "I never quite had the nerve to ask him."
Fun Fact: Prince opened his 2001 show here with "Purple Rain," then played, among others, "Cream," "Kiss" and "I Wanna Be Your Lover."