What’s in a concert hall? These 5 (well, 6) Atlanta venues top them all
By: Melissa Ruggieri
Published: November 15, 2018
About 150 times a year, I’m in an Atlanta concert venue.
And by Atlanta, I mean it could also be Duluth, Peachtree City or Alpharetta.
More than most, assumedly, I’ve come home with ringing ears (despite wearing earplugs to every single concert), smelling like various substances, scraping the soles of my sneakers to remove various substances and issuing various complaints (traffic, parking, people with phones, people who won’t stay off their phones, people who use their phones throughout an entire concert to film things they’ll never watch again) to my husband and cats.
They are usually bored by my gripes.
But I also know that this city is a music mecca, a place with more than two dozen established venues ranging from the 165-capacity Eddie’s Attic to the 70,000-plus Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and that is to be appreciated.
So, as someone who has spent a significant portion of the past eight years of her Atlanta life roaming concourses, sweating in amphitheaters and trying to avoid concession snacks, it could be inferred that I have a ready list of preferred concert environs.
For nearly a year — seriously, ask my editor — I’ve ruminated about which five venues I would tag as my favorites.
I’ve played mental Etch A Sketch 100 times, thinking I’d solidified a list, only to remember another venue to replace it.
My criteria fall into a few categories that to me, define a concert experience: How does it sound? How comfortable is the environment? How annoyed will I be about parking? Am I treated like a valued customer or cattle? What relative comforts await me (seating, concessions, bathrooms)?
To further filter my choices, I nixed any venue with capacity of less than 1,000 and more than 20,000. I think we can all agree that concerts sound exceptional in a City Winery or Red Clay Foundry and maybe not so much in SunTrust Park or Mercedes-Benz Stadium, buildings that were erected for functions involving bats and balls and nets — which they produce exceptionally well.
As with any list, you will most certainly disagree with me. And as Bobby Brown once proclaimed, that’s your prerogative. So no, as much as I relish the majesty of the Fox Theatre, it isn’t — to me — an ideal concert spot. If you’ve ever read one of my concert reviews during the summer, you already know of my dislike for State Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park. While many of my brothers and sisters in Respectful Concert Behavior cheer my public complaints, others adore the venue for the very reasons it makes my head explode.
And one final caveat: I never endured a negative concert experience at Philips Arena (though the $9 soft drinks installed before the revamp incited my Italian temper every time I looked at the price board). I’ve only attended two concerts at the transformed venue now known as State Farm Arena, and while I can make a couple of snap judgments — it is sleek and airy, the concessions are tremendously improved (no more $9 soft drinks!), the new slimline seats make me feel like I’m on a budget airline — I don’t think it’s fair to “rate” it yet.
So, finally, here are my five much contemplated, overanalyzed choices of favorite venues in Atlanta.
Let the arguing begin.
5. (tie) Center Stage and Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
Starting off with a tie doesn’t say much for my decisiveness, does it? But after vacillating — and whittling it from a four-way tie with Buckhead Theatre and Atlanta Symphony Hall — two vastly different venues made the final cut.
Let’s start with Center Stage, the largest of three venues (the Loft and Vinyl are the others) housed in the same Midtown complex. With a capacity of 1,050, it’s large enough to attract a veteran such as Joe Jackson (Feb. 7) as well as young rapper Chief Keef (Nov. 27) and social media star/comedian Celeste Barber (Dec. 5).
And who doesn’t love a venue where Duran Duran played twice as warm-ups for major tours (2001 and 2011) and Lady Gaga graced it during 2009’s “The Fame Ball” outing?
While the majority of concerts are general admission — a tactic I’m not a fan of, just like I won’t fly airlines that don’t allow me to reserve a seat in advance — there truly isn’t a bad vantage point in the bowl. Just try to go with a companion who will hold your seat if you need to make a drink or bathroom run.
The building is also close to the MARTA Arts Center station and includes a parking deck attached to the theater (which it doesn’t operate, but is still convenient). A plethora of paid parking lots dot the surrounding blocks as well.
Parking, actually, is one of the biggest conveniences at Cobb Energy PAC. A 1,000-capacity garage and lot — usually a reasonable $6 — adjoin the property, so the walking is minimal and the convenience major.
A sizable group of sweet, helpful ushers (all volunteers) is always stationed in the front of the theater, armed with knowledge and welcoming attitudes.
While nothing distinguishes the 2,750-capacity venue from similar performing arts centers around the country, there is something comforting about its brightness and understated sophistication.
Also know that when certain artists mandate no photos — Peter Frampton and Don Henley come to mind — the ushers inside the theater WILL apply that directive, no exceptions. I love them for that.
While the venue’s show offerings lean toward an older, suburban crowd — Il Divo (Nov. 21) and Dave Koz and Friends Christmas (Nov. 30) are regulars — there comes the occasional rocker surprise, such as Alice Cooper in October and Steven Tyler in 2016.
They fit in perfectly well.
4. Verizon Amphitheatre
In general, I try to avoid being outside in Atlanta from oh, April to November. Not a fan of humidity. So amphitheater concerts are more of a necessity than a preference.
But the 12,000-capacity Alpharetta venue (7,000 seats, 5,000 lawn) — which celebrated a decade this year — is tucked away in a scenic, wooded area, offers comfortable seats, always feels spacious and is the ideal size for artists who can pull bigger than a Chastain crowd, but not quite Lakewood (Charlie Puth, Niall Horan and Dierks Bentley were among the 2018 performances; Train with the Goo Goo Dolls have been announced for July 10).
Of course, that airiness also means that when the expected Atlanta summer rain passes through, even those in the covered seats might get showered from the cocooning wind (anyone else remember Robert Plant in 2013?).
Even though traffic can be as exceedingly awful — a friend who joined me for Steely Dan in May sat on Hembree Road for nearly an hour — there are enough access points into the surrounding lots that with enough lead time, excessive waits can be avoided. For the 2018 season, lots were pre-assigned with ticket purchase, and parking fees were (usually) added into the ticket price.
As amphitheaters go, this is one of the most pleasant.
3. Infinite Energy Arena
The 13,000-seater in suburban Duluth would probably be a notch higher on my list if not for the dastardly traffic that plagues any city-goer trying to get there on a weeknight. And yes, those who live north have to deal with the same agita for any concerts in downtown Atlanta. Fair enough.
But even though I have to pack a lunch and leave for a concert assignment midafternoon — or endure the reality of an hourlong rush-hour journey, even in the Peach Pass lane — once I arrive, I can usually compartmentalize my road rage and enjoy the atmosphere.
The past two summers, the arena received an elevated public profile by snagging marquee concerts such as U2, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and Kendrick Lamar while its bigger Atlanta peer, State Farm Arena, underwent its makeover.
I certainly wasn’t complaining. Who wouldn’t rather see these major artists in a smaller, cozier venue? And that is what is so endearing about Infinite Energy Arena — it feels like a neighborhood venue instead of a corporate entity. The staff is warm and helpful, the seating affords decent views from almost any vantage point, and the sound is always reasonably clean.
The venue is home to the Atlanta Gladiators, but still has plenty of concerts on its docket — Trans-Siberian Orchestra makes its annual appearance Dec. 8, Bob Seger will say goodbye to Atlanta with a show Dec. 22, Kane Brown rolls through Jan. 10 and the mighty, peerless Cher returns Jan. 25.
One of the biggest benefits of visiting the arena is its free parking (paid valet is also available). Granted, my favorite lot off of Satellite Boulevard was recently razed as the Infinite Energy Center compound undergoes its own transformation — but a seven-level parking deck should be ready by next fall to complement the other on-site parking.
2. Variety Playhouse
Has it really been two years since the venerated Little Five Points venue received a much-needed freshening?
Indeed, the $1.3 million in improvements — expanded bars, new seats, a lowered floor/raised stage, improved air conditioning — debuted in fall 2016, and the 1,000-capacity World War II-era movie theater has been rolling with a diverse schedule that might see a tribute band one night (Rumours: A Fleetwood Mac Tribute on Nov. 21), Atlanta mainstays Shawn Mullins and Michelle Malone another (Nov. 24), a big-name rocker such as Tom Morello (Dec. 10) or familiar blues rock from North Mississippi Allstars (Dec. 21).
The two-level venue, which experienced a management change in 2015, has retained its grubby charm while simultaneously making us grateful for shiny downstairs bathrooms and concrete floors instead of carpeting.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the pristine sound. Whether Howard Jones or Christopher Cross, Swing Out Sister or Billy F. Gibbons, it’s always easy to sing — or rock out — along because of the fine-tuned acoustics.
Parking can be a hassle – if you’re lucky, you might slip into a metered spot on the street in front of the venue; but there is a paid lot a block-ish from the venue.
A small concession for such a cool joint.
During my months of contemplating Atlanta’s venues and my preferred locations for live music, my top choice never wavered.
It was always you, Tabernacle, with your history as a 1900s Baptist church and infirmary, your brief existence as an Olympics-era House of Blues, your regal stained glass and three steep balconies and seductive side rooms that offer a respite from the noise of the crowds.
The walls of this 2,500-capacity downtown music palace have witnessed shows from Prince and Elton John, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Some newer artists, such as Janelle Monae, would rather play multiple nights at the Tabernacle than one bigger show elsewhere.
It’s just special.
In April, the venue celebrated its 20th anniversary and with it came tweaks to the VIP area and air conditioning (finally!). I’m partial to the upstairs seating, but the sloped floor on the stage level affords a great view, even in the far back corners where I tend to lurk.
Parking can be purchased in advance with ticket sales — and there is no shortage of garages and lots in a few-blocks radius. And don’t overlook the metered parking literally in front of the building. It only looks as if it’s illegal. It’s not.
The venue always offers a varied lineup of solid names — Blackberry Smoke (Nov. 23), 6lack (Dec. 21-23), Umphrey’s McGee (Dec. 28-31) and Switchfoot (Feb. 16) are just a handful of upcoming shows.
But more importantly, the Tabernacle feels like a sanctuary. And that can’t be duplicated.