Live Music in Sacramento

Front of a stone building with corinthian columns and the words Sacramento Memorial Auditorium carved into the stone.
Catch a show at Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. Photo © Christopher Arns.

Sacramento’s music scene has experienced a reboot in recent years. The River City has a longheld reputation for incubating badass Dixieland jazz bands at the old Jazz Jubilee Festival (now the Sacramento Music Festival), but rock and punk groups also once flourished in the capital. Sacramento’s venerable grunge-punk scene may be long dead, along with the clubs that promoted that era, but live shows are everywhere—from suburban parks to small clothing boutiques and art galleries during the Second Saturday street fair.

Sacramento is a regular stop for big-name tours swinging down the West Coast, and the city boasts several large concert halls and auditoriums. The most common venue for mainstream acts is Power Balance Pavilion (One Sports Pkwy., 916/928-6900). It’s usually the place where Eminem, The Black Keys, Elton John, and Carrie Underwood will play when they come to town. Sacramento’s NBA team (Kings) also plays here. Some folks claim the place is dated and it’s often hit-and-miss for music, but most of the time Power Balance usually hosts damn good shows.

Try to get tickets for Sacramento Memorial Auditorium (1515 J St., 916/808-5291) when headliners play this classic Art Deco concert hall. The Memorial first opened in 1927 and has hosted acts like the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Michael Buble, and Death Cab for Cutie. Governors have hosted inauguration balls under the glowing gilded columns and archways, and the acoustics aren’t bad for an 80-year-old building.

A fantastic outdoor music venue is Raley Field (400 Ballpark Dr., West Sacramento, 916/371-4487). Home of Sacramento’s AAA baseball team, it’s a fairly new stadium with a view of Old Town. Headliners hit this place often; past acts include Dave Matthews Band, The Black Eyed Peas, Journey, Zac Brown Band, and Lady Gaga.

It’s been hard to keep track of Sacramento’s small music venues as more seem to operate at nontraditional places like bistros, art galleries, and bars. Marilyn’s on K (908 K St., 916/446- 4361, 4:30 p.m.– 1:30 a.m. Tues.–Fri., 6 p.m.–1:30 a.m. Sat.,) is a hole-in-the-wall where local bands play Wednesdays and Fridays; it’s where perennial Sacramento favorites like Jackie Greene, Mother Hips, Kate Gaffney, and The Pinder Brothers perform. The bar is pretty good about letting newcomers play here, but that also means it’s hit-and-miss.

Fox and Goose Pub and Restaurant (1001 R St., 916/443-8825, 6:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Tues., 6:30 a.m.–11 p.m. Wed.–Thurs., 6:30 a.m.–midnight Fri.–Sat., 6:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun.) usually has a random lineup of indie rock bands, electro folk acts, and, once a month, traditional Irish jam sessions. The setting (English-style pub) attracts an unpretentious crowd.

Bows and Arrows Collective (1815 19th St., 916/822-5668, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Tues.–Sat.) is one of Sacramento’s newest venues to emerge from the post-grunge apocalypse, and it’s leading the trend among Midtown venues that are half gallery or clothing boutique, half café or bar. Walls are plastered with artwork from local Pop Art and modernist painters, and the back patio is practically an urban jungle decked out with vintage patio furniture. Sea of Bees, Golden Cadillacs, and Autumn Sky often perform here.

Blue Lamp (1400 Alhambra Blvd., 916/455- 3400, 7 p.m.–2 a.m. Thurs.–Sat.) has a stripped down, edgy kind of vibe with local artwork on the wall. The music is fairly eclectic; bands include hard-core punk like Battalion of Saints and Kill the Precedent, cover bands like Cash Prophets, and singer/songwriter types like Mercies.

Press Club (2030 P St., 916/444-7914, 10 a.m.–2 a.m. daily), just off 21st Street, stays versatile with electronica, folk, rock-anthem bands, and hip hop. Come here for the tunes and stay for cheap tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The Old Ironsides (1901 10th St., 916/443-9751, 8 a.m.–midnight Mon., 8 a.m.–2 a.m. Tues.–Sat.) is a no-frills dive bar on the outskirts of downtown. This space first opened in 1934 (nabbing Sacramento’s first liquor license after Prohibition), and the dark-wood ceiling beams evoke a cave-like vibe that still feels cozy. It’s a great place to sit at the bar and catch local bands like Ghost River and Armed Forces Radio.

If Bob Dylan traveled back in time and opened a speakeasy, it would look like the Torch Club (904 15th St., 916/443-2797, 2 p.m.–2 a.m. Tues.–Sun.), another old-school dive bar from 1934 cranking out local music. It’s possible to catch live acts on the small retro stage almost every day.

Local Musicians

Sacramento may not be a huge music town like Austin or Nashville, but a few major bands and some hot up-and-comers first hung out their shingle here.

  • Cake: Cake is an alternative band known for songs like “The Distance” and their cover of “I Will Survive.” Founding member John McCrae grew up in Sacramento and started the band after a short stint playing music in Los Angeles. Since 1991 when McCrae formed the band, Cake has released six albums, including two platinums and one gold.
  • The Deftones: The title of “most famous” Sacramento band is up for debate, but The Deftones have to be somewhere near the top of the list. Three of this alt-metal rock band’s founding members went to Sacramento’s McClatchy High School together, but eventually cut their teeth playing on the road around Sacramento. The band formed in 1988 and has released seven albums.
  • The Golden Cadillacs: A kick-ass local act, they’ve got a bouncy country sound that evokes early Johnny Cash. Their debut album dropped in 2009, and since then Golden Cadillacs often play around Sacramento.
  • Jackie Greene: Known for bluesy Americana rock with a slight resemblance to Bob Dylan, Greene grew up and went to high school in Cameron Park, a sleepy community about 30 minutes east of Sacramento. His songs have played on network TV shows and the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Brokeback Mountain.
  • Oleander: This post-grunge band had roots in the 1990s alternative wave. Founding members Thomas Flowers and Doug Eldridge met while working at Fat City Bar and Café in Old Sacramento before putting together a band. They eventually released four studio albums, played at Woodstock ’99, and had one song airing on popular TV show Dawson’s Creek.
  • Papa Roach: Many people think the platinum-selling rock band hails from the capital, but they don’t. The band members actually grew up in and went to school in Vacaville, about 32 miles southwest of Sacramento.
  • Sea of Bees: Bees is another band of the moment with a debut album released in 2009. They play regularly at Austin’s SXSW Music Festival. Every few months, you can catch their smoky indie sound at Bows and Arrows Collective or joints around town.
  • Sister Crayon: This newish indie band released its first album in 2010. Lead singer Terra Lopez croons with a haunting, almost mournful voice; imagine a hybrid love child spawned by Portishead and Sarah McLachlan.
  • Steel Breeze: This anthem rock band had 15 minutes of fame in 1982 when their single “You Don’t Want Me Anymore” peaked at number 16 on the Billboard 100.
  • Tesla: Formed in 1984, this is Sacramento’s reigning godfather of heavy metal bands. The group has toured with David Lee Roth, Alice Cooper, and Def Leppard; they’ve also produced eight albums of which they have sold 14 million copies.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Sacramento & the Gold Country.

Maps - Northern California 7e - Downtown Sacramento
Downtown Sacramento