La Peña Cultural Center, with its trademark colorful mural out front, is a microcosm of Berkeley’s cultural, social, and political utopia. Founded in 1975 in response to the military coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende, La Peña continues to live up to its revolutionary roots, hosting a variety of hip-hop, world, and jazz music; spoken word; dance classes; art exhibits; films; and lectures, focusing on social justice and human rights about four nights a week. Its 175-capacity theater features a sizable stage, wooden dance floor, and a riser with tables and chairs, suitable for getting sweaty to some Latin American rhythms or sitting back and enjoying the show. If all that consciousness has you feeling a bit woozy, try the carnitas at Los Cilantros, located in La Peña's adjacent cafe space.
This downtown Oakland venue regularly presents high-caliber jazz, improvisation, and contemporary classical performances at relatively affordable prices.
This club, modeled after an Eastern European wooden synagogue, is a Berkeley institution dedicated to dance and music. The nonprofit venue hosts live music nearly every night, and shows are all-ages. Ashkenaz hosts reggae, bluegrass, Balkan, Brazilian, Cajun, and Caribbean bands, just to name a few. Come early for a dance class or on Sunday afternoon for a kids' concert.
Nestled between Alamedas bustling Park Street and Alameda High School, this 92-year-old hall draws about 250 people on Friday nights for dancing to live zydeco, and occasional Saturdays for swing. These weekly gigs are not too unlike a church function -- except for the full bar hidden in the back corner — with punch bowls filled with Oreos, pretzels, and chocolate chip cookies, and regulars who affectionately call each other by name. Tables line the wooden dance floor in this four-hundred-capacity hall, and its easy to see why people of all ages and walks of life from rockabillies to pimply-faced teens in Nirvana T-shirts to your aunt who frequents Ashkenaz come for the guaranteed crowd and, oh yeah, the handy dance lesson beforehand.
Live jazz music from some of the Bay Area's best artists flows from this North Oakland gallery on the regular. The space hosts rotating artist exhibitions and an ever-growing private collection of jazz- and blues-inspired paintings.
It's impossible to be all things to all people, but this cafe at the end of Park Street in Alameda almost succeeds. This space is a hodgepodge of creativity: A variety of hippie arts and crafts for sale, such as rain sticks and beaded baskets, fill up the space, plus there are regular crafts nights, and poetry readings. Order a pot of black lavender tea and start knitting at one of the large wooden tables. No one will kick you out.
Founded in 1968, the Freight & Salvage may be one of the most reliable venues for music in the East Bay. The venue is all ages, nonprofit, non-smoking, and alcohol-free. Here’s what you can count on from this Berkeley institution: a variety of traditional acoustic music played by accomplished musicians, an excellent sound system, and a crowd that deeply appreciates the music. Somewhere between a glorified barn and a church, the Freight’s atmosphere ensures that the attention is focused on the stage, where a range of folk, bluegrass, swing, country, Cajun, and world music can be heard. While shows here aren’t cheap, this venue is also a nonprofit, so you can feel better about where your money is going.
At Actual Cafe, it's all about sitting down and enjoying the coffeehouse experience. Get a cup of joe (or tea) served in a real china cup, plop down, and just hang for a while. Actual Cafe boasts comfy furniture and communal seating to encourage actual interaction with actual human life-forms. It's "not just another wi-fi shack." Indoor bike parking and a full menu are also available. Weekends are laptop-free.
Recently relaunched in Oakland, Birdland Jazzista Social Club is only open to members, who are free to attend live jazz and international performances.
Formerly known as the Justice League, the Independent is a venue strictly dedicated to hosting live music events. Besides the bar, there's nothing else to divert your attention from the players on the sizable elevated stage. One of the strengths of the Independent is the variety of music booked here, usually big-name acts in the worlds of reggae, funk, blues, DJs, hip-hop, and the indie-rock circuit. Accordingly, expect to see a different crowd nearly every night of the week. Ticket price ranges from $15 to $30.
Opened by former Foreign Legion emcee Prozack Turner and his wife, RaeAnne, The Legionnaire Saloon provides another live music and DJ venue in Oakland’s Uptown district. Its decor, too, is in line with Oakland’s new era of bars: dark-wood paneling, wooden booths, bar stools with plush vinyl seats in hunter green and red, and retro touches: antique mirrors, vintage maps, black-and-white photographs, a jukebox loaded with 45s, and three pinball machines.