Melbourne’s classic pubs, historic theatres and basement bars offer more than just beer, Broadway and Bloody Marys – they also crank out some of the city’s best live music. You cannot visit Melbourne without spending a night squeezing into a packed independent venue to catch a raucous set by big-name international acts and local ‘next big thing’ bands.
History of Melbourne’s music scene
Melbourne’s music scene has a rich and varied history with some of Australia’s best-known musos cutting their teeth in band venues across town. The late 1970s saw punk descend on the city with the likes of The Boys Next Door (Nick Cave, Rowland S Howard, Mick Harvey; then evolving into The Birthday Party).
The 80s brought classic ‘pub rock’ onto the scene with bands and musicians such as Hunters and Collectors, and Paul Kelly, before the 90s and 2000s punk/grunge era took hold with the likes of Magic Dirt, The Meanies, The Cosmic Psychos, The Dirty Three and Eddie Current Suppression Ring.
These days some of Melbourne’s best local bands to look out for include Ausmuteants, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, The Twerps, and The Smith Street Band.
Best neighbourhoods to see live music
It doesn't get more authentically Melbourne than at the legendary Cherry Bar, suitably located in a black-walled basement down a gritty laneway named after rock icons AC/DC. It’s the kind of place that gets messy in the wee hours and a well-known spot for after-parties for touring bands (though, famously, Lady Gaga was refused an after party as a local band had already been booked). Past gigs include such music heavyweights as the Melvins, New York Dolls and the Black Keys.
From the divey pits of Cherry to the over-the-top eccentric extravagance that is the historic Forum theatre, the only thing these two venues have in common is the ability to host some incredible live music. Located on Flinders St opposite Federation Square, the lavish Moorish-style theatre was built in 1929 and you can catch big-name bands playing under its beautiful blue-sky dome ceiling. Past gigs include Oasis, Cat Power, The Stone Roses, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.
Slide into an art deco train carriage at the Toff in Town on the 2nd floor of the hip Curtin House building to see a range of live shows from local indie bands of the minute to cabaret performances and intimate acoustic sets.
170 Russell, formerly Billboard, is another great option for seeking out quality local and international touring bands, while the band room at the John Curtin Hotel (located on the city’s edge as you head into the neighbourhood of Carlton) is a good place to tap into local indie and punk scene.
A short hop from the city centre, the inner-east neighbourhood of Richmond is home to the long-running favourite pub, the Corner Hotel. The newish rooftop bar is a crowd pleaser, the front bar has a classic Aussie pub feel with walls splashed with band posters and the band room has been packing music scenesters in for years, jostling for a position away from the infamous ‘can’t see a thing’ pole. Past gigs include Crowded House’s final show, the White Stripes, Courtney Barnett, The Breeders, Future of the Left and the Dandy Warhols.
It’s no surprise that the city’s inner north areas of Collingwood, Fitzroy, Brunswick and Northcote have a high concentration of excellent pubs and band venues – these are some of Melbourne’s hippest and oldest neighbourhoods. You’ll find centuries-old pubs dishing out some of the best local live music in their bandrooms.
Collingwood’s The Tote is an unrivalled rock institution where shoes have been sticking to the carpet since the 80s while watching legendary local and international bands such as the Drones, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, The White Stripes, The Lemonheads, The Meanies, Silverchair and The Dictators. Up the road is the Bendigo, with more of a metal slant but equally grungy.
Head further down Smith St to Collingwood’s Gasometer Hotel, a bluestone corner pub with a retractable roof in its band room for open-air gigs. It’s a good spot to see the latest local ‘It’ bands, alongside big-name indie shows.
Continue from Collingwood further north until you hit happening Northcote where the Northcote Social Club puts on a fine roster of gigs, and even further along to the next-hippest ‘hood of Thornbury for intimate performances at the Thornbury Theatre or big-name local and international bands at Croxton Park.
The breezy bayside town of St Kilda is home to the heady days of live music in the 70s and 80s where bands such as The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, INXS and Iggy Pop graced the stage at the then famous Crystal Ballroom.
To check out bands in St Kilda these days, seek out Memo Music Hall, a former dance hall behind the St Kilda RSL; the stunning Palais Theatre for well-known acts or The Prince Bandroom above the iconic Prince of Wales pub.
One of the much-loved music institutions, The Esplanade Hotel (The Espy), closed down in 2016 but there are plans to reopen in 2018 – fingers crossed.
There’s not a load of band venues out west but if you make the short trek from the city, don’t miss catching a local or international band at the Reverence Hotel in Footscray. It sways toward punk and metal with the occasional indie band thrown in.
Top music festivals in and around Melbourne
St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, Melbourne (February) Riverside festival with the latest indie bands from around the world. Past acts include Feist, Tame Impala, Deerhunter and War on Drugs.
Golden Plains, Meredith (March) Held on a farm over a weekend with an excellent line up of local and international big-name bands with some nostalgia thrown in. Past acts include Roky Erickson, Buzzcocks and Violent Femmes.
River Rocks, Geelong (November) Showcasing the best of local punk/garage bands in a legendary Geelong pub an hour from Melbourne. Past acts include The Cosmic Psychos, Splatterheads and Tumbleweed.
Meredith Music Festival, Meredith (December) A weekend of camping and music in a natural amphitheatre. Past acts include Radio Birdman, Wolfmother, Black Lips, Jarvis Cocker, Mudhoney and Primal Scream.
Falls Festival, Lorne (December) Multi-day festival held over New Year’s Eve on the coast. Past acts include Blondie, Silverchair, Jack Johnson, The Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys and Flume.
Need more travel inspiration? Check out Lonely Planet's Melbourne Spotify playlist for some local tunes.