Booze and live music have long gone hand in hand. In this week's cover story, we poured out the fifty bars in metro Denver that we can't live without. And that got us thinking: What are the great bars around town that host live music? Here are our ten picks.
Carioca Cafe (Bar Bar)
There aren't many true dives left in Denver, as many of the greatest have been muscled out by development. But Carioca Cafe, better known as Bar Bar, is the perfect spot for people sick of sanitized bro-infested pubs and in need of cheap, stiff drinks without the attitude. Bar Bar has also been a consistent home to all stripes of experimental, noise, folk and punk music, and in its own way has kept the DIY music scene alive.
Long before there was Coors Field and what became LoDo and countless bars, there was El Chapultepec. Since opening more than eight decades ago, the 'Pec has seen its share of internationally known jazz luminaries while also bringing in some of the best local jazz players — like Freddy Rodriguez, who holds court on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Tony Black on Sundays.
For many years, the Goosetown Tavern was just a great neighborhood hang, but when Chris Swank (who owns the Bluebird Theater across the street and Mezcal next door) bought it from the Wynkoop Group in mid-2014, he had a new stage built and a new sound and light system installed. Since then, live music has become much more of a focus, whether it's rock and punk acts or DJ AKA Miggy's popular Motown Groove nights.
For more than fifteen years, the hi-dive has been a refuge from crass commercialism, big business booking and bland bars. Cheap, stiff drinks and a revolving door of creative talent have kept the music venue ahead of the game. While Broadway and the Baker neighborhood have become a thriving entertainment zone, the hi-dive marches to the beat of its own drum, bringing in the best local bands as well as national acts on the cusp of hitting it big.
Decades before it became the punk and rock haven it is today, the Lion's Lair was a jazz club where legends like Billie Holiday and Dexter Gordon once played. It's also got one of the oldest liquor licenses in Denver, and yes, indeed, the storied bar is perfect for downing a beer or four, but you can also see local bands, and every so often big names in punk, like John Doe or Mike Watt, will play multiple nights, or former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra will spin records. The Lair also boasts a killer jukebox.
Ophelia's Electric Soapbox
Ophelia's, which owner Justin Cucci calls a "gastro-brothel," takes inspiration from the building's incarnations as bordello, flophouse and peep-show parlor over its hundred-year history. With its ’70s swank and vintage soft-core art, Ophelia's is a cool spot for drinks and dinner, but the fact that it's got live music is a bonus. It brings in an assortment of live talent, but it's also hosted some big names like Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Dick Dale and George Clinton.
With its maroon booths and Western and sci-fi posters hanging around the place, the Skylark's kitsch feels decades old. This bar is an ideal spot to grab an afternoon cocktail or beer while listening to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline or Miles Davis on the jukebox. On the weekends, the Skylark can be a rowdy joint when rockabilly, honky-tonk or indie-rock acts take over the small stage in the southwest corner.
Syntax Physic Opera
While some of the joints on this list are a bit on the divey side, Syntax Physic Opera is not one of them. It's a downright classy place to sip craft cocktails and linger over small plates. There's something happening on its stage most nights, whether it's songwriter open mics on Tuesdays, jazz jams on Wednesdays or some wonderfully curated variety of local talent Thursdays through Saturdays.
Streets of London Pub
Streets of London Pub has been a popular East Colfax dive among punks and Vespa riders for nearly two decades. But live music has become much more of a draw in recent years, with a steady stream of local punk and rock acts as well as national bands like U.S. Bombs, Guttermouth and Dillinger Escape Plan, which played a multi-night stand last year.
3 Kings Tavern
Calling 3 Kings Tavern a rock bar only hints at the entertainment to be found at this South Broadway mainstay. From burlesque revues, dance nights and art shows in the basement gallery to a full calendar of shows by top-notch local talent (including a rare Slim Cessna appearance) and compelling national acts (Red Fang and High Fire among them), 3 Kings has something for everyone.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.