By Gary McKechnie
If Orlando had a soundtrack, it would be world music. Travel across the city and into neighboring towns and there’s a world of music from small clubs to cozy pubs to major concert halls.
On any given night you can tune into musical styles from rock, country, oldies, jazz and easy listening to indie, techno, hip-hop, reggae and punk. Visit the attractions where music runs the board from stage shows and soloists to guest artists and full concert series. Then there are venues presenting acts you’ve followed for years as well as new bands you’ll want to shuffle into your iPod.
Topping Orlando’s playlist are two stages where touring bands and name acts are always in heavy rotation.
54 N. Orange Avenue
The Social can be summed up in four simple words: Affordable tickets, unbelievable access.
The names of the indie bands playing at this downtown club may not ring a bell to anyone over 30, but definitely fill a niche for fans who have no time for the Top 40.
“Orlando is a college town,” said owner Gerard Mitchell, referring to local institutions Valencia, Rollins, and UCF. “The Social’s audience seeks out bands that are new and different. It’s not Top 40 or dance music. It’s indie.”
By scouring music magazines, taking leads from patrons, and surfing YouTube for new acts, the bands Mitchell and his business partners book draw indie music fans who, on average, attend twice as many live concerts as their mainstream counterparts. With each new booking, The Social generates a buzz amplified by a dedicated network of fans. As a result, nearly a third of each audience makes the trek to Orlando from outside the area, traveling two hours from Gainesville, three hours from Fort Lauderdale, or four hours from Miami.
Mitchell also finds talent by wading into the streaming music of UK’s Radio One. This extra step pleases vacationing Brits who follow The Social’s upcoming concerts page closely. They’ve realized watching a band in a 400-capacity venue is preferable to seeing them with 40,000 others.
“Even the most popular British bands want to tour America,” he said. “So we’ll listen to bands on Radio One and then present them here at The Social or next door at our other club, The Beacham. A few years ago we featured Kasabian who, before their show here, had sold out at London’s 02 Arena.”
First-timers are surprised to find there are no seats at The Social, but their absence is overlooked when a band plugs in. In an instant, the music is loud, the crowd alive, and the experience reignites the energizing thrill of live music. With the band playing just feet away, it’s like a live concert in your living room.
Another perk is price. In a business where exorbitant prices often limit access to live shows, tickets here are always within reach. At The Social, most shows are between $10 and $30, and $45 marks the outer limits.
The Plaza Live!
425 N. Bumby Ave, Orlando
If you’re old enough to know that 45s had an A and a B side, and that songs played on an 8-track will continue after the click, then The Plaza Live! is your venue. Presenting more than 130 live shows annually, it’s where you can watch performers deliver a show without back-up dancers and sing without auto tune.
While The Social focuses on indie bands, The Plaza’s line-up reads like a greatest hits compilation: Arlo Guthrie, Leon Russell, Styx, Kansas, Alan Parsons, The Outlaws, Carly Rae Jepsen, Aaron Neville, Lindsey Buckingham, Air Supply, Graham Nash, Gordon Lightfoot, Leon Redbone…
“We try to mix up the shows so we’re not presenting too many in the same genre,” said general manager Kirk Colvin. “We’ll have country, rock, hip-hop and jazz, but we’ll also have chamber music and comedians.
“We’ll present a Disney show for tweens one day and get a completely different audience for Gordon Lightfoot the next night. Regardless of the show, our biggest claim to fame is that The Plaza is one of the best-sounding rooms in Florida. Our job is to make the artist look fantastic and sound fantastic. Everything we do is for the sound of the room and we never compromise that.”
Opened in 1963 as Orlando’s first two-screen movie theatre, when The Plaza was repurposed into a live music venue in 2006, high ceilings and unobstructed sightlines meant there wouldn’t be a bad seat in the house – although some fans find the folding seats leave a lot to be desired. But things are getting better all the time as The Plaza is being freshened up courtesy of a $6 million renovation.
While their roster of talent would suggest supersized ticket prices, admission never seems too far out of reach, with prices as low as $15 and peaking out at around $89.
Which makes for an E-ticket concert experience.
Other Orlando-area venues
Within a 30-mile radius of downtown Orlando are dozens of small clubs and concert halls. Keep this short list handy, bookmark your favorites, and get ready enjoy the gift of live music.
Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center
445 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando
From crooners to rockers to ballerinas to orchestras, the biggest names in entertainment perform at downtown’s new-in-2014 premier concert hall.
House of Blues
A link in the national chain is located at Downtown Disney, and features touring acts and a popular Sunday staple: A gospel brunch.
Hard Rock Live
Universal Orlando CityWalk
Keep an eye open for a wide range of acts, from headlining rock bands to studio musicians recreating classic albums note for note. At the nearby Hard Rock Hotel, the ‘Velvet Sessions’ is Orlando’s only rock n’ roll cocktail party that has featured legendary performers like Joan Jett, The Go-Go’s, and Foreigner.
Wall Street Plaza
26 Wall St., Orlando
Blocks from The Social on Orange Avenue, this collection of seven venues in one location provides a mix of bars, dance clubs restaurants, and block parties. Check out the Wall Street Cantina, Hen House, Sideshow, Waitiki, Monkey Bar, Moonshine, and Hooch.
60 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
Atop The Social, this rooftop bar/venue offers a new perspective on downtown Orlando, with a party atmosphere under the open sky.
100 S. Orange Ave., Orlando
Found down a flight of steps and in what was once an underground bank vault, although smoke can get in your eyes the club attracts a dedicated following due in part to live music seven nights a week.
325 S. Orange Ave., Orlando
The lounge at the graceful Grand Bohemian hotel is a favorite place to gather before a show at the neighboring performing arts center. In the background, a pianist plays an lmperial Grand Bösendorfer Piano, one of only a handful in the world.
37 W. Pine St., Orlando
A home for live music and art, the pub-club has been named among the best live music venues in the city according to the Orlando Weekly. Everything from intimate acoustic sets to powerful rock shows.
100 S. Eola Dr., Orlando
Live music of a different sort, this club on the ground floor of a high rise presents a variety of live shows ranging from concerts and community theater to comedians and cabaret acts.
The Tin Roof
8371 International Dr., Orlando
The Orlando sister of the Nashville original, the 2015 addition to the city’s music scene set up shop by the towering Orlando Eye. Live music features “the famous, the should have been famous, and everyone in between.”
Howl at the Moon
8815 International Dr., Orlando
The atmosphere is loud and lively as a non-stop party is sustained by dueling piano singalongs to everything from classic rock to hip-hop to pop.
1036 N. Mills Ave., Orlando
Located in a trendy section called the Mills 50 District, this intimate non-smoking club finds live music alternating with themed DJ nights.
9101 International Dr., Orlando
Situated in the heart of Orlando’s convention district, this venue delivers live music – blues, soul, and rock n’ roll - every night of the week.
Winter Park Beer Company
1809 E. Winter Park Road, Winter Park
Small batch brews complement live music from acoustic duos to jazz and open mic nights with hip hop, rock, alternative, country, blues, bluegrass.
105 Lake Avenue, Maitland
A smoke-free neighborhood pub with craft beers and wines with open mic nights and acoustic acts.
Tony’s Studio B
213 E. Bay Street, Lakeland
In the heart of the city, there’s live music nightly, served with a side of art, food and wine.
1200 S. French Ave., Sanford
A decades-old institution, country music is always on the playlist at this 16,000 sq. ft. club. Live bands plus karaoke.
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