The Best U.S. Cities for Free Summer Shows

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Meredith Schneider Matthew DeMello

By Meredith Schneider & Matthew DeMello

Though some of the best and biggest cities for summer music festivals and free live events in the world are arguably all European, who has the cash to vacation like a millionaire? If you’ve got a major American metropolis in your general vicinity and are looking for an ideal way to spend a summer evening, today is your lucky day. Here are the top spots in America to experience free, live music.

First, a brief disclaimer — we’ve decided to cherry pick some must-see jazz and classical events in these chosen city because well, for those on a budget, you might as well have some well rounded options. Plus, many more indie-focused concert series in major American cities (see San Francisco and Austin) have yet to announce their lineups for this year, but that’s no reason to not get excited.

So take road trip with some friends, or take your significant other! Here are a few reasons this summer doesn’t have to be boring for prices that won’t cost you more than travel.

New York City

Real Estate perform at the Prospect Park Bandshell for Celebrate Brooklyn 2011. Photo by John Dalton.

The Big Apple may or may not have been a given, considering this mighty city is burgeoning with quality, free entertainment every summer.

Not-to-be-missed shows in NYC this summer include afro-pop queen Anjelique Kidjo, and the Bang on a Can project at this year’s River to River Festival. Though what’s probably made the most noise so far this year in springtime concert announcements is Celebrate Brooklyn who will be featuring acts like Big Boi, Mavis Staples, Calexico, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Os Mutantes, Theophilus London, and They Might Be Giants this summer at Prospect Park. You can find their full lineup and schedule here.

With The Shins at this year’s paid Williamsburg Park summer series along with She & Him performing at Central Park’s SummerStage this year, there’s bound to be more free concerts announced as we get deeper into the summer. Keep your eyes peeled on sites like FreeWilliamsburg and Brooklyn Vegan.


Chicago’s Millennium Park Bandshell. Photo by Toy Dog Design.

Of course, Chicago is no stranger to big-time music affairs and while Lollapalooza might not be free, the windy city has so many more money-saving opportunities to see great music than what meets the eye.

Of the multitude of free activities taking place in the upcoming sweaty season at the city’s central Millenium Park, there’s the park’s Downtown Sound series, which mixes choice names from alternative, pop, and independent music. Upcoming highlights include the Lee Ronaldo Band on May 27 and Sharon Van Etten next week on June 3. On June 10, Glen Hansard, of Once fame, performs with Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan and members of Hansard’s old band, The Frames. Don’t forget just after Independence Day Weekend on July 8, Laurel Canyon’s Dawes perform songs of their latest album, Stories Don’t End.

There’s also the Loops and Variations free concert series, also at Millennium Park. These shows are a real treat for electronica and indie fans, as the music of both established and up-and-coming artists gets treated with the digital touch. Mark your calenders for Dan Deacon on Jully 11, eighth blackbird with Glenn Kotche on August 28th.

Keeping in mind our other musical food groups, jazz heads will certainly appreciate Made In Chicago: World Class Jazz series on Thursdays from July 25 -Aug 29. If you’ve got the taste for classical, The Grant Park Music Festival is celebrating its 79th season this summer, kicking off with Carlos Kalmar conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and a special spotlight on violinist Stefan Jackiw performing Mozart’s Turkish as his Festival debut.

Dates for all of these free events are available at, although it looks like you could easily find at least one free event per day there all summer.

San Francisco

The Decemberists at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Photo by lookslikeamy.

San Francisco’s beautiful and temperate weather, plethora of attractions, and incredible views give it great potential as the backdrop for musicians everywhere. Lucky for local residents, the city provides us with plenty of free summer concert opportunities.

Despite this past weekend’s San Fransico Pop Festival featuring some of the city’s premier up and coming indie bands, free summer shows (or at least those currently scheduled) in the Bay area a little heavy on jazz and soul ensembles and exhibitions, and light on indie rock. That said, San Francisco does have a multitude of great events with musical tie-ins to look ahead to.

Consider the Fillmore Plaza Summer Concert & Film Series, showing The San Francisco Black Film Festival this June, with musical performances every Friday of the summer. The legendary venue (yes, that Fillmore) hasn’t yet announced who will be performing at these Friday concerts, but given their still palpable clout in music, that announcement will be worth taking note of as we get closer to summer.

There’s also the Corazon Summer Acoustic Concerts at Westfield Centre, taking place before the Corazon Under the Dome 3D outdoor light show. A locally-sourced crop of singer-songwriters give a texturally appropriate prelude to a lazer show … Need we remind you this is San Francisco we’re talking about?

Since DIY shows, free concerts, and giveaway promotions on summer tours through San Francisco tend to be scheduled more succinctly and we’re still a little month month away from June 21st, check out the ever indie-conscious blog, The Bay Bridged to keep up to date. For a guide to all-things free, fun, and cheap in SF, check out Fun & Cheap SF.

For our jazz and classical lovers, this is all not to mention SFJazz Summerfest and Quick Picks which are among the most talked-about free events in the bay area. For a complete list of Summer in the City performances, check out San Francisco Travel.


The view from the lawn from last year’s KGSR’s Blues on The Green. Photo by Mrlaugh.

With beautiful weather year-round, Austinites hardly need to pay for SXSW to catch fantastic music no one else in the country has heard of when the city boast free concerts all summer. Events like the Old Pecan Street Festival, Unplugged at the Grove, and Blues on the Green are standout events to attend any year. While the Old Pecan Street Festival has yet to announce their musical lineup, both events for Austin radio station 93.3 KGSR already have.

In fact, this year marks the 20th Anniversary of KGSR’s Unplugged at the Grove. Kicking off summer for the free music series is folk country quartet, The Trishas on June 13th. You can check out their full schedule for the season here.

As in San Francisco, many indie-oriented free shows and concert series in Austin have yet to announce dates, but you keep tabs until they do on great Austin-based music sites like AustinBloggyLimits and Austin Town Hall.

Yet this summer in Austin also features some noteworthy classical performances, like the Hartman Concert Park at the Long Center, that will celebrate its 11th annual Austin Symphony Hartman Foundation Concerts in the Park. The concerts run on Sunday evenings from June through August. Check out a list of some of the most exciting, free shows in the city here.

Elsewhere in America…

Also don’t forget other fun summer concert series across the U.S. including Wasington DC’s NoMa Free Summer Concerts, Kansas City Power & Light District’s Live! Free Summer Concert Series, and the Summer Concert Series at Del Mar in San Diego.