A great concert - or a truly transcendent piece of music - can rise above bad acoustics, squeaky chairs, cell phone paparazzi and "Freebird" fanatics. However, in my life at concert venues in Indianapolis, (where shows are often just pretty good but not great) experiences can be very much elevated by the just-right seat: the best seat in the house. I've talked to music makers, promoters, venue managers and mega-fans in the musical in-crowds to discover Indianapolis' best seats in our music houses. Their answers are sometimes surprising, but a few factors play consistently in their selections. The view, the sound, the crowd and personal comfort - all of these things matter. But they matter differently in different venues.
Acoustic engineers can get paid a lot of money to design built environments and shells that amplify music throughout a venue. But most local venues are in retro-fitted environments, so if you notice odd padding, special suspended panels or carefully carpeted spaces, those are there to prevent major sound malfunctions. Still, some areas of a venue have better sound quality - though "quality" does not always mean quantity, something that standing by a speaker stack at a rock show will teach you every time.
Most large auditoriums have tiered seating, mezzanines and often box seats, guaranteeing almost every ticket holder at least a decent view. In mid-sized theatres and clubs, balconies offer a bird's-eye view and keep music fans away from elbow-throwing stage rushers. At little venues, though, a few inches of height are a pretty big deal. The small height boost of a platform, a bar-height seat or even a cozy elevated nook outfitted with a couch lets you see just a bit more of the show than the lowly, floor-level crowd. For shorter concert-goers, like me, that's the difference between watching a couple of guys' heads and shoulders or getting to see the band. I'd rather see the band.
If the view and the sound are right, the next critical factor - one that is more cherry than sundae for me - is comfort. Personally, I'm not that picky about the softness of upholstery or the springs on a seat. After spending a lot of years going to rock shows, I'm thrilled to have a seat - and I'm overjoyed when the crowd wants to stay in their seats, because I'm getting old. For more refined classical concerts or jazz clubs, comfortable seats and beautiful surroundings definitely add to the experience.
Even if you follow these insiders' suggestions for picking your seat, there are a few uncontrollable elements that can sink a show. Seat kickers, inappropriate singalongs, 40-something rockers who try to relive their mosh pit salad days (see: Shellac's 2011 show at Radio Radio) and other inconsiderate crowds can ruin a show. But a great audience, like the enthusiastic dancers at Peter, Bjorn and John's 2007 show at the Vogue or the enraptured balcony-level freak-folkers at Jeff Magnum's 2013 Buskirk-Chumley appearance, can create an almost spiritual experience. And you'll never know, in advance, where that crowd will gather.
That said, with those factors largely removed, here's a guide to the very best seats in a wide range of music houses.
Hilbert Circle Theatre
At Hilbert Circle Theatre, the home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO), crews upgraded the old 1930s-era seats at a cost of $1 million this summer. The seats aren't just new - they're a bit wider and will offer a bit more legroom. Jessica Di Santo, the ISO's Director of Communications, said "no comment" when asked if the new wider seating was related to the expansion of American's waistlines, but did say that "wiggle room" is good for any 2-hour performance. The ISO also added more accessibility to the mezzanine level, to offer more seating options for those with disabilities.
The historic building - arguably Indianapolis' most beautiful former movie palace - is retrofitted with an adjustable canopy that prevents brass, woodwinds, strings or percussion from arriving anywhere before the rest of the orchestra.
In April 2013, Conductor Krzysztof Urbanski decided that, at the performances he leads, the stage terrace seats would no longer be available. Urbanski argued that they were both a distraction to the musicians and a bad place to hear the music. So, those spots are not recommended here, even though they do provide a distinctive view of the orchestral action.
"For classical performances, I recommend sitting upstairs in the first mezzanine, it's your best vantage point - you can see the entire orchestra and the sound is really precious up there," says Di Santo. "I'd pick on the mezzanine, Row CC, Seat 301, with the bonus that it's an aisle seat and provides great access to a quick restroom break."
- Kirsten Eamon-Shine
- Hilbert Circle Theatre
The Melody Inn
You can argue - as I may have at times - that the Melody isn't really built for live music, or at least not live music and crowds. It's a tight space. The stage is set up just to the left of the entrance, the bar is just past that and to the right, and there are tables and booths (scavenged from the old Teepee Restaurant) across from the bar. So, you enter by the stage, which can be a bit disorienting. That doesn't stop the punk rock, rockabilly and loud noise fans from flocking to the bar, opened originally in 1938.
"If there are a lot of people there, you want to get on the little riser, on the wall facing the stage, because you aren't being pushed aside, no one's spilling their drink on you and you don't have to move - and you've got a good 8 to 9 inches on the rest of the crowd to see what's going on the stage," says Ben Traub, Melody regular as both a patron and a performer in bands including Rooms, Freddie T & The People, Ha Ha You, and Thin Fevers.
This is one of those spots that can make it possible for more petite people to actually see a show at a small venue. It's also a spot that you both have to earn through either early arrival or a bulldog attitude. And you have to work to hold onto this spot (no potty breaks) if you'd like to keep it.
The Murat Theatre at Old National Centre
Built in 1910, the Murat is the oldest existing stage house in downtown Indianapolis. Winston Churchill delivered a speech in the building, and touring Broadway productions have regularly visited the theatre since its opening. It was the main performing hall, at different points in time, for both the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Opera. Old National Centre has other performing spaces, including the Egyptian Room and Deluxe, but the Murat is the star of the facility. Though the first several rows in front of the stage, also known as the "Pit," may seem like the best seats in the house, many local music fans adore the balcony seats.
"It's amazing in the balcony," says Devon Ashley, local drummer who has played with The Pieces, The Lemonheads and Creepin Charley and has seen many shows from Bela Fleck to Steely Dan at the Murat. "The music just envelops you. You can see everything. Up there, the crowd is into it, so it feels clubby even though it's a big space. It's a party."
Your seat recommendation here is Balcony C - Row J - Seat 11, in the middle of the center balcony, but not in the very front seats. Those are VIP seats, which are great and give you special parking passes and access to a VIP room, but hard to find - and very expensive if you do find them.
- Kirsten Eamon-Shine
- The Murat
Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts
In a classical music venue, being able to hear all of the music at once is pretty much a given. That's what acoustic engineers get paid a great deal of money to manage. The Palladium spent over $119 million on construction, including a high tech acoustic design by Artec. The Palladium describes their acoustics as "perfect", although that's a term that the designers from Artec won't claim for themselves. The Palladium's canopy is made of glass, an unusual material that was picked by the architect, and is adjusted to meet the variable sonic needs of solo performers, small groups and larger orchestras. That sound management and the careful arrangement of seats to protect each audience member's view prompt the Palladium staff to say "there's not a bad seat in the house."
Still, when pressed, Karen Kelsey, Director of The Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative - an effort housed at the Center - has her favorite spot, the seat that she chose to subscribe to well before she joined the staff of the initiative.
"We're orchestra right, in a box, seats 13 and 14 - the seats are movable, but the best part is the sightline, because you have a beautiful view of the stage and the hall," says Kesley. "I love to look out and see everyone's expressions, it's such a thrill. And, on that right side of the hall, you see the performers enter."
- Kirsten Eamon-Shine
- The Palladium
When Tufty Clough, a longtime local musician and small business owner, decided to open Radio Radio in Fountain Square, some people thought it wouldn't work. The area was unproven, littered with empty storefronts and a quiet night life. Over a decade later, Fountain Square has been transformed, and I would argue that Tufty's and his partner Roni Donaldson's example has been key to the rebirth of commercial life in the area. With owners that are key figures in local music and a cool interior including a lit-from-the-inside bar, it's a great place to hear music. But the best seat in the house? According to Sharon Rickson, Board President of Girls Rock Indianapolis and bass player, it's close enough to hear the music but not so close that your bones will shake.
"With the sound quality being so good, you can sit in the back on the soft seats and hear everything great," says Rickson. "But my favorite spot, the best spot, is by the pillar that is stage left. Close enough to see the action while not getting absolutely blown away by the speakers. Oh, and you have a rail to set your beverage on for the win."
The one thing Rickson didn't mention in her recommendation - that pillar is also close to Radio Radio's above-average bar bathrooms. But, beware, if you possess a prudish disposition, because you might also have a good view of the backs of male patrons using urinals as the men's bathroom door swings open from that vantage point. It's a rock club, though, so you probably shouldn't be there if your sensitivities are that delicate.
- Kirsten Eamon-Shine
- Radio Radio
Originally opened in 1938 as a movie theater, The Vogue became a nightclub in the 1970s, after a brief stint screening X-rated movies. Since then, it's hosted a number of bands from Frank Zappa to The Flaming Lips, as well as regular dance parties. The venue's actual seats can be found on the balcony and in two alcoves that flank the rear part of the main floor. According to Steve Ross, the Vogue's manager, the best seat might vary on the kind of event, but his favorite spot is on the balcony on the front corner of the stage right side, where the railing curves and there's a solid spot to set down a drink.
"No one can stand in front of you, you can see and hear everything," says Ross. "You're up above the crowd and can see most of the stage."
But, like at the Melody Inn or Radio Radio, if you want that seat or, really, any of the places where you can actually sit down, you'll have to arrive early. Concertgoers tend to lay claim to those limited spots by plopping down well before any opening band begins its set.
- Kirsten Eamon-Shine
- The Vogue