Jupiter BerkeleyJupiter: No cover!

Words by Zoe Atlas

In an area where rents reach $2,000 for a 1-bedroom and a cup of coffee will run you $5 or more, it’s getting harder and harder to find places in the East Bay where you can just walk in, grab a beer, and listen to some great music…without having to shell out for it. We get it, which is why we’ve found some for you. This list is all about the casual venues; places where you can hear a live show for ten dollars or less.

The Starry Plough, Berkeley
The Starry Plough

The walls of The Starry Plough are covered with Irish flags, posters, and the odd picture of Che Guevara. This Irish pub has been a Berkeley staple for more than 40 years, and offers live entertainment seven days a week. Many shows on the calendar have no cover — you can take the stage at the open mic on Tuesday, get down to funk on Thursday, and sit in on a traditional Irish session on Sunday. On Friday and Saturday nights you’ll find a rotating selection of local and touring artists (these shows tend to have a $10 cover at the door). The vibe is comfortable and friendly, and there’s a good mix of young adults and regulars who have been going there for years. They also offer a great menu of pizza, salads, and traditional Irish favorites.

Ivy Room, Albany
The Ivy Room

The red and green neon sign of Albany’s Ivy Room beckons you from San Pablo for a drink and some tunes. You can take a seat at the bar or watch the music from the scattered tables and leather booths lining the right-hand wall. Established in the early 1940s, this little bar has changed hands several times, but the current owners have both had extensive experience working in music venues in the Bay Area and beyond. The music calendar offers a great mix of genres and styles: The rock and singer-songwriter performances are generally a good bet, there are more experimental offerings as well (improv cello, anyone?). The cover at Ivy Room ranges from free to $10. Don’t miss Burke T’s Music Showcase & Open Mic (free) — the variety of performances keeps you guessing, and Burke himself does a mean harmonica solo.

The Fireside Lounge, Alameda
The Fireside Lounge

The Fireside Lounge in Alameda definitely takes the cake for most eclectic decor: The triangular stage is nestled in a corner and surrounded by an assortment of old radios, barrels, and a weathered upright piano. In between sets, you can get lost in the framed art for sale on the walls (look for the sleeping woman with an octopus coming out of her head). The music calendar is varied, but trends towards rock, jazz, and Americana. There’s a free singer-songwriter open mic every Wednesday, with the twist that at least one of the three allowed songs must be an original. It’s an intimate, funky space with great sound and energy. Even if you don’t like the sound of a band from their online recordings, give them a chance live at this bar — you just might change your mind.

The Bistro, Hayward
The Bistro

Although many of us may think of the cities closest to San Francisco as the focal point of the Bay Area’s music scene, they aren’t the only places to hear great live performances. The Bistro in Hayward offers a great selection of shows (and beer — Belgian brews abound) that makes it more than worth the trip. There’s live music seven nights a week with no cover charge, and genres on the calendar range from bluegrass to jazz to metal. The low stage and large room make the musicians feel approachable, and the overall vibe is comfortable and focused on the sound. You can even join in on the fun yourself with the frequent blues and jazz jams.You have to bring your own instruments, though — the ones on the wall are just for decoration.

Jupiter, Berkeley

If you want to get a table at Jupiter, come early or be prepared to be assertive — this popular beer and pizza joint gets full fast. It’s probably not surprising, as this is one of the few places in Berkeley where it’s comfortable to sit outside when the fog rolls in in the evening. You can choose a spot under the heat lamps or nestle up close to the fire pit. If you really want to get a good view of the music, however, you’ll have to get close to the little stone stage underneath the redwood trees in the back. There’s music Tuesday through Saturday evenings and there’s no cover. Performances are generally jazz or soul acts, although there’s a great bluegrass series in the summer as well. The music at Jupiter is less of a focal point than at some of the other places on this list. The stage is small, and you won’t see it from every table. However, you’ll certainly be able to hear it, and the musicians are always talented. For those looking for something more casual, Jupiter is perfect.

Zoë grew up in Berkeley and recently moved back from Boston, where she studied nutrition and wrote for a local music blog. When she’s not working or listening to music, you can find her in a coffee shop or biking in the Berkeley hills. Check out more of her writing about music and food at Sound of Boston and The Nutrition Atlas.

P.S. Want more show recommendations, ticket giveaways, and music news? Sign up for our biweekly newsletter!