The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

I finally got the opportunity to check out the historic Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, and I enjoyed it more than I initially thought I would. 

Originally built in 1915 as the San Francisco Civic Auditorium for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and revival of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake and fire, the building was renamed for the music promoter pioneer Bill Graham, in 1992.

I had been trying to visit the Bill Graham for a few months, but I had poor luck because the venue doesn’t have a lot of shows. The shows they do have are mainly electronic music and classic jam-band rocks acts, two genres of music I probably wouldn’t buy tickets to see.

Anyway, I saw that the Smashing Pumpkins were coming to town, and although their prime was 15 years ago, I really like their first three albums. That still wasn’t enough reason for me to go, but that all changed after I heard the Pumpkins latest album, Oceania, which I read was going to be played in its entirety, along with some of their greatest hits. I was sold.

The show was great and the venue was just as good. First, the Bill Graham is what I call a “mini-arena.” A mini-arena is a venue that holds around 5,000 to 10,000 people and usually falls in between a theater and an arena in terms of capacity. The Bill Graham has a very large general admission ballroom floor, sort of like a gigantic version of the Fillmore. There’s also a large seated balcony that rings above the floor that probably holds about 2,000 to 3,000 people. The venue holds 7,000 total, so the floor probably holds around 4,000 to 5,000.

The balcony was empty during the show, but the floor was pretty packed. There was a concessions stand set up at the back of the floor serving beer, other beverages and snacks. Prices are about what you’d expect for a concert ($8 for a 16 oz. beer) but I wouldn’t call it gouging in comparison to other venues. There were also two more concession stands on the basement level. Getting a drink or making a stop at the bathroom wouldn’t take more than five minutes anywhere in the building.

The bathrooms are located on the basement floor, as well, and they very clean and fairly modern looking. The hallways on the basement level were spacious and reminiscent of an arena-sized venue. I didn’t see it personally, but I’ve heard there are more bathrooms and food stands on the balcony level.

Security was pretty laissez-faire when I went. There was no pat down at the entrance and they were all pleasant enough. There were a lot of people smoking pot during the show and I didn’t see any security throw anyone out. Now that i think about I didn’t see any security on the main floor during the show. I wouldn’t call it unsafe, however, because a lot of the fans at the show were in their early 40s and either high or with their 10-year-old kids (or both, maybe).

The sound was very good and the speakers surrounding the interior of the building gave the impression that you were hearing the show from the front row regardless where you were actually standing. The lighting effects were even better and it was nice to see that the stage was large enough to have props and video screens hang above it.

The Bill Graham is located right next to San Francisco City Hall next to the Civic Center BART station, so public transportation is an ideal way to get there since it drops you off near the building. There are also a number of MUNI stops nearby for residents of the city.

I decided to drive to test out the parking situation. My GPS couldn’t find guide me properly to the numerous parking garages near the venue, but there is a lot of free street parking available a few blocks away. I parked right in front of an affluent apartment complex about half a mile away, and my car was safe there.

There were no blaring flaws when I saw the Pumpkins show at the Bill Graham, and I highly recommend seeing a show here if one of your favorite bands is playing it. It’s a fun place to see a concert.

Pros: Lots of public transportation close to the venue, street parking is available nearby, great sound and lighting, clean bathrooms, plenty of concession stands, spacious building

Cons: Pricey tickets, not a lot of shows year-round

Address, phone, website: 99 Grove St., San Francisco, (415) 624-8900, apeconcerts.com/venue_bgc.cfm

Photos courtesy of  glidermagazine.com and poortastemag.com

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