Anyone who keeps an eye on the Bay Area concert calendar knows that we have a pretty formidable lineup of performers coming through every single month. We love the excitement of a packed Chase Center gearing up for the season’s biggest headliner, as well as the sweeping views out of Mountain Winery in Saratoga. But there’s one venue whose lineup we always have an eye on, and its really started to beg the question: Is Berkeley’s Greek Theatre the best concert venue in the Bay Area?
The 8,500-seat outdoor amphitheater is less than a five-minute walk from California Memorial Stadium on the eastern edge of UC Berkeley’s campus. It’s owned and operated by UC Berkeley, with concert promoter Another Planet Entertainment managing entertainment and concerts there. UC Berkeley also uses the Greek Theatre for campus activities including graduation ceremonies and the Big Game Bonfire Rally.
We decided to dig a little deeper into this Bay Area concert venue, from its unbelievable history to present-day events and activities.
Concerts at the Greek
There’s something about an outdoor concert that fosters a simultaneously easygoing and energetic atmosphere. And despite being a sizable venue with a capacity of 8,500, The Greek’s amphitheater format manages to make even a packed show feel more intimate. The theater’s design has remained mostly unchanged since it was built in 1903, and it’s hard not to love the juxtaposition of classical columns and detailing against the set of a modern concert.
Since the Greek began hosting concerts in 1957, big-name performers have included Bob Dylan, The Talking Heads, The Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, John Legend, Genesis, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, James Taylor, Adele, and so many more.
Just in 2023 we’ve enjoyed massive names including Neil Young, Charlie Puth, Fleet Foxes, Young the Giant, Counting Crows, and Weezer. They’ve also announced a few acts on the 2024 lineup including Noah Kahan next July, whose two dates already sold out. You’ll want to keep a close eye on the event page so as not to miss any other early releases.
Guests are allowed to bring small food items, sealed water bottles, and empty reusable water bottles, but no alcohol. There are concession stands at the North Plaza and the central level where you can buy a decent variety of specialty drinks, sparkling wine, craft beer, and comfort food. Get ready to dress in layers for this outdoor venue because concerts happen rain or shine.
History of the Greek Theatre
The University of California was founded in 1868, but many of its most iconic campus buildings didn’t come together until the early 1900s. Between 1903 and 1923, architect John Galen Howard led the construction of the campus dubbed the “City of Learning” and the “Athens of the West,” comprising nearly 20 structures in a classical Greco-Roman style. Some of the most well-recognized ones are Sather Tower, A.K.A. the Campanile (1914); Doe Library (1912); California Memorial Stadium (1923); and of course the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre (1903).
Howard modeled his Greek Theatre after ancient amphitheaters from Epidaurus, Greece and Pompeii, Italy. University president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who was a professor of comparative philology and Greek, had requested a Greek amphitheater on campus after spending a year in Athens and serving as a judge in the first modern Olympic Games.
In May of 1903 the theater wasn’t quite finished, but the university held its graduation ceremony there anyway and President Theodore Roosevelt dropped in to give a commencement speech.
Wrote the San Francisco Chronicle,
In a great walled amphitheater such as has scarcely existed in the world since the memory days of Greece, one whose only roof was a perfect sky, azureous as that above Athens, President Roosevelt delivered the most striking and interesting address of his series of speeches in California.”
Other momentous speakers and performers at the Greek Theatre include President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti in 1978, and the 14th Dalai Lama in 2009. In its early years the Greek also presented groundbreaking theater performances including Phaedre starring Sarah Bernhardt in 1906 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream produced by Max Reinhardt and starring Mickey Rooney in 1934.
UC Berkeley’s Rally Committee is a student organization with special ties to the Greek Theatre. The committee was founded in 1901 to organize some of the student rallies and bonfires that were happening around campus before football games. Every year they host the Big Game Bonfire Rally at the Greek Theatre, in which an enormous bonfire structure is set aflame on the night before the Big Game against Stanford. This year it’s happening at 7pm on Nov. 17th, 2023 with free admission for the general public.
From the Greek Theatre’s compelling history to its superb concert lineup year after year, we’d argue that it’s a bucket list item for any Bay Area resident. Find it at 2001 Gayley Rd in Berkeley.