21) High Fives 2019 – Allan’s Top Venues

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What makes a great venue? Well it’s certainly not the size – have you ever really enjoyed an arena or stadium gig? There are all sorts of factors involved; sound, light, programming, staffing, ambience, and the list goes on. The best venues make decisions about how they want to define themselves and focus on getting this absolutely right and they understand that this approach will always involve compromises. We asked Allan to pick out his five favourite venues from the viewpoint of a music fan and a photographer. Here are his thoughts on the venues he’s worked in this year, as always, in no particular order (and not always in London).

Green Note, Camden

It’s been winning awards for years now; that doesn’t happen without a good reason (or several good reasons). It’s difficult to know where to start with the plaudits; the programming is an esoteric mix of styles, which I won’t even attempt to classify and the sound is always excellent. If there’s a power cut (which happened a few years ago) the venue is small enough for bands to play unplugged. The staff are friendly and helpful and it’s what’s known to artists as a listening room. Generally speaking people are there to listen and the conversations stop while performers are on stage. There’s also a downstairs space which is even more intimate (with a capacity of about 20). And only five minutes from the Northern Line.

The Foxlowe Arts Centre, Leek

It’s been interesting over the last couple of years to revisit Leek (where I lived for about a year in the nineties. Pretty much everything I say about the Foxlowe applies to the town and to their annual Blues & Americana festival as well. The building, which was opened in its current guise in 2011, relies on volunteers to deliver its programme of music, performance, film and education. This doesn’t mean it’s unprofessional; professionalism is a characteristic that doesn’t necessarily depend on remuneration. My visits to The Foxlowe have been mainly based around gigs, but centre arranges exhibitions, show films, hosts private functions and has a very nice café serving freshly-cooked food. Sometimes it’s good to escape from London, and Leek is one of my favourite places to do just that.

The Bedford, Balham

The Bedford in Balham has been a grassroots live music venue since the late sixties and hosted early-career gigs by U2, The Clash and, more recently, Ed Sheeran. More recently, it’s had a new lease of life following a major refit and the good news for music fans is that a significant portion of the expenditure was on the performance space at the back of the venue. The sound is great and the lighting’s interesting. Even better is the news that the legendary Tony Moore is still programming the live music and Caffe Nero is holding regular unsigned there. I suspect most people won’t be aware of the commitment to new talent displayed by Tony and Caffe Nero’s Pablo Ettinger. Both of these people go above and beyond the call of duty in their support of new music. If you needed a bit of icing on the cake, it’s one of very few places where you can shoot photos from the balcony around and above the stage. Lovely jubbly.

The Roundhouse

And back to Camden again, although the pedants will probably it’s closer to Chalk Farm, and The Roundhouse. It opened in 1966 with a Pink Floyd, was derelict for nearly 15 years from 1983 and is now a successful charity promoting the arts. Each time I’ve shot there, the staff have been incredibly helpful (even when I’ve occasionally bent the rules) and it has that friendly feel you get when you have large numbers of well-trained and enabled volunteers. It’s another perfect demonstration of professionalism that doesn’t rely on money changing hands. It was always one of my aspirational places; I would walk past on my way to The Barfly or The Monarch and imagine how great it would be if I could shoot there. It’s always a great experience.

The Camden Chapel

Still in Camden and there’s now somewhere that’s more intimate than Green Note. There’s a room at the top of the London Irish Centre that was used as a chapel by immigrant Irish workers (the confessional is still there). The capacity is about forty and most of the seating is in the form of beanbags and cushions. I’ve never been in a venue (even Green Note) where more respect is given to performers. This has to be down to the stance taken from the opening night onwards (and made very clear by compere Ray Jones from Talentbanq, which supplies the artists) that while people are on stage, everyone else is quiet. Simple, really. I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the lighting setup for photographers, but I’ll also admit that one of my favourite shots of 2019 was taken at the opening night of Camden Chapel – go figure.

There are two venues that could easily have made this list. Only a few weeks ago, I visited The Electric Ballroom for the first time for a Stone Foundation gig; great experience from start to finish, everything was right for a live music experience. Also 229 on Great Portland Street which has not one but two venue spaces, both superb in different ways; one intimate space and one with a full-size stage, both lovely spaces. There was a time earlier this year when a friend asked me if I was paying rent there.