High Fives 2018 05 – The Venues

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When we review gigs, we talk a lot about the artists (quite rightly), but we don’t often mention the things that go on behind the scenes to make the magic happen. The people who take the financial risk promoting gigs, the sound engineers and, in some cases, volunteers who give up their time to create special nights for us. All of these things combine to make the magic happen; to make a great venue. And that’s what Allan’s looking at next, five great venues that have featured on the Riot Squad itinerary this year (and some in previous years).

The Union Chapel, Islington

For many artists, this is the Holy Grail of live performance. In an earlier High Five I wrote about Martin Harley’s desire to make this dream come true, which he did in a triumphant manner on March 10th 2018. But back to the venue. It’s a working chapel, which explains the superb acoustics (and the fact that you can’t take alcoholic drinks into the main chapel). It’s largely staffed by volunteers, which gives it an atmosphere that’s professional but warm and welcoming and carries its own little traditions. For example, unlike in Spanish hotels, it’s acceptable to reserve your seat (with a jacket rather than a towel) while you go to the bar, which works really well – if you know about it. A friend of mine saw a nasty little turf war break out when a party of latecomers shunted a bunch of coats along and took the reserved seats. You don’t want to upset the normally mild-mannered Union Chapel crowd.

The sightlines in the venue are good, the live programming is interesting and eclectic and the natural sound is always superb, which is why the unplugged encore is virtually de rigeur. And, with the photographer’s head on, I have to mention the gorgeous stained-glass window at the side of the stage. One piece of advice, which I gave to the friend who witnessed the seating incident; always take a cushion. Those pews are hard.

Green Note, Camden

Another award-winning London venue, although on a smaller scale than The Union Chapel, Green Note is nestled between the The Dublin Castle and The Edinburgh Castle in Camden and it’s a cosy intimate venue (the main room has a capacity of about 80, the basement about 20). Green Note is all about musical quality and, like The Union Chapel, it’s hugely eclectic. The sound engineers are always roundly praised by the performers and the atmosphere is always intimate. It’s like having a gig in your front room. There’s also a menu of tasty vegetarian snacks and a great selection of beers.

I’ve seen many gigs at Green Note and never one that I didn’t enjoy. It’s a completely welcoming environment that lends itself to an intimacy between audience and performer and, for reasons of closeness rather than acoustics, lends itself (again) to the unplugged encore. They’re always entertaining. Any downsides? The lighting isn’t ideal for photography but, if you’re any good you can work around that. I always have a warm glow walking back down Camden Parkway to Camden Town tube.

The Picturedrome, Holmfirth

It’s set in the Yorkshire Dales; it’s the village where “Last of the Summer Wine” was filmed and it’s picture postcard England. If your journey to the venue is longer than about an hour, you should stay in one of the many affordable hotels, guest houses and B ‘n’ Bs and soak up the atmosphere of the place before a gig. There are loads of good places to eat as well.

The venue has been open for live music for just over 20 years now (21st birthday celebrations coming up in 2019?). With a capacity of 690, it’s relatively easy to fill, with the right artists. The programming isn’t as eclectic as some of the London venues and it’s built mainly around heritage artists, but there’s absolutely no doubting the quality of what’s on offer. Well, it would have to be good to make me take a 400-mile round trip, wouldn’t it?

As an old cinema, it has a raked floor, which means that there’s less chance of being stuck behind the huge bloke and missing everything on stage (and there’s a balcony as well). The sound is always good and it has another huge pluspoint in the eyes of the Riot Squad’s Northern Man, Steve Jenner. It serves proper, hand-pulled, cask-conditioned beer; you got Mr J right there. And it’s a friendly and musically knowledgeable crowd. Just be careful in the winter, although there are worse places to be snowbound.

The Slaughtered Lamb

It’s situated in Clerkenwell, close to Farringdon and St Paul’s tube stations and it’s a bunch of contradictions. The live music venue is in the basement and is about the same size as the main room at Green Note. Like the Camden venue, the boundaries between audience and artists tends be fairly flexible. While the artists have green rooms available (generally), they tend to mingle with the audience throughout the evening, which creates a certain intimacy.

The sound is always crystal clear and, generally speaking, it’s what artists call a listening room. If you have a good song to get across, this room will allow you to do it; there’s just one thing to be aware of; the bar upstairs, which is mainly aimed at local workers having a beer or two on the way home. Nothing wrong with that, but those gatherings tend to be loud and the music is ramped up to compete with the background (?) noise. The result is that, in the basement bar (quiet and intimate), it sounds like the Dave Clark Five (ask your nan) are rehearsing upstairs. And (again like Green Note), the lighting’s a bit challenging for photographers. Me? I like a challenge.

The Bedford, Balham

This one’s a bit of a London institution really. It’s been renowned as a music venue for years and recently closed down for a refurb. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never visited The Balham before this, but I went along to the opening night after the refurb to catch the buzz. It helped that one of my favourite bands, Houndstooth, was headlining. After the standard opening night glitches (the fire alarm being repeatedly triggered by the hazers), the night kicked off pretty much on time.

The performance space is what would have the pub’s back room in the past, but it’s a long way from being a dingy little corner of the venue. There’s an area in front of the stage which was completely open on the night, but can be configured cabaret style for more intimate gigs. And there’s a balcony; as a photographer, it opens up all sorts of new views, but it’s also a great place to see the entire stage without being miles away. So there’s absolutely no complaints about the physical space, what about the sound? Good news, it’s superb. The opening night was such a good experience, I’m going back again this week to have another look.

Finally a few honorary mentions: the intimate Nell’s Jazz & Blues in Chelsea (or West Kensington if you prefer), The Fowlowe Centre in Leek, Staffordshire which is attracting some fairly major touring artists now and the new, and ever-changing 26 Leake Street (near Waterloo Station) which is state of the art and has huge potential. They’re all great spaces to see live performances.