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.

I first met Ray Jones about three years ago at a Time Out gig Mollie Marriott was playing. Two years later, Ray was fronting up a company (Talentbanq) promoting live performances by unsigned artists. It must have been quite a journey to make this happen; the reason it worked is that Ray and his fellow directors are absolutely passionate about music, live music particularly and that’s the reason the company’s working so well. Ray’s nominated a combination of favourite venues and events for his High Fives and given us carte blanche to add some narrative and photos. Let’s hope this works.

 

229 Great Portland Street 24/01/18

This venue hosts some really interesting events, including low-key warm-up gigs for artists preparing for arena tours. On the night of the Talentbanq launch, the action started in the small room before moving to the main auditorium (which was packed to the rafters) for the big stage action. Quite a launch event for a new company. The photo is Rebecca from Anavae.

26 Leake Street 10/05/18

Another first. The inaugural live music event at 26 Leake Street in the arches under Waterloo Station. You got the initial feeling from the audience that it was more about the occasion than the music, but that attitude evaporated as soon as Belle Roscoe (with the full band line-up) took the stage. And then on to Lisa Canny, again playing a full band set featuring the show-stopping laser harp. The photo is Lisa Canny.

Caffe Nero Brighton, The Chill Out Sessions 17-18/05/18

Let’s take a small Caffe Nero branch just off Brighton seafront and have a mini-festival there just as The Great Escape is kicking off. And, over two days, let’s have three artists playing every hour between ten in the morning and six in the evening. It sounds crazy and it probably was, but it worked, it ran to time and featured thirty-six artists (pretty much the entire Talentbanq roster at that time). The opening day was everything you could wish for at the coast – gorgeous sunshine and loads of delighted Caffe Nero customers listening to superb performers for free. The photo is Clint Nelson playing cajon while backing Mark Sullivan.

The Jazz Café, Camden – Hollie Rogers, Joe Slater, Dan Owen 29/05/18

A more traditional venue that has benefitted hugely from a refit that pretty much rectified all of the original layout problems. This was a cracking triple bill featuring two of the Talentbanq powerhouses, Hollie Rogers and Joe Slater with blues prodigy Dan Owen topping the bill. Joe and Hollie were both enthusiastically received by a knowledgeable and respectful audience before Dan Owen took centre stage and blew the roof off. The photo is Joe Slater.

L’Escargot – The Soho Music Festival 16/06/18

Another interesting and iconic venue and even more interesting concept; three sessions (morning, afternoon and evening) in three rooms, with audiences moving from room to room while the performers play three sets in the same place. The event was hugely eclectic, I honestly can’t recall a gig where I’ve seen a crooner, a classical pianist and a rapping Celtic harpist (that’s Gary Williams, Genia and the inimitable Lisa Canny) and will be back in 2019. I suspect it will be bigger. The photo is Gary Williams.

On a personal note, it’s been a pleasure to be involved with all of these Talentbanq gigs and to work with a team who really look after the gig photographers. We all appreciate it – Allan.

There isn’t really a theme to this selection, it’s just five photos that didn’t really fit in with the format for the earlier features; they’re a little bit different. Anyway, I like them and you can make up your own minds. We’re hoping to have selections from some of my favourite gig photographers coming up soon, but you’ll have to make do with these for the moment.

Joe Francis (Winter Mountain) @229 The Venue – I’m a huge fan of Joe Francis; he’s a great songwriter, he’s passionate about what he does and it shows in the way he performs. I’d grabbed some good shots from the front at this intimate gig and I was looking for something a little bit different. I went to the back of the room and saw a perfect, almost symmetrical, frame formed by two of the audience. I’m really grateful to both of you.

Neil Jones (Stone Foundation) @Islington Assembly Hall – This gig was one of the highlights of my year. I managed to get a photo pass for a gig where one of my favourite bands was joined on stage by Danny Champ, Dr Robert and Paul Weller. The lighting was a bit strange (even on the official DVD it has a strange colour cast) but there was no shortage of photo opportunities. Neil Jones lived up to his frontman role by creating a few nice opportunities. This was my favourite.

Sarah Rodriguez (The Hallows) – This was my second Hallows gig (they’re very good, you really should go and see them) and I was determined to get some good shots. All three band members are photogenic, but when the singer straps on a keytar and starts throwing some rock star shapes, you know you’ve got the shot. Cheers Sarah.

Totally @The Sebright Arms – This was my first visit to this venue; I was invited along by the band and I was really impressed. You will hear more about them on MusicRiot. The lighting wasn’t perfect, but the band have a great visual identity so it wasn’t too difficult to grab some interesting shots. I liked the contrast between the spots and stripes and the intensity of this shot. I’ll definitely be seeing Totally again.

Wovoka Gentle @Rich Mix – I was alerted to this gig by my fellow photographer Greg Towning, who had been praising this band profusely. He wasn’t wrong, they are sensational. Once again, the lighting was a bit challenging (mostly from behind and moving very quickly), but that’s what live music photography’s all about. You work out the best angles and then try to predict where the lights will go and hope for the best. This one worked for me (and thanks Greg).

Winter Mountain Review scrollerWinter Mountain’s album “I Swear I Flew”, which was released in mid-November last year was one of those that worked perfectly as a coherent, self-contained project; you should really listen to it. It was also one of those that made you want to hear the songs played live. I got the chance to do that at 229 Venue 2 and I was absolutely right; it was exceptional, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. The album is mainly (but not completely) quiet and introspective but the live show was a very different beast.

Support on the night was Cornish singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer, who warmed up a gradually-increasing crowd with a mix of the traditional (“Cadgwith Anthem”) and twenty-first century protest songs like “Build a Wall” – you can probably guess what that one’s about. With a decent voice, some interesting chat between songs and a playing style that uses a thumb instead of a pick (anyone remember Richie Havens?), Josiah got the audience onside and ready for the headliners.

Winter Mountain’s set opened with the wistful, impassioned romanticism of “Girl in the Coffee Shop”, a chance to set the tone for the evening, demonstrating Joe’s soulful voice and allowing the band to ease their way in before the Springsteenesque roar of “Sunlight, Good Roads”. Joe Francis has created a unique mixture with Winter Mountain, blending influences from the worlds of folk (mainly Gaelic), roots, country rock, southern boogie, straight ahead rock and many others. Springsteen aside, you can hear echoes of Hothouse Flowers, The Waterboys, Rob Thomas and Gin Blossoms (remember them?). The set had its quieter, more reflective, moments, particularly the (almost) solo interlude featuring “The Morning Bell”, the poignant “January Stars”, “Lucky Ones” and “Stronger When You Hold Me” but the set really caught fire when the band were playing full-tilt songs like “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” in balls-out Lynyrd Skynyrd mode as Joe started throwing lyrics from Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” into the mix. So hats off to Alik Peters-Deacon (guitar), Jake Galvin (bass) and Garry Kroll (drums) for a great, dynamic set and also to 229’s sound man, who did a lovely job in a venue that was barely half full.

Anything else you should know? The songs were split almost evenly between the first and second albums and the set ended with a Beatles cover, the early “Oh! Darling”. The audience was completely silent during the quiet songs and went bananas during the raucous ones. The band covered all the bases of the glorious musical mash-up perfectly, while Joe’s powerhouse voice left you in no doubt that he has a massive rock voice as well. It wasn’t quiet the night I‘d expected, but it was a belter; that’s the way to spend a Thursday night in London.

Coming to a festival near you soon, I imagine.

You can see some photos from the gig here.

rachael-sage-interview-scrollerAs far as interviews go, I think I’ve been really lucky. In six years, I’ve never had that experience of the uncooperative, bored, jet-lagged or just plain hostile interviewee. I’ve had to work in cupboards stage-side while rock bands soundchecked, but everyone I’ve met has been interesting and charming. I’m pleased to say that Rachael Sage (singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, artist and designer) extended my winning streak when I met up with her before her performance at the Discovery showcase at 229 on Great Portland Street to talk about her new album “Choreographic” and her current UK tour (among other things). I even added a new Yiddish word to my vocabulary. Here’s how it went:

Allan – Hi Rachael.

Rachael – Hello.

Allan – How’s the tour going so far?

Rachael – The tour’s been really great. This tour’s a little bit different because, in addition to the club shows at night, we’re also doing workshops in the daytime along the tour route at various schools, either performing arts schools or the dance and drama departments of general schools along the way and it’s been fascinating. I’ve never really done that before; I’m not a teacher, I’m kind of inexperienced at that, but I seem to have a special relationship with kids between nine and fourteen so we’ve been enjoying and learning a lot.

Allan – And presumably that means that you’re performing at unusual times.

Rachael – Indeed it does. We’ve had some crazy call-times to meet at the tour van in the morning, like seven-thirty in the morning to drive a couple of hours to perform at 10 a.m. Actually, this morning we played at 9:30. But on the upside, our jet-lag is so confused that it’s non-existent; we don’t know what time zone we’re in. When we go home to New York, it’ll probably be easier to re-acclimate.

Allan – When you come to the UK, do you find the audiences very different from American audiences?

Rachael – I suppose it would be more politically correct to say no, that audiences everywhere and every environment around the world are just about the same, because people are people and we have deduced that people around the world love music the same amount and they all want the same things out of life and there is that unifying theme that we experience. But in terms of audience reactions we’ve found UK audiences and European audiences in general to be a lot more open and expressive when they really, really like something and it’s not necessarily loud whistling or heckling. They’ll come up to you after shows and have that familiarity and treat you like you’re their buddy they’ve known forever and talk to you about their own lives and themselves; it’s just an openness and we love that, that’s part of why we keep coming back.

Allan – I’ve spoken to American artists who think when they start the set that they’re dying on stage and suddenly at the end of the song, the audience erupts.

Rachael – I’ve experienced that to an extreme in Japan, where you think you’re not going over at all; they must hate it, and afterwards there’s the most gentle clapping and they come up to the merch table and they want to buy all your CDs when you weren’t even certain they were into it. People have their own way of processing music and there really is no wrong. As long as nobody throws tomatoes, we’re happy.

Allan – I understand there’s an interesting event you’re involved in at the end of the tour as well at the Royal Albert Hall.

Rachael – The Dance Prom? That’s an event where we’re running a contest and the school that performs the winning routine to one of my songs will receive a scholarship from my record label Mpress Records and myself. I’m not performing at the event, but it’s very much tied in to the “Choreographic” dance theme of this tour. We’re going to be back in London at the O2 Academy in Islington on October 28th, and The Bedford on November 1st. Looking forward to that.

Allan – For the benefit of the MusicRiot audience, tell me a bit about your background, because it’s been very varied, hasn’t it?

Rachael – It has, and yet everything has had the thread of music really. I started playing piano by ear when I was about two and a half/three years old which the exact same time I was thrust into a pre-ballet where really all you’re doing is running around and spinning around and having fun, somewhere for you to be busy while your Mom gets a break, but it quickly bloomed into a full-blown young ballet career and I ended up becoming quite serious as a ballet dancer and at the same time very serious about being a songwriter. I learned to play by ear pretty much exclusively from sounding out all the music I heard every day in dance class. So I would go home and play all these classical pieces and I have no knowledge of the composers or what they were called because it was an informal education, but it was a very thorough education and I think my sense of melody and dynamics really stemmed from classical music.

Jumping ahead, I kept the songwriting up and I pretty much knew, I wanted to be a professional singer/songwriter and composer well before high school, maybe at thirteen/fourteen. Then for my Bat Mitzvah, my relatives got together and bought me a four-track tape recorder. Once I mastered that, I fancied myself as a budding producer, bouncing vocal tracks and having a good time with that, and by the time I went to college, I was very firm that I wanted to be a recording artist and tour the world doing pretty much what I’m doing now, so I guess I was a planner.

Allan – I’ve spoken to artists who agonise about the genre they’re working in and the way it affects sales of their work…

Rachael – There’s an expression in Yiddish that I have to respond to that; it’s spelt F-E-H. Genre’s a useful tool to help maybe turn people on to your music to be able to describe it in an elevator pitch, as they say. Actually, yesterday another writer asked me ‘How would you describe your music in three words?’, and I said colourful chamber pop. The reason I said that was first of all, I’m in England and I feel like you have a unique appreciation of pop music and also that pop music is a broader genre here. If you say pop in America, people assume you mean Katy Perry and here it could mean The Beatles or Elvis Costello, you know, pop/rock, so it’s broad enough to feel like I’m at home in that category.

Allan – With “Choreographic”, you’ve pretty much invented your own genre, haven’t you?

Rachael – Oh my goodness, thank you. I didn’t invent the word, unfortunately. I guess what I did, what’s interesting is that my music was being used and embraced by the lyrical dance community in America and also over here well before I was aware of it and then a few of my diehard supporters started sending me YouTube links where I would see these full-blown dances to my songs in competitions and winning awards and I didn’t really know about that competitive dance culture because the in dance culture that I grew up with, there were no contests; it was strict ballet and that wouldn’t have been allowed, but it was fascinating to see these young, very prodigious, hard-working kids performing and interpreting the music in a way that that was completely different from how I might have envisioned it and sort of humbling. At the end of the day, you create it and the minute it comes out of you, it’s really not yours anymore; it’s collective ownership and I love that. Eventually when the show ‘Dance Moms’ started using the music, it brought me back to that time in my youth when dance was a huge part of my life and it defined who I was as a person and I hadn’t really thought about that time for a long time. When you’re a former ballerina, you kind of put it behind you because there’s some bitter-sweetness; it was painful and very gratifying, like breaking up with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. You move on and you let it go, but this was a good time to revisit it and come at it musically from a more positive angle, I would say.

Allan – With “Choreographic”, there must be certain elements that make it work for that kind of interpretation.

Rachael – Yes, what happened originally was that they were using all these different songs from various albums of mine and of course there were different types of songs on those albums, but the ones they were using were usually very pianistic and very arpeggiated. I guess the average person might say there were hints of classical technique in the piano playing, and then also a lot of stringed instruments, cellos and violins, so I picked up on that. More than anything when I sat down to make this album, I tried to come at it more from a visual perspective of what I thought would work in a multi-media context with dance and music and I could only go by what my imagination was offering. I have done some choreography in my day, it’s not my forte, but I’m such an avid fan of dance and choreography in general that I have a pretty good sense of dynamics and what might be danceable, so that’s really where I was coming from. I also had the visual in my head of perhaps, one day, bringing one dancer or several dancers on tour with me and doing more of a show that’s theatrical as well as pop and that’s still in the works. We’re thinking about mounting something along those lines in New York in January.

Allan – Presumably, as well as the musical side, it has to have a fairly strong narrative as well. Your songs tell stories.

Rachael – Well, the genre of dance which has embraced my music most has indeed been lyrical dance, which is this term I had no familiarity with and I see these young girls, sometimes boys, but not as often, interpreting the music, usually very literally. I have a song called “Barbed Wire”, which was performed on ‘Dance Moms’ and the song itself is about someone in your life who can’t make up their mind and they’re very ambivalent, and how frustrating that is for you when you are certain how you feel. I think adults or maybe contemporary professional dancers might have interpreted it with more of an abstract approach, where you felt the emotion but it wasn’t quite so literal and of course the ten/eleven/twelve year olds literally had a backdrop of a barbed wire fence and were climbing it and interacting with it, and that was so interesting because it hints at the idea of doing a live show where the average person sometimes does need those very accessible touch zones to identify with a new art form.

Allan – Is it true that you actually wrote the album here in London as well?

Rachael – I did, yes. I wrote it in Camden. I had two festivals pretty far apart for me. I like to fill every single day, because I’m a busy OCD kind of an artist and I don’t like days off; they make me nervous. We were coming up on those shows and we had choice between trying to pick up some radio in between or just leave that gap and I said ‘You know what, it’s time for me to write a record.’ I’ve never quite set that deadline for myself before. I usually just let it happen organically; over the course of a year, I write twelve songs and then I have an album and then I’m ready to go record, but I had recently reunited socially with my co-producer from many, many years ago, Andy Zulla, who did my first few records with me, and we hit it off again so beautifully and we got all excited to collaborate again. He said to me ‘When you come back from England, if you have a batch of tunes ready, I can record with you in August and then I’ll be busy again after that, but keep me posted.’ That was a driver as well; I wanted to come back armed, like a fashion designer would feel: ‘I want that fall line all ready to go’. I had five days in Camden, so I holed myself up in a hotel, ditched the car and the tour van and stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. I’d go walking every day and just take in the energy of the city and then I wouldn’t let myself go to sleep unless I’d written at least one song. So that’s the story of how this record was written. It was during Glastonbury Festival too so that was what I watched if anything on the television and it kind of inspired me as well.

Allan – Apart from music and dancing, you have other artistic interests as well, haven’t you?

Rachael – I do, and that’s also why I was drawn to the word choreographic, because I’m a visual artist and I’m a graphic designer, but it evolved more out of necessity than anything else because I run my own record label and when you do that you have to wear a lot of hats, so there have been times when I felt I would just do better designing my own artwork because I had a specific vision. I just figured it all out and so there’s that graphic, visual aspect to my work and there are many artists I admire who have that as well like David Bowie, Kate Bush and David Byrne, so many artists, even John Mellencamp, Tony Bennett, who I admire and I’ve become very interested in their artwork as well and that helps me to have a window into another side of them. I hope that people explore that aspect of my work as well and I have a section on my website, ’Visuals’, where you can see my paintings and collage, and just recently I developed some wearable art; I’ve been painting on jackets and dresses and things like that and it’s just another fun outlet for me creatively.

Allan – I’m always fascinated that most of the very gifted musicians I know have various other artistic interests, like photography, as well…

Rachael – Probably keeps them sane…

Allan – One last question, is there any particular song that always make you cry?

Rachael – My favourite contemporary folk artist is Glen Hansard. I was recently at his concert at Carnegie Hall and I was weeping like a little baby. It’s on his new record. He composed the music for the movie “Once”, which was such an incredible music film and the song’s called “My Little Ruin”. He’s an Irish songwriter who was with The Frames with and there was a Broadway show created from “Once”, which won the Oscar for best song and it ran in the UK and Ireland as well. He’s in the vein of Damien Rice, that kind of vibe, beautiful string section, acoustic guitar and I’m a big Irish music fan. Anything Irish makes me cry.

Allan – Many, many thanks Rachael.

Rachael’s album “Choreographic” is released in the UK on November 11 on MPress Records. You can also see photos from Rachael’s performance at 229 here.