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.

We think this will the last episode of the Allan-showing-off saga, but there are no guarantees. This time, again from a very interesting range of venues we have Allan’s selection of five favourite colour shots of female artists from 2019. And he’s managed to sneak in an extra one as well, but we think he just about gets away with it.

 

 

Basia Bartz (Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band)

Did you know that I absolutely love Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band? I think I may have mentioned it at some point. When I got the opportunity to shoot them on a concert stage at The Roundhouse, I didn’t hesitate for a second. Each member of the band is interesting to shoot, but they often play on smaller stages where it’s difficult to pick out one person without any distracting background; not a problem at The Roundhouse. Three songs and out – also not a problem, this came from the opening song of the set and it captures the real Basia, picked out in proper stage lighting, giving it 100%.

Tori Sheard

This was the first time I saw Tori this year. The second time was a daylight gig, which was ok, but this shot was from a Caffe Nero unsigned artists night at The Bedford in Balham with proper stage lighting. Tori’s songs are gentle and contemplative and that’s the essence I was trying to capture; the moment when Tori was totally into the song and the exposure and focus pull your gaze towards her face.

Hjordis Moon Badford (Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band)

I’ve seen this band a lot of times and never really been happy with a photo of Moon (or H as she’s also known). She’s always tucked away in some dimly-lit corner of the stage, but not this time. At The Roundhouse, there’s nowhere to hide. The backlighting around the hair was the bit that I was actually trying to do, but the beam of blue across the shot was just a bit of good luck when I had everything lined up.

Lady Oracle

Lady Oracle, or Lady O, or Nadine is the lead singer with Houndstooth, another band that I’ve shot many times now. The reason I’ve shot them so many times is that they’re incredibly interesting visually; in the words of Derek D’Souza (long-time Jam and Paul Weller photographer) there are loads of ‘blink and you miss it’ moments with the whole band. This shot was taken at the new Hard Rock Hotel at Marble Arch and I’m just going to say that the lighting there is a challenge – let’s leave it that.

Natalie Duncan

I respect Natalie Duncan hugely. She has huge talents as a writer, player and singer and is determined to pursue her own musical vision and play the game her way. The limited contact I’ve had with Natalie personally gives me the impression that the only thing she cares about is her music; anything else better just join the line. It’s been a few years since I last photographed Natalie, the opportunity to get some shots as she did a Friday lunchtime outdoor gig at Hay’s Galleria in London as part of a series of gigs arranged in conjunction with the Talentbanq organisation. The weather gods were smiling on us that day and I managed to get in close and capture some of the intensity of Natalie’s performance. If you get the technical stuff right, Natalie is one of those people that will give you the shot.

Natalie Duncan encore

Another bonus ball for you. I don’t really see this one as gig pic, but I like it. All of the Hay’s galleria gigs were staged in front of the David Kemp sculpture ‘The Navigators’, which is so striking that I knew I had to work it in to a shot somehow. It took a few minutes playing with the different angles, but the shot finally took shape. It was only ever going to work with a keyboard player, creating the impression of controlling some diabolical machine from a console in front of them. If you’re ever near London Bridge station, go and have a look at the sculpture; it’s worth a few minutes out of your day. And check out Natalie Duncan on whichever platform you use to access music.

 

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.