5 U.K. Cities To Catch Great Live Music

The very best British cities to hunt down homegrown musical talent.  
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The group, Mother Funkers, boogie down at Lakota, in Bristol. Photo Courtesy: Giulia Spadafora/Soul Media

Musicians on tour are great, but nothing beats the floor-shaking reverberations of a crowd stamping for its hometown heroes. On my travels, whenever I catch a local artist playing a show the atmosphere around me completely changes. Instead of feeling like an unremarkable outsider, I suddenly feel the comfort of home, even if just for a couple of hours. The whole experience helps me see people in a new way—unguarded, open, and as familiar to me as old friends.

For those keen on experiencing British music at its source, consider adding these U.K. towns to your bucket list and get to know the scenes—old and new. Visitors unaccustomed to the inconsistencies of British weather will be happy to know that good music can be enjoyed at all these places year-round at indoor venues, which will keep them dry and warm.

 

Manchester

Although it can be hard to see beyond Manchester’s headline history of bands like Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, and Oasis, arguably its biggest contribution to modern music was The Haçienda, a legendary nightclub. Throughout the 1980s, Manchester’s most important club was the de facto home of English dance music and the great populariser of the house sound of America. The city’s love affair with dance music remains central, but it’s now splintered into scenes that typify the diversity of Britain’s most linguistically rich city. Different sounds, different voices, and different cultures can be found across the town every night of the week.

If hip hop is your thing, then the multi-talented LEVELZ collective regularly bring their raucous street knowledge to venues like YES (average price £12-15/Rs1,000-1,300), while on the other end of the spectrum, the much-respected trumpeter Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Orchestra blends spiritual jazz with modern electronics at venues like Band on the Wall (£15-20/Rs1,300-1,700). For cutting-edge electronic music, try the dancehall flavours of the Swing Ting party at Soup Kitchen (£8-12/Rs700-1,000), or seek clandestine venues such as The White Hotel (£10-20/Rs850-1,700) and Hidden (£10-20/Rs850-1,700) for the deep-digging selections of DJs and producers like Ruf Dug, the city’s own sonic cyberpunk. If it’s a full-on acid house experience you’ve come for then don’t miss Homoelectric(£12-20/Rs1,000-1,700), Manchester’s wildly hedonistic disco.

 

5 U.K. Cities To Catch Great Live Music

A busker lets his guitar gently weep in front of Big Ben. Photo By: Anatoleya/Moment/Getty Images

Oxford

With around six million visitors a year, Oxford is already high on many travellers’ wish lists. Guidebooks sing the city’s praises for having a historic heart where jumbles of elegant buildings cling to each other like lovers. However, in the rock and roll rooms underneath the dreaming spires, the city’s also been breeding bands like Ride, Supergrass, and the area’s most famous sons, Radiohead, since the 1990s—yet another reason to visit. For a city dominated by university life, perhaps it’s no surprise that the music scene in Oxford remains filled with clever young people with access to cheap instruments. To this day the town still thrums with intelligent indie rock bands such as Kanadia, MOTHER and Self Help. In recent years, by far the biggest band to come out of Oxford has been Foals, who’ve gone from house party gigs on Cowley Road to headlining arenas. The biggest players in town can be found at the 02 Academy (from £20/Rs1,700), while more independent sounds can be found at The Bullingdon (from £8/Rs700) and The Jericho Tavern (£8-15/Rs700-1,300), the latter being the fabled pub where Radiohead played their first show in their previous incarnation, On A Friday.

If you’re in the mood for something less rambunctious the city also has a rich tradition of symphonic and choral music, fed largely by the presence of serious music students. Two good (and cheaper) places to start are the Oxford University Orchestra (£7-15/Rs600-1,300) and the Oxford University String Ensemble (£5-10/Rs400-850), both offering top-class talent.

Glasgow

At all turns, Scotland’s largest city keeps taking on its detractors and producing lively, life-affirming cultures that reject the narrative of the city as just a working class Edinburgh. From the hallucinogenic comic books of Grant Morrison to the caustic humour of comedian Frankie Boyle, Glasgow is filled with unapologetic outliers fashioning creativity in their own ways—its music scene being central to the city’s expressiveness. Glasgow’s been showing its pedigree for decades through massively popular acts such as Primal Scream and Franz Ferdinand. It’s even responsible for one of the pop acts who dominated the British music charts in the 1980s and ’90s, Wet Wet Wet. Although, perhaps the less said about them the better.

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A fan savours the show and her bevvy at Manchester’s YES. Photo Courtesy: Jody Hartley

Famous for the buzzing liveliness of its pubs, clubs, and locals, Glasgow is a place to find loud music and sweaty dance floors. A new breed of bands like Comfort and Hairband offer everything from industrial noise to melancholy pop music. They’re at their best in the city’s classic venues, from basement crowds of dive bar Nice’n’Sleazy (£5-10/Rs400-850) to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (£15-25/Rs1,300-2,150), labelled by some in the music press as “quite possibly the finest small venue in the world.” The Barrowland Ballroom (from £20/Rs1,700) is an unembellished temple of sound where the crowd bounces on the sprung wooden floor and the history of performers including David Bowie and Daft Punk fills the air. It all helps to create an atmosphere that makes it the favourite venue of bands including Metallica and Oasis. The city’s electronic music scene is no slouch either, with places like La Cheetah (£5-10/Rs400-850) and Sub Club (£5-10/Rs400-850), which are filled with the house and techno sounds of current favourites Denis Sulta and Jasper James. The uninitiated should pay a visit to Sub Club to see the DJ kings, Optimo, for a bit of insight into the importance of dance music in Glasgow.

Bristol

More than any other place on this list, Bristol’s music scene is the idiosyncratic result of its history. As one of the main slave trading ports in the 18th century, the population of this south-western city has long had significant influences from Africa and the West Indies. It was in the 1950s and ’60s, however, when immigration from the Caribbean expanded the already diverse population, that sound system culture made reggae and ska the default setting for house parties and street celebrations. The influence of those communities on the following decades of DIY post-punk bands like The Pop Group and hip-hop acts such as The Wild Bunch was critical. It was this bedrock of sound that led to the city’s biggest musical export, trip hop. In the 1990s, Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky all represented Bristol with their beautifully strange, fiercely independent blends of gender and genre; rave and race.

That’s a tradition that lives on today in the city that’s still regarded as a hotbed of innovation. In the 2000s, Shackleton and Appleblim’s Skull Disco label changed the course of dubstep with African polyrhythms, while today, Timedance, Idle Hands, Tectonic, and the Livity Sound imprints all continue to push the edges of underground bass music to psychedelic extremes. The best place to find electronic music is in venues like the hip, audiophile bar, The Love Inn (from £4/Rs350), or the darker, more diverse rave pit known as Lakota (£4-8/Rs350-700). For some of the biggest and most popular acts (from £15/Rs1,300), a connected set of abandoned warehouses voted as one of the best nightclubs in the world. It’s not all just dance music though because bands like Geoff Barrow’s (formerly of Portishead) Beak and current punk darlings, IDLES, are also pushing a different agenda. For guitar-based music get down to the cheap and cheerful Louisiana (£5-10/Rs400-850), a 140-person capacity venue that’s known as the place to find the next big things—The Scissor Sisters, Florence and the Machine, and The National all having made their Bristol debuts there. Alternatively, for everything from rock to classical head to the beautiful Colston Hall (£25-50/Rs2,150-4,300) where where past acts have included The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

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Things get soulful at The Pickle Factory. Photo Courtesy: The Pickle Factory

London

Whether it’s via Eddy Grant’s stroll down Electric Avenue or The Kinks’ view of the Waterloo Sunset, most music fans have already met London, even if only through lyrics. More than any other city in the U.K., London’s polar mix of urban isolation and multicultural communion inspires and produces waves of new artists and important scenes. There’s something to suit every taste and budget, but if you’re interested in what’s really thrilling about London’s contemporary music culture, then it’s time to get away from the gargantuan stadium rock of the 02 Arena (from £40/Rs3,500).

South of the river Thames you’ll find venues like Corsica Studios (£5-15/Rs400-1,300), and Rye Wax (£5-10/Rs400-850). In Shoreditch, to the north, there’s XOYO (£10-20/Rs850-1,700), while the east has the Pickle Factory (£10-15/Rs850-1,700). Varied as they are, all these places exemplify the kind of cross-pollination of musical styles coming out of the capital. Look out especially for the Rhythm Section record label’s parties, which bridge the gaps between house, techno, jazz, soul, hip-hop, and world music.

Check the listings across the city and you’ll find a bubbling mixture that encompasses both live music and energetic, impromptu rave takeovers in bare-walled buildings. Particularly important in recent years years has been the south London jazz scene, which has flourished in established spots like Camden’s Jazz Cafe (£10-20/Rs850-1,700) and the Hackney Arts Centre’s EartH space (from £20/Rs1,700). These are the places to head if you’re keen to see why artists like Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective, and Rosie Turton are cultivating so much love from a new generation of British music enthusiasts who pack the bars and clubs to hear their heroes play.

  • Stephen Connolly is a freelance writer based in the UK. As a former historian he travels to witness first-hand everything he's read about in books; as an ongoing glutton he roams the world looking for the best things to eat.

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