As a regular gig goer in Leeds, I’ve always thought we were poorly served by the live venues in the city. I’m sure this view will split the CV room, so here’s my thinking:
The O2 academy is fine for the popular bands but the sight lines are terrible, if a band plays on a Saturday it’s a ridiculously early start due to the club night and to be honest, it’s a bit of a hole. The Leeds University venues have a fine concert tradition and although I’ve seen some cracking gigs there, these aren’t really fit for purpose (Leeds Uni is a refectory for fuck’s sake). The Cockpit has been successfully flying the flag for upcoming bands for many years and the re-invented railway arch vibe often produces some of the best gigs in Leeds.
Then there’s the ‘unique and unusual’ category (ie downright odd but cool all the same): The Town Hall, Howard Assembly Rooms, Brudenell Social Club, The Library, Millennium Square…and all good in their own, idiosyncratic way. My personal favourite – the Brudenell – scoring highly with its 1970s retro working mans club vibe (with toilets to match). In truth, this list says more about the highly creative promoters in the city with a dearth of go-to live music venues.
On top of this, there are countless other bars and pubs where live music features regularly in and around the city, so why do I have that nagging feeling that we don’t have enough venues?
When I look at my favourite band, British Sea Power, I have seen them in virtually every venue in Leeds, barring the arena (one can dream, as I’m sure they would) and yet for bands on a certain trajectory, the size and style of venue is everything. Too small a room creates an amazing up close opportunity to see a live performance but its a bugger to get tickets. Too large a venue and it just kills the atmosphere for certain bands. With the longstanding arena hole now filled in Leeds, I think we need more small venues that are cool and just let the music do the talking.
I’m definitely in the ‘more is more’ camp in terms of places to see live music. More venues means more bands, more competition to be great and glorious choice for the punters – i.e. me. So I welcome the opening of Leeds’ newest venue, The Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen. Situated on a non descript parade at the top of Briggate, old school Loiners will know the venue immediately when I say it used to be Ike’s, one of Leeds’ original American style diners.
It’s certainly unrecognisable now, in its new set of hipster clothes. The hot red neon sign is a statement of intent for coolness and the interior takes that and raises it: stripped back walls, second hand furniture, low key lighting, more neon…it’s grunge personified. It could be Hoxton or the lower east side of New York, but it’s not, it’s Leeds. Full marks for making a place just hip to be there.
If you don’t have…
- A full beard
- A set of tattoos culminating with a galleon on your throat
- Wooly hat and / or retro glasses
- Spray on jeans (not skinnies)
…then the average Leeds socialite may feel a little out of place, but don’t be intimidated, it’s quite easy to fit in. You could either acquire any of the above and you’re on your way (problematic for me as a beard of any decent length will take at least 2 years to grow) or just find your way to the bar and order a pint of Kirkstall Brewery’s excellent Three Swords and you’re in.
Housed in an old assembly hall (who knew) on three floors, The Belgrave is an impressive undertaking featuring a ground floor bar with foodie joy (featuring the local success story Fish&), a second floor live room to die for and a crackers roof terrace with garden sheds. It’s fashionably shabby in places and doesn’t try too hard, perfect for the hipsters who may regularly find spiders in their beards (true story from twitter).
It also happens to be perfect for the Leeds gig going crowd who crammed into the live room on Sunday night to see the spectacularly underrated British Sea Power’s live scoring of the black and white silent classic docudrama ‘Man of Aran’. This was an unusual gig for BSP in that the band are facing the screen (where a film is being shown) and the audience are seated, but having seen it twice before in London and Sheffield, I can confirm the venue acoustics and ambience perfect in a surprisingly large space. Unsurprisingly BSP mesmerised the sold out crowd, with a delicate but insistent orchestral rock performance. Remarkably they’d not played this work for 5 years and I can’t think of a better way to ‘officially’ christen this performance space.
The upcoming schedule of performances for The Belgrave is also reassuringly odd and unusual, focusing in on rising, yet unknown bands fitting in well with the other venues in the city. Some might say challenging, probing, imperceptibly looking for a gap others might say, where’s the bands I know? I would argue the people that know will be there.
Yes, it will have to settle down a bit and yes, it does help if bar staff knew what drinks they sold, but these are just minor quibbles. The mix of a decent bar, a good canteen and live music could be a uniquely potent mix in Leeds, if they get that cocktail right.
Of course it won’t be for everybody, but I challenge anyone to spent a little time there and not come away just feeling a little cooler and hipsterfied, more in touch with the alternative life of the city. It’s cobblers of course, but legends have been built on less.