Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Chemical Brothers, Mr. Scruff, Elbow… the list of bands from Manchester is seemingly endless and continues to grow, with the likes of Everything Everything, Delphic and The 1975, among many others, garnering much wider attention in recent years. Proof if proof were needed that Manchester is still the beating heart of the UK music scene.
Considering the City’s musical heritage, it should come as no surprise to find that Manchester has more than its fair share of live venues, many of which are steeped in history, having hosted all of the city’s most notable exports at one point or another. Some are unfortunately no more – The Hacienda (now flats), the Free Trade Hall (now a Radisson hotel), Jabez Clegg (making way for a £1bn revamp of University of Manchester) and Jilly’s/Music Box (now a Tesco; boooooo!) – while some are under threat – Night & Day, for making too much noise, would you believe it – but the musical spirit of the city is still strong in those that remain.
First things first…
Manchester has plenty of big venues to house the Rihannas and Lady Gagas of this world, namely the Manchester Arena (currently named the less-than-catchy Phones4U Arena, though it will forever be known to me as the Manchester Evening News Arena, and for those living in Manchester pre-1998, the NYNEX Arena) and Manchester Central (still known to most locally as the G-MEX). However, as spectacular as the shows you’ll see in either venue might be, arenas never feature highly in those “you had to have been there” moments.
Likewise the Manchester Apollo; sure, it’s more of an iconic venue than the arenas, and it looks much prettier from the outside following the facelift O2 gave it after it took over sponsorship rights. However, its cavernous interior lacks the intimacy of Manchester’s smaller venues, while the undulating (and perma-sticky) floor and over-priced beers mean a gig at the Apollo is never going to be a wholly enjoyable experience. Basically, give me a grotty dive bar over a vast, clinical 20,000 capacity venue any day of the week!
So without further ado, here’s my rundown of the city’s venues that make for unforgettable gigs…
The Deaf Institute – For the best new music in equally interesting surroundings
Named after the building’s previous incarnation as a school for the deaf, the Deaf Institute is one of the more recent additions to the Manchester live music scene. Opened in 2008 as the latest venture of the then-burgeoning (and now fully-fledged) Trof empire, the upstairs music hall is without a doubt one of the most wonderfully idiosyncratic venues, not just in Manchester but arguably in the whole of the UK, with its quirky fixtures and fittings almost as interesting as the bands they get to play onstage.
In a relatively short space of time, the Institute has already cemented its reputation as one of the best venues the city has to offer, and much like Night & Day (discussed below), playing the Deaf Institute has become somewhat of a rite of passage for any budding Manchester band.
Islington Mill – For experimental Mancunian music fans
Far more than just a gig venue, this former cotton mill (actually in Salford, rather than Manchester) has been converted into an independent multi-purpose art space, home to a thriving community of local artists, all of whom contribute to the building’s totally unique atmosphere.
The gig venue itself is very much in keeping with the rest of the complex’s stripped down approach – exposed brick and bare scaffolding, a bar that’s little more than a few sheets of plywood and a fridge (albeit a well-stocked fridge), and a stage that’s barely off the ground, bringing the crowd and the band that little bit closer together. Due to the nature of the venue, don’t expect to see any top 40 artists playing; much like its residents, the bands that pass through Islington Mill tend to be of a more arty, avant garde persuasion.
Night & Day – For a taste of Manchester’s musical heritage
A Manchester institution and the starting point for many a fledgling band, Night & Day is intrinsic to the regional music scene, having hosted plenty of local bands before their big breaks; for example, Elbow played a great deal at the venue in their early days, some 20-plus years ago.
As alluded to by the name, by day it’s a cafe that’s definitely worth a visit (though it can be a little dingy given its layout and distinct lack of natural light sources), while almost every night of the week it’s transformed into a buzzing gig venue. Sure, it’s pretty long and narrow and the sound isn’t always that great, none of which scream “great gig venue”, but such trivialities don’t actually stop it from being one of the best in Manchester.
Roadhouse – For those who like their venues dark, dingy and delightfully dirty
Roadhouse, just off Piccadilly Gardens, is a gloriously low-key and effortlessly cool subterranean dive bar, the hovel-like appearance of which belies the fact that it has one of the best sound systems in Manchester. What’s more, its 200–300 maximum capacity makes it perfect for those extremely intimate gigs, be it a mellow one-man-and-his-guitar affair or a hardcore punk band.
It’s also played host to a great deal of bands that have gone on to much grander things – not too many people can say they caught the likes of Coldplay, Muse, Blink 182, The White Stripes and Biffy Clyro in such close quarters, and among the thousands that claim to have done so, you know the majority of them are fibbing (although I am tempted to tell people I was at the At the Drive-In show…)
Star and Garter – For a full-on gig experience without any frills
By day, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Star & Garter is just another abandoned Manchester boozer, considering its dilapidated exterior, insalubrious location (Fairfield Street is known for prostitution) and the seeming lack of any signs of life. However, come gig time, the place comes alive.
The interior is equally as forgotten about as the outside – the bar looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 80s (and probably hasn’t, to be fair), giving the place a genuine retro feel that so many hipster hangouts would give their ironic moustaches to achieve. The gig venue upstairs is equally as unpretentious; just a dark, long rectangular room with little else in the way of frills or decorations.
And, with only one tiny door in and out, once the room is full and the band starts playing, you’re best off just going with the flow, as you’ll be hard pushed to escape to the bar until the final note is played.