Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Music venues in London

Why is it that London's current music artists, following in the footsteps of legends like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Clash, are doing the city so little justice today on the global stage? Many Brit popstars move Stateside to promote their careers or make the fateful transition into acting, never to be heard of again. Others racket around the world, drunk and disorderly, bounced from one visa desk to another. Look at the phenomenally talented Amy Winehouse, currently cavorting around St Lucia, in and out of hospital as she collapses once more from too many illegal substances and not enough food. Lily Allen, previously unable to obtain a visa to enter the USA as Homeland Security had seen enough of her press cuttings to know she might be trouble. Worse almost than these tabloid-filling horrors are the endlessly dull. Let us not forget Coldplay - the blandest of the bland - hail from London. Whilst they hurtle off to tour the globe, however, we in London are fortunate to be visited by many wonderful artists from America, Australia, Europe and Africa in return; a sort of popstars exchange programme, rather like those for GCSE French students. I think we're getting a great deal!

Living in London I have been to several fabulous concerts by a range of extraordinary musicians. Spectacular shows before a background of fireworks and scale models of the Moulin Rouge, 40,000 people bouncing up and down in Hyde Park screaming along with Eddie Grant to "Gimme Hope Jo'ana" at the top of their voices, vocal performances which played second fiddle to numerous costume changes, and performances so intimate you might as well have been sat at home in the artist's living room. Remove the t-shirts with ironic slogans, switch off the dazzling light displays, send home the burlesque dancers and man that plays the marimba. The venue is the thing. And here in London are some of the finest popular music venues in the world.

You want small and intimate? I've seen an excellent lunchtime gig in the Camden Lock Tavern, whilst people munched fish and chips with work colleagues; it certainly beats a sandwich at one's desk in front of a computer. Fireworks and flashing lights more your thing? The disastrous Millennium Dome has risen anew as the O2 Arena, a vast 20,000 person venue with the space for huge screens, banks of speakers and a nice high ceiling from which to drop glitter and dangle the odd over-the-top popstar. A-list artists such as Britney Spears and Michael Jackson (still A-list? really?) even sign up to play "mini-residencies" here. The only drawback to the place is fighting your way back in to central London with the other 19,999 concert-attendees after the gig.

My favourite memories of gigs though have been in the smaller venues. You can get nearer the artists (if you're happy to be slightly trampled on in the process, and do not mind the odd pint being sloshed down you shoulder from time to time). You do not have to watch the action on a large screen whilst the show looks as if it is being performed by tiny ants miles away. The bass thuds through your chest and the speakers assault your ears. But you are really there, and have really "seen" Faithless/Jason Mraz/U2/Razorlight. The various Carling venues, the Brixton Aacademy, the Shepherds Bush Empire and the Hammersmith Apollo, are all rather splendid in a sticky-carpetted, hot and sweaty kind of way.
After a fabulous gig by The Fray on Wednesday at The Roundhouse in Camden, I have a new favourite though. Standing in The Roundhouse, watching it slowly fill, felt like being in a smaller Globe Theatre; a round brick drum of a building, with a wooden roof rising upwards through wrought metal columns. Though it may feel like a theatre, or a purpose built entertainment venue, this beautiful building was once an engine shed for repairing steam trains, yet despite its grimey heritage The Roundhouse is cleaner and neater than any gig venue I've ever seen. This is a place where music is taken seriously, given a respectful stage; it is once again art rather than a profit-making exercise.

Old theatres and playhouses, retrofitted with concert-worthy acoustics and lighting rigs, serve a new purpose in the age of television. People may not spend as many evenings at the theatre as they once did, but the rise of MTV and the music video has encouraged more people into live music venues. And with the recycling of the theatres into stages for bands and musicians, popular entertainment has come full circle. Here in London, we are lucky enough to benefit hugely from this change, now all we need are decent London artists to truly own these venues.

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