rooms and a view

as a future nightclub hostess I am forever evaluating any venue I happen to find myself in. of course london is known as a crap town for musicians but the rooms do vary. here are a few recent observations.

case study: the pullens centre, crampton street, london se17
show: pipas along with rachel app and butchers boy, june 11
this was a low-key afternoon deal in a part of london most people tend to avoid – but the audience here not only like the area, but currently or previously live in it. it was a benefit for a political prisoner named jeff “free” luers (an environmental activist who is serving 23 years for torching three suvs), but it was also sorta portrayed as a free show so I’m not sure how many pounds and pence were tossed into the watering can. the typical punky slash indie crowd member here tended to be on the skint side I am guessing. this is such a humble event and a modest room – very little atmosphere, attention to sound quality, etc. but it didn’t seem to matter in this case. pipas fared best in terms of good sound – because they peddle a softer sort of musical entertainment than the other acts. room itself could use a little love. tolerant crowd. table full of zines. could have used some incense. ear plugs a plus.
recommendation: let pnac play the pullens! with gnac perhaps!

case study: wilton’s music hall, graces alley, london e1
show: royal college of music jazz band, june 10
my lovely flame-haired shellac sister pal virginia corralled a bunch of hackney sorts into attending this concert, which was primarily a reason to see the restored (and in the process of being restored) shabby-chic old music hall which is just up the road from tower bridge and the tower of london. wilton’s claims to be the world’s oldest surviving music hall, having had its heyday in the 1850s/60s, it was once described as being “the handsomest room in town.” (sadly the chandelier that helped it get its name is no longer burning). lucky for us, john betjeman managed to stop it from getting demolished in 1964. since its reopening in 1999, some film scenes have been set here (interview with a vampire, chaplin, catastrophe, among others) and all kinds of entertainment (from opera to burlesque) has been staged. tonight’s jazz big band played mostly acoustically and featured a few familiar miles davis tunes alongside their ambitious originals. it wasn’t life-changing but was well worth the five quid. the room tends to overshadow the show – there is so much character in it it’s almost frightening. I sprinted home to email the venue about booking it for a cf event and cannot wait to hear the pines, keren ann, or some other worthy acoustic acts fill this place with music.
recommendation: send them a cheque (or a check if you’re in the states)

case study: carling academy (or islington academy), upper street mall, london
show: smog, june 9
last september I saw smog at conway hall, a wonderful venue smack in the centre of london, which is just the right size, at a festival called homefires, which brought in a very chilled out crowd of folkie ish types. I hadn’t seen smog in eons – since he was so small he had to play mercury lounge. he was compelling, he was mesmerizing, he was on, he was on fire. I was shocked at how much I had been missing and by how much mr callahan has changed for the better. trevor and I told travis and helene about this show and they must have expected an awful lot. I know we did. the first clue to this place being a shithole is that it’s in a shopping mall. the second is that they have a half dozen burly bouncers ready to bounce ya out if ya give em any lip guarding the velvet fucking ropes. one of them wanted to confiscate my camera (which I take everywhere all the time), but a manager lady came out and took me at my word that I would not be using it in the venue (surprisingly). the carling academy is big, very big. too big for such an intimate and intense smog show as we witnessed last september. the room is packed, too packed, with very tall men, mostly men. everyone in my party is among the smaller guests – none of us can see a thing from anywhere. after getting batted about like a big tennis ball on the floor while people struggling to tote 4 pints of beer in wobbly plastic pint glasses weave around me, I finally take my claustrophobic ass upstairs to try to peer over the wee balcony. I can catch a glimpse now and again of mr smog but mostly I really cannot see a thing. look, it’s okay. I know what he looks like, but if you’re going to charge all that money for a show, shouldn’t someone (besides the unusually tall) apart from the first three rows be able to see? yes, they should. I didn’t expect much from this venue but then two things made me think it was even worse: 1. they have giant fans blowing air on the crowd, which seem like a great idea (unless you are freezing) to circulate the ciggie smoke. but when I got home I had massive chest pain from secondhand smoke inhalation! 2. when the show ended within seconds the aforementioned burly bouncers start shoving the audience members toward the exits. yes, physically touching them. this makes me very angry. there is nowhere to go – the crowd isn’t moving. yes, we all want to leave, desperately, but there’s no need to be treated like cattle.
recommendation: must be turned into a public toilet immediately.

case study: jazz café, camden, london
show: laura cantrell, june 1
laura’s fans are much smaller than mr. smog’s, which is a relief. they also love the dear girl to death, so they don’t mind in the least when she forgets the words. the audience cannot even believe what a beautiful person laura is – that people this good and smart even exist anymore, even in america. she teaches them about american music – about her heroes – as she charms her way through the set. despite being in a terribly clichéd “rock and roll” and “punk rock” part of town (the kind where 12 year olds run away to, get tattoos, show off their baggie trousers, and junkie hookers would like to tell you a story about why they need £5 to get to walthamstow), the jazz café is remarkably unfussed tonight. being a jazz venue usually means high-priced drink minimums and pushy hostesses, but I didn’t notice any of that. I did notice a high-ponytailed lady throwing cutlery around upstairs during some quieter moments, which was a bit annoying. especially considering that they have a sign that reads “stfu during the performance” just above the stage. still, apart from being a bit sterile and in camden, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot wrong with the jazz café. (didn’t see the loo, however) and there is hardly anything else in the world that tops laura c. singing “the whiskey makes you sweeter.”
recommendation: let them stay.

case study: cecil sharp house, camden, london
show: swaddling songs present richard youngs and alasdair roberts, may 28
on such a beautiful spring evening, it’s tough to even go inside but if one must go, then let it be to the cecil sharp house. swaddling songs is bob stanley and peter paphides’ folk night – and I would drive a smartcar across the desert to just hear these guys dj cause they got it going on. didn’t know much about the two scots on the bill. youngs was not great. he had a monotonous voice and repetitive and uninteresting lyrics – half the room emptied during one very lengthy rant. while I wanted to like him I just wasn’t into it. roberts is more my speed – there was some humour and melody. it was still a rather dark night. the house, which has giant windows, should have been left open to reveal all the glorious leafy greens fluttering just outside in the twilight. but no, it was dark and funereal onstage. still, very well-mannered crowd. reasonably priced bar. gorgeous room, loads of character.
recommendation: don’t ever let it close – sandy denny played here! the english folk dance and song society should hire me to curate a regular series.

case study: water rats, grays inn road, london
show: the clientele (+ some other bands), may 27
after the clientele’s previous london gig (at nambucca pub last month), things could only get better! the water rats is a nice intimate space, though we have on occasion had to run out of the room because it’s so hot and crowded. not so tonight. it’s the hottest day of the year so far in london, but it’s cooler in here than the tube or bus. the band is on fire. they play the hits and a few new ones. one college girl bobs along upfront and grins goofily at alasdair like he is donny osmond. the fans are here. people don’t talk. some smoke, some drink, all is well. the clientele are of course the best band in london and they don’t play nearly often enough. the great thing about tonight’s show is that it’s free. the creepy thing about tonight’s show is that it’s free…because budweiser has paid for it! so the beer drinkers are left with one choice only on the taps.
recommendation: keep it open. keep budweiser out of it – the budweiser logo being spotlighted across the club’s ceiling = tacky.

case study: ronnie scott’s, soho, london
show: roddy frame, may 22
I hadn’t seen mr aztec camera since he was born practically, so I jumped at the chance to go see him perform some of his classic pop hits (tim said he would and he wasn’t wrong). on our way in one of the mafioso-wannabe assholes at the door took a dislike to me. he said “the lady will need to check her coat.” I said, “the lady would prefer not to check her coat.” he spoke to me as though I were an inmate: there are no coats allowed. if you don’t check your coat I will refund your money. I almost went in with my coat on and then I saw tim’s poor face. I took off my fucking coat and bloody checked it — for a mandatory fee, natch. I don’t know what it is that makes doormen/bouncers into such huge pricks. we entered the theatre and I realized that no one else, including my own friends, was forced to check a coat. ronnie scott’s is a shit-hole. perhaps important people once played there. perhaps those people had no choice. important people rarely play there now, and it’s just one of those lame-o “jazz” clubs that charges outrageous drink prices, crams people in too close to each other, and employs lots of ugly and useless staff. most people sit with their backs to the stage! someone shoot the dying horse and put it out of its misery.
recommendation: immediate demolition please.

case study: king’s head, crouch end, london
show: damon & naomi, king creosote, may 20
crouch end isn’t really in our neck of the woods but we like d&n and felt like making the trip. the upstairs was a mob of friday night party kids typical of any london pub. they are the reason I like to stay in on weekends. the gig was downstairs. it looked a bit cheesy at first – like a comedy club with really low ceilings. once it filled up and the show got going it had a fantastic vibe – lots of folk kids in the house. I hadn’t seen kc and they were ace, really moving stuff. d&n did their gentle thing as a quintet tonight. there’s nothing that special about the room itself, but as long as something interesting is happening, this is a happening.
recommendation: get rid of the top level and raise the ceiling.

case study: the ica, london
show: archer prewitt, may 15
we’ve loved mr. prewitt since he was a coctail boy and his toons have no equal (nor does his collection of creepy farm toys). we had not seen him play as “archer prewitt” since oh god knows when at maxwell’s when he did a quiet alone man thing on a bill with edith frost and sam prekop acting similarly (was I in heaven? oh yes). okay. so the ica is a place where they have art shows and stuff but it’s mostly about the bookshop and meeting cute trendies in the bar, isn’t it? yes, it is. it’s not the greatest place for art-watching (especially during an opening), and it is one of the worst places for music watching. how can it be that you find yourself inside this amazing building (from the outside) and yet the inside has had any sense of place erased from it? perhaps the stage is meant to be art-gallery minimal. look, I don’t know. I just know that I don’t want to go to shows there anymore. it makes me sad. archer and his mates wanted to rock that night and rock they did. this was the archer prewitt ensemble’s london debut as far as I could tell and it shoulda been in a better place. still, thumbs up for not too crowded ness, showmanship, and the fact that it was still light out when they finished.
recommendation: turn the “venue” into a discotheque. or let pam berry reimagine it as a venue slash installation.

case study: new theatre, oxford
show: rufus wainwright + joan as police woman, may 13
we have a few of these sit-down theatre deals in london, all right. you know, fancy with red seats and stuff. I wasn’t around for this lineup in london so I headed up to oxford to see the big show. what I wasn’t expecting is that the room was almost bursting with enthusiasm and energy from the get-go – this is something we do not have in london. joan as police woman is a talented new york chick who used to play at chickfactor gigs in the early days as a duo with mary timony. she’s so hot! anyway, she is also in rufie’s backing band and, well, no one was really prepared for a show like this – filled with such utter showmanship, over-the-top-ness, pop music insanity. I think I sat there with my mouth hanging open the whole time (not just during the bit where the whole band stripped down to their underpants and did a little fetish comedy number for us). the venue was glam, the show was even glammer.
recommendation: fling those doors open. and reward the oxons with 7 shows a week!

case study: betsey trotwood, farringdon road, london
show: carolyn mark, may 11
ah, the quintessential indie venue. how many fricking indie things have happened here? some track and field dance night, some sinister meet-up, some chickfactor slash papercuts gig featuring the clientele and baxendale! many cute indies have hooked up or at least bumped into one another’s sweaty bods here. I actually have a soft spot for this place and I do fancy a drink on the ground floor – anytime really. I could do without those packed nights in the basement though. oh, if only the bands could play on the first floor instead, like in the old days. I have actually begged some acts, such as pipas and tuesday weld, to please not ever play in this basement again. tonight it’s okay – because there are only 17 of us here for canadian country-ish chick ms mark and we’re not even sweating in here. still, let’s keep the basement free of bands and move the pa upstairs, eh?
recommendation: like I said….