In a new monthly series, ‘London’s Top Five…’, Culture Capital aims to shine a light on the leading cultural institutions and activities around town. Blindly ranking aspects of city cultural life is subjective of course, and hardly original. Each week, Time Out’s pages are stuffed with endless rankings and listings. But this blog is not a glorified tourists’ handbook, it’s a guide to the hidden life of the capital. Now that grand statement is over, here goes with five of the best unsung gigging venues in town. Forget Southbank Centre, the Royal Opera House, the O2 Dome or the Royal Albert Hall, there are dozens of tiny gems to be found at the end of dark alleys and down rusty staircases.
606 club, Chelsea
With the revamped Ronnie Scotts trading on a sense of nostalgia for tourists and corporate types, it falls to West London’s basement 606 Club to take the role of London’s hardest working jazz venue. Bald brick walls, an intimate space and a bar serving reasonably-priced food and drink, 606 has a sort of scruffy class. Active since 1976, the Club hosts a huge slice of London’s live jazz, with all the UK’s best artists appearing at the club somewhere down the line.
Buried deep in uber-trendy Shoreditch, Cargo drips with cool. An open, wood-panelled bar is larger than the standing-only performance space, which has a stage at one end and another bar at the other. It presents an eclectic range of music, from hip hop and electronic to rock and global sounds. One of Culture Capital’s best gigs of last year was Rupa & the April Fishes, who tore up Cargo with their new album, Este Mundo. A quality venue for lively bands.
Institute of Contemporary Arts, Central London
Of the numerous London art galleries, only the ICA has a proper music programme. As one would expect, the venue within the gallery is a clean, contemporary space, but it is also surprising in a number of other ways. An intimate room, the venue’s lack of windows gives it an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. The programme is a mix of jazz, world and indie artists. The perfect way to experience contemporary visual art and music in one sitting.
Le QuecumBar, Battersea
London’s home of Gypsy Swing, this quirky wine bar had its 15 minutes of fame recently, hosting a festival celebrating the centenary of Gypsy music’s most famous son, the guitarist Django Reinhardt. It is thoroughly delightful that a small bar in West London can stay afloat just presenting pre-war jazz music. Make sure you visit!
Hackney Empire, Hackney
Right in the heart of the East End, this Hackney venue is probably the least known of London’s ‘Empires’. Built in 1901, it was originally a music hall, and has a gorgeous interior. Financial problems have dogged its long history – it was a bingo hall for two decades and shut for a ‘period of reflection’ last year – but there are hopes that with the 2012 Olympics shining a light on the East End, the Empire might enjoy a healthy future. Hosting the more lively events of the Barbican’s summer Blaze festival certainly won’t have hurt its image.
Venues we were sad not to include: Charlie Wright’s, The Vortex and The Forge, Camden.