From The Ferret to Oporto: on the road for Independent Venue Week

A whistle-stop tour of some of the UK's best indie music venues

Header image: Kara McCarron @kjm.gigs 

Independent venues are not just breeding grounds for tomorrow’s arena headliners. Labelling them as such cheapens not just the acts who perform in them but also the venues themselves.

Walk into any of the over 200 venues who took part in Independent Venue Week for its tenth anniversary this year and they will be dripping with personality. All deeply rooted in their communities, and all steeped in histories made tangible by posters adorning the walls of the acts to have graced their stages.

Even pre-pandemic they have had to fend off threats from all angles, chief among them ever-rising business rates, the relentless march of property developers and the inevitable noise complaints that follow. Any venue still standing is a living miracle – or rather, a living testament to the tireless owners and managers striving to keep them afloat.

I booked a week off to stop by five venues in the North to pay my respects, and on day three in Hull chatted to Mez from LIFE, who took a breath while destroying The New Adelphi Club to remind all who pass through the callously nicknamed ‘toilet circuit’ of one thing: “These aren’t stepping stone venues, these are the stadiums…”

Mayshe-Mayshe & Rozi PlainThe Crescent Community Venue, York

Rozi Plain at The Crescent
Credit: Simon Godley 

It turns out that Working Men’s Clubs, written off by many as boring hubs for old fogeys, actually make for vibrant music venues. The Crescent Community Venue in York is a luminous example. Nestled into a crescent moon-shaped Victorian terrace just off York station, the former WMC has hosted live music since at least the 1940s but was revamped in 2015 by new owners. I say revamped, but the spirit of the old Club is alive and well in the community focus and the old decor that largely remains intact. Even the disco ball has been restored to its former glory.

Not ten minutes after we stepped down into the basement did Mayshe-Mayshe have us floating on her cloud of ethereal bedroom pop, crooning, loop-pedalling and even hairdryer-blowing songs about stress (‘Eczema’) and death (‘Ecology’), but all with a childlike buoyancy that belied the heavy themes.

She set the hushed tone for the night. Rozi Plain was up next, touring her serene seventh album Prize, and for an album of such quiet complexity, credit is due here to both the pitch-perfect Plain and The Crescent’s crystal live sound. Her cool vocals mingling crisply with slinky guitars and warbling synths, Plain silenced the room and had dads and daughters bobbing along in unison. We were spirited away to a benign world in ‘The City Of A Thousand Ghosts’.

Eva Kiss, Earth Melon & The Calls Oporto Leeds

Oporto apparently has an official anthem: ‘The Rat’, by The Walkmen. It’s a good taster for the rock & roll bar bringing the ruckus to Call Lane, aka The Calls, the beating heart of the city’s nightlife. A glance at its Polaroid wall of famous visitors throws up the likes of IDLES and Fontaines D.C., who have both DJ’d the joint and doubtless had the low hanging lights swinging until the early hours.

Facing the bar is a sliding door that reveals a recently refurbed, narrow den of a venue, with walls tastefully lined with handpicked vinyl. It can hold up to 125 but it’s a more lowkey, young talent showcase tonight.

Eva Kiss got things going with some moody indie-pop, with a spin on Nirvana’s ‘Heart Shaped Box’ a standout, while Earth Melon came dressed for the occasion in their Sunday best, all shirts and ties and moustaches, with Champ Avery’s easy-going, warm rap cadences bolstered soulfully by the rest of the six-piece. Local lads The Calls brought some rip-roaring psych-rock to their namesake.

Bunker Pop & LIFE The New Adelphi Club, Hull

The New Adelphi Club, Hull

The story goes that Number 89 on De Grey Street narrowly evaded a Luftwaffe bomb during the Blitz on Hull.

It was clearly destined to serve Hull’s music scene. The New Adelphi Club is famously Joe Talbot of IDLES’s favourite venue, and it doesn’t take long to see why. A lick of grey paint now marks it out from the rest of the terrace, but it’s still the same ramshackle sweatbox of a house that’s formed the perfect storm for knees-ups for over 39 years.

Having quickly shed my coat on the communal hangers (that I was assured were more secure than any cloakroom), funk-trance six-piece Bunkerpop locked us into their euphoric ‘supergroove’ less led than let loose by their frenzied front man Paul Sarel. Sarel also happens to be the general manager of the Club, and after a sweaty hug and a stubbly kiss, he told me that despite it being the worst paid job he’s ever had, he couldn’t be happier.

LIFE, Hull’s own post-punk agents of chaos, opened with ‘Shipping Forecast’ to a fairly rowdy reception. Lead singer Mez stepped down from the stage, eyeing us all up as he parted the floor. By the time he got back up, he had the room wrapped around his finger, and when he launched into ‘Popular Music’, the mosh-gates opened and never closed.

My memory is now a whirlwind, but there is one indelible imprint. My Reeboks are ruined, stamped with the footprints of 200 Adelphians. The Luftwaffe may have missed, but LIFE didn’t.

Bug Teeth & English Teacher The Ferret, Preston

Bug Teeth at The Ferret
Credit: Kara McCarron @kjm.gigs 

Through palm fronds and Venus flytraps, the front façade of a centuries-old mill building reads “Live Music.” But for how long? The Ferret is a priceless beacon of culture in the city, and yet all the landlord sees are dollar signs. It has so far raised around £500,000, but it needs another £150,000 lest it be lost to the highest bidder.

Inside, behind the stage, it has the exposed brick and neon signage of a New York comedy club, and as Bug Teeth donned their pointy-eared beanies, I wondered what kind of strange alt-sketch I was about to be submitted to. But they then unleashed an awesome wave that ebbed and flowed on a shore between dream-pop and full-blown punk, with lead vocalist and guitarist PJ Johnson singing and strumming with such grace that she resembled the eye of a storm.

Bevvied mates of the band were bellowing out chants of “Lewis!” long before English Teacher even took to the stage. Turns out it was a homecoming for guitarist Lewis Whiting, who came to The Ferret for his first gig (£4.00 for The Stone Roses!) seven years ago. The young art-punk rockers are still all infectious fury and fun; a personal favourite is ‘Yorkshire Tapas’, and they treated us to an extended, violent version that punctuated every twist in Lily Fontaine’s spoken-word poem of a relationship. “Suddenly you’re in IKEA debating pots and pans!” *Cue the noise*

But it was a cover of Arctic Monkeys‘ pledge to music over money, ‘Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But…’, that made the perfect encore and middle finger to the landlord. “Cause all you people are vampires!” #SaveTheFerret

Slab & The Hazy Janes The Grayston Unity, Halifax

The Hazy Janes at The Grayston Unity

Size doesn’t matter. Just ask The Grayston Unity, which for five years was the UK’s smallest venue with a capacity of just 18 until the Arts Council funded its expansion over lockdown, knocking through the wall that used to divide the bar from the stage. “We’re massive now,” joked owner Michael Ainsworth as he pulled our pints, “we can hold 35!”.

It still looks like your nan’s sitting room. There’s no stage, just an oriental rug marking the performance space. The night was a sell-out and I was squashed up against the back wall, so I could only just make out openers Slab smash out their post-rock headbangers from “the wrong side of the Pennines” (Manchester), before two local Halifax boys, The Hazy Janes, threw down some barnstorming blues that shook our teeth loose.

They knew how to work a crowd and rinse their refrains for singalongs (“My girl Bernadette!”), but their calls to “get low” in a crescendo were met with a chorus of “you must be f*ckin’ jokin’s” from the cramped and mostly middle-aged room. There’s apparently no greater mosh-block than age-related back pain.

When the time came for the encore, after a week of crisp Samuel Smiths, cosy venues with communal coat hangers and gigs from God’s Own, even this London impostor was chanting “Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!”