London's Best Live Music Venues

Fancy going to a gig? From full-on stadium rock concerts to a DJ set in an East London basement, this guide will help you decide where to go.

Big in London
The Barbican Hall at the Barbican Centre and the Royal Festival Hall’s auditoriums don’t only host classical concerts, as their acoustics are also put to good use by performers of other genres. The South Bank Centre’s annual Meltdown Festival sees an eclectic programme of art, film and music put together by a different artist each year taking place at the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall; past curators have included Ray Davies, Massive Attack and David Bowie. On a smaller scale, but equally impressive is the majestic Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush, folk and world music gigs are the main choice here. And it’s becoming de rigeur to mismatch musical genres to venues, which is why British grime rapper Wiley has performed at the Royal Opera House, and the classical night Limelight sees mini orchestras crammed onto a tiny stage at the dingy 100 Club on Oxford Street, a legendary venue more accustomed to up and coming indie bands that gave the Sex Pistols and The Clash their first London gigs.

We Will Rock You
Good old fashioned stadium rocking still takes place at the newly rebuilt Wembley Arena. Take That’s comeback tour alighted here, and mainstream rock acts like Muse are the sort of bands you can expect to find yourself standing around listening to along with 90,000 others. o2, who seem to be encroaching on the capital’s live music scene with the determination of a hungry squirrel (they now own the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Islington Academy and Brixton Academy) have their own stadium experience at the o2 Centre, with an arena that accommodates 20,000. Everyone from Snoop Dogg to Cliff Richard perform here, as long as they have a big enough following. Before the performance you can eat at one of the refined eateries of the o2 Centre, like Nando’s or TGI Fridays.
You Love Us
o2 Brixton Academy, Koko, o2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Scala, the Roundhouse and the Jazz Café need little by means of introduction. Their large-ish capacity means they attract big names and often big ticket prices too. On a smaller scale are the Borderline, o2 Islington Academy and the Garage, all of which offer mostly indie and rock and the odd club night. New venues that have quickly earned themselves a reputation for their solid booking policies are Plan B in Brixton, an intimate club with a penchant for electronic and urban music, the Lexington in Islington for talent spotting, and the plethora of new(ish) venues that have opened up in the fashionable East End. Among these new kids on the block are XOYO and The CAMP, where you’ll encounter indie and electronic music, they also host club nights. The Vortex in Stoke Newington is beloved of jazz fans and is touted as a less mainstream alternative to the Jazz Café, and is grittier than Ronnie Scott’s.

This Old Guitar
Camden is still a hotbed of guitar-band activity. Walk up Camden High Street and take your pick from the dozens of pubs, bars and gig venues, from the renowned Electric Ballroom, Dingwalls and Barfly to the newer Blues Kitchen, the hard rock of the Underworld and Dublin Castle to catching trendy indie stars doing electro sets at the Lock Tavern. Shoreditch comes a close second, although the focus tends to be more on electronic music. Cargo and 93 Feet East are nothing short of institutions and intermingle guitar bands with DJ sets; then there’s the uber cool Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, the pub cum club Macbeth (where the former husband of the late Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil attacked the landlord one drunken night) and the Shacklewell Arms in Dalston, which boasts a tropical beach-themed dancefloor. Formerly the most musical street in London, Denmark Street near Soho still has a plethora of guitar shops, but there are few venues remaining; the 12 Bar Blues Club still stands (more on that below) but others come and go with regularity.
Let’s Stay Together
As you clutch a warm beer in a small dark room, the screech of feedback pierces your ears. You look around and there is a total of twelve other people here who also believe this band is going to make it. If you’re after the intimate experience you’re in luck, as there are plenty of pubs turned into makeshift venues and actual gig venues to choose from. The 12 Bar Blues Club ticks all the boxes – it’s minuscule, rough round the edges, hosts plenty of unsigned bands and opens late every night of the week. The more recently opened Bowery on New Oxford Street has a glitzy bar and a dark basement where the bands perform, which veer towards indie rock. In an area not usually known for showcasing live music, the Notting Hill Arts Club is a cool bar cum venue with a teensy stage and dancefloor, expect hip hop, indie and regular club nights. For acoustic, confessional singer-songwriter type gigs there’s The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell, The Tabernacle in Notting Hill and the Half Moon in Putney, which since the 60s has seen many a famous band perform.

Sit Down
Does the idea of standing for the duration of a gig, squashed between other punters and only being able to see the top of someone’s head fill you with horror? Would you like to be able to tuck into a steak while you watch the performance? If you like jazz and blues then Ronnie Scott’s is the place, as the entire venue is seated and you can book a table when you buy your ticket. Otherwise you can go to Chelsea’s finest venue, The Troubadour - as long as you’re a fan of acoustic music - they do a mean fish and chips.


Author: Leila Hawkins