The lack of decent music venues in Edinburgh has been a black mark on the city’s cultural landscape for many years, but maybe things are changing. Robert James Peacock looks at some green shoots of recovery…
When Edinburgh trio Young Fathers rose to prominence to win last year’s Mercury Prize, along with an initial reaction of ‘wow!’ came a natural ‘how?’ – not a reflection on the band themselves, but on the parlous state of our capital’s music scene. Without a decent music infrastructure in the city (all due respect to the Bongo Club where Young Fathers met), how did any band get anywhere, let alone with something as un-Edinburgh as hip-hop?
The issue is nothing new. Edinburgh has always played second fiddle to Glasgow where music is concerned. For every art-rock Django Django or impeccably indie Fast Product label that Edinburgh produces, Glasgow has a Franz Ferdinand or a Postcard Records that overshadows it. As far as venues go, the picture is even worse. Barrowlands, King Tut’s – Glasgow’s key venues trip off the tongue. There’s a reason Alan McGee discovered Oasis in Glasgow and not Edinburgh. And the few dedicated, mid-sized venues Edinburgh does have often die sad deaths. The much-missed Venue (pictured above) is nine years gone, The Picture House has been flogged to Wetherspoons. A recent book, Dear Green Sounds, eulogised Glasgow’s musical built heritage. No chance of an Edinburgh equivalent anytime soon, I would wager.
For reasons too dismal to discuss here, Edinburgh Council have played their part in creating this environment – there’s a petition you’re urged to sign if this irks you. More positively though, in the face of difficult circumstances, Edinburgh’s music community are beginning to take matters into their own hands…
One such endeavour is Soundhouse, a project with the express ultimate aim of creating a bespoke live music centre led by musicians themselves, and by their audiences. Spearheaded by Douglas Robertson and partner, Jane-Ann, Soundhouse has grown out of the house concerts that the pair have been successfully, and not altogether uncontroversially, hosting in their home, a converted former shop on the edge of Holyrood Park. The house concerts have introduced people to a hugely diverse range of performers, united only in their passion for playing.
Since December last year, thanks to a bulging contact book and an ear for a good act, Soundhouse have also been programming Monday night concerts in the bar of the Traverse Theatre. March saw Alasdair Roberts, Nick Harper and Klezmer group Celter Schmelter, April has welcomed Jyotsna Srikanth, Dr. Lee’s Prescription and Jo Lawry and May promises Dean Owens (reviewed here by The Wee Review in Glasgow), The Foghorn Stringband and more.
The busy Soundhouse programme has livened up a dead night of the week, and brought some extra custom for the Traverse to boot. “The Traverse gigs have been going very well indeed,” says Robertson. “The idea was to get the idea into people’s heads that Monday was for live music at the Traverse Bar. The Para Handy gig attracted 90, Martin Simpson had 140, and Martin Carthy, a similar number. Not bad for a Monday evening. The audiences are loving the vibe and keep coming back.”
Robertson’s disgruntlement with the environment for music in the city is evident, and has become the spark behind Soundhouse. “I’ve never been one to accept a situation that’s not right. I need to get active and do something about it. Hence when many talented musician friends are struggling to make ends meet, I start to look for practical solutions and get huge satisfaction when we find some success.”
There is not only a heartening enthusiasm behind the Soundhouse venture – Robertson flaunts the YouTube videos of some of his concerts with a parental pride – but also a refreshing lack of music biz cynicism and jadedness. “We’re learning from every gig about the technical issues, financial aspects, protocol, legalities, and promotion of live music. We’re also continually making contact with musicians, agents, managers and journalists. Learning the business really.”
As for the long term ambition – a new venue – it might take some time and face some hurdles, but there’s no questioning the desirability of the goal. “We’d like to find a city centre building that isn’t being converted to student or luxury flats. We’ll convert it into the best small venue/cafe/bar on the planet and do better than before what we’re doing now.”
No arguments there! In the meantime, the pair are also programming part of Tradfest (currently on, see our preview) and were recently selected by Eliza Carthy to curate one of her Legendary Nights series at Gateshead Town Hall.
Meanwhile, across town, music of a slightly different variety forms the bedrock of Summerhall’s recently launched Nothing Ever Happens Here… programme. In a case of musician-turned-promoter, Jamie Sutherland of local favourites Broken Records has taken on the task of booking the series, which is a veritable who’s-who of Scottish alternative music of the past decade. Broken Records themselves kicked proceedings off last month, PAWS followed up (see our review here), James Yorkston played last week (also reviewed) and upcoming treats include RM Hubbert, The Phantom Band and the near-mythical Khartoum Heroes, featuring Kenny Anderson, better known as King Creosote.
Although still a relative infant as a venue, Summerhall is now a familiar fixture of the Edinburgh arts scene. However, while it may buzz and hum as a Fringe hub, it’s an awful lot of building to make use of outside of Festival season, and a new identity as a music venue makes sense, the acoustic problems presented by a draughty old dissection hall notwithstanding. Gigs are booked throughout May and as late as Sun Kil Moon on 10 August. Beyond that? Who knows? For now, there’s the pleasing combination of notable arts venue and the great and good of Scottish alternative music to look forward to.
Nor is that the only new music night to have launched recently. In the basement of the Assembly Roxy, promoters the Chapel of Ease are putting on small, perfectly-formed gigs featuring talented musicians from across Scotland. Co-promoter Phil Bolger shares the concerns of many about the state of Edinburgh music:
“The talent is here but only thrives in other cities. The same people go to the same gigs and nights struggle, so new acts struggle. It seems really unhealthy, to the point that a night is created called Nothing Ever Happens Here… It’s designed to be tongue in cheek, but it’s also a sad reflection of the state of the scene – full of talent but only gets an audience in August.”
So far Chapel of Ease, run by Bolger and musician Toby Mottershead, have showcased, among others, Aberdeen-based Lizabett Russo (reviewed here) with the aim of creating “an easy, chilled night, not based around one genre, that is actively looking to bring new artists to a new audience.”
Their long-term goals may be more modest than those of Soundhouse or Summerhall, but they’re also keen to help their venue mark its place on the musical map. “We have two aims – to bring people back to the Assembly Roxy, that has a decent tradition of nights and talent, and to try to bring music to a wider audience than the cliques of people that already go to nights, who are often artists themselves.”
So, we may still be a long way from saying Edinburgh has a thriving music scene, but given what the financial crash has done for people’s prospects and dreams, not to mention arts and community funding, that’s not surprising. The darkest hour comes just before the dawn, and perhaps in the new nights and gig opportunities that are opening up perhaps finally, something is happening here.