Seventies soap bars and sparkly curtains

Greystones show - the Everly Pregnant Brothers
Greystones show - the Everly Pregnant Brothers
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From the Mojo club to miniature theatres – Sheffield’s live music scene is constantly changing. Rachael Clegg takes a look at today’s live circuit and finds out where it’s at

GLITTER curtains drape the stage, the bar’s lined with working class heros and the toilets smell like 1970s cleaning products – welcome to the Queens Social Club.

But this is no ordinary social club.

Queens Social Club is fast becoming one of Sheffield most sought-after live music venues, with bands such as the hotly-tipped Foals requesting to play on its cabaret stage above all other venues in the city.

Now, it seems, both audiences and bands want more from a live venue, whether retro plumbing, kitsch decor or – less tangible – a unique atmosphere.

In the ’60s there was the Mojo Club, the ’70s there was the Black Swan, in 1981 the Leadmill opened and in the ’90s Sheffield’s live music scene was gate-crashed by Gatecrasher. Sheffield’s music scene has altered dramatically over the past 40-odd years but the live circuit has changed even more in the past three years.

The Boardwalk – formerly the Black Swan – home of The Clash’s first gig and Joe Cocker’s live debut closed just two years ago and The Grapes, where a bunch of 18-year-olds called the Arctic Monkeys played their first show – stopped putting bands on three years ago.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Where one venue has closed, another has sprung up. One such venue is the Greystones, which is quickly developing a reputation for being one of the city’s key venues, with a host of coveted gigs on its roster.

Duane Eddy played there in 2010, just days before an appearance on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage. Richard Hawley is known for his guest appearances at the venue.

Alex Buchanan, who runs the two-year old Greystones venue, says: “Where a venue has closed another has opened, like the Shakespeare. There are always peaks and troughs but it’s still a vibrant scene. It’s just a case of balancing quality acts with value-for-money ticket prices.”

Sarah Nulty, a promoter for Harley Live says: “A lot of people are looking for something different. Foals are a huge act and could play anywhere but they wanted to play at the Queens Social Club.”

But for Sarah, the appetite for quirkiness is age-related. “I think there are two camps that audiences in Sheffield fall into. There are the younger ones, the 18-, 19 year-olds who say ‘what the....’ when they walk in here because you open the door and you’re in the ’70s and then there are the 30-somethings that think it’s really cool.”

It’s not just audiences that are searching for something unusual, either. “Sharon Van Etten came here a while back and was like ‘wow this is amazing’, she embraced the kitschness.”

The Lantern theatre in Nether Edge is also a much-coveted venue by artists across the globe-.

Legend has it that the miniature Victorian theatre was built by a wealthy industrialist to stop his daughter becoming an actress and moving to London and turning into a hussy.

Promoter Matt Brisby says: “We had Simon Felice from the Felice Brothers look us up – he or his agent wanted to play here. This year we’ve got Ethan Johns, whose father was Beatles producer Glyn, and who produced the Kings of Leon. He looked us up as well.”

Matt believes that the popularity of quirkier venues, like the Lantern Theatre and Queens Social Club, is a result of a dissatisfaction with chain venues and soulless spaces. “People have complained about the soullessness of certain venues and the fact you can’t hear the band for the bloke who’s chatting loudly at the bar. And the O2 in Sheffield is very similar to the O2 in Birmingham – there is instead an appetite for venues that are unique.”

These quirkier, smaller venues also provide additional space for promoters from the Leadmill and Plug to place less mainstream acts.

For example, the Queens Social Club’s lower running costs, compared with those of the Leadmill, mean that promoters can take risks with more avant-garde, off-the-wall acts.

“Promoters are a lot more risk-averse now,” says Sarah. “They have lost a lot over the years – there’s isn’t much money in live music.”

For Sarah, the scene is still vibrant. “You could probably see a live gig most days of the week of Sheffield acts but Sheffield does get missed off the list a lot with bigger acts because they will just play Manchester, Leeds or Nottingham.”

But Sarah says that certain promoters and bookers are turning that around. “Kate Hewlett at the Harley and Rebecca at the Leadmill are really turning it around and the Leadmill has had some really great stuff recently.”

Adele at Plug says: “The scene’s still thriving but the trouble is there are too many older people and their demands for older, more established bands.”

And this is one area of the live circuit that is thriving – both financially and in terms of the number of shows.

Barney Vernon, who runs nationwide Sheffield-based promotion company the Gig Cartel says: “Over the past six months I have grown more confident in Sheffield’s music scene than ever.

“I am booking so many acts for the City Hall and I know that they’re busy because there are fewer and fewer available dates when I book the bands.”

Barney, who has been working as a promoter for more than 20 years, has started concentrating more on music that caters for the older audiences such as Stiff Little Fingers and Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter.

The demand for these more established acts is not fading either.

“I’ve never had so many artists playing at City Hall,” says Barney. “My business had led me to dealing predominantly with older acts.

“I stopped chasing younger acts years ago because it became too competitive but I’m more comfortable with artists with a high ticket price.”

Older audiences willing to pay that price want more from a venue, however.

“Older audiences don’t want a curfew, they don’t want to watch a band at 7.30pm and they don’t want to be drinking fizzy lager.”

Adele sums up the scene. “I think the music industry itself has changed. It’s no longer about rock and indie – there are so many different types of bands and genres that didn’t exist two or three years ago.”

And, as a result, the venues have risen to the bait, with miniature theatres, seventies soap bars and sparkly curtains.