For a musician to pass through Hackney is a rite of passage. The likes of Haim, Danny Brown, Fleet Foxes and Hackney residents Paloma Faith, Dizzee Rascal and actor and DJ Idris Elba have all graced stages in this vibrant area. Woodberry Life talks to the venues that support and celebrate East London’s musical heritage.
Hackney is synonymous with innovation, always pushing boundaries when it comes to music and the arts. If you’re looking to hear some of the freshest local and international music, then it should be your first port of call. What makes the area extra special is the variety of venues curating top-quality nights that cater to all manner of tastes, from grungy guitar bands to the latest in US rap talent.
“On a 15-minute bus ride you can go past loads of venues; Birthdays, Shacklewell Arms, Oslo, Old Blue Last, The Nest… There’s so much happening here,” says Ed Lilo who programmes events for both Birthdays and The Old Blue Last, two of East London’s most musically interesting venues.
“It’s always cool to have both super famous and new people play. If they suit the venue, then they’ll come and play. In London, there are millions of bands so a bunch of what we put on is local. There’s lots of talent here at all levels of making music.”
The Old Blue Last is one of the Hackney’s most notorious venues. Situated on the corner of Shoreditch’s Great Eastern Street and Curtain Road, it’s been around for more than 300 years as a theatre, pub and altogether a far less salubrious establishment than it is today. Vice bought the pub in 2004 and since then, it’s grown famous for championing a super-eclectic selection of bands.
“It’s more of a heritage venue but that doesn’t mean booking classic rock bands,” says Ed. “Many of the events are free entry, which lends itself better to indie, rock and guitar-led acts. But we’ve had Kylie play and one of the best shows was Billie Black in her early days of being a pop star.”
People travel far and wide to visit the legendary Old Blue Last, and this is something Chris Sharpe, who runs events at The Finsbury, aspires to. The Finsbury is a pub in Haringey, on the Hackney borders, which has put itself on the map for being a top music venue. “I’ve worked hard to get bands on who can attract people from all over London,” says Chris. “We usually have headline bands with a press campaign, some radio play or a management company behind them. There has to be a reason to book them – we don’t just showcase unsigned bands. There’s not too much of a set genre from Monday to Thursday but the weekends tend to be louder and more guitar-oriented.”
A ten-minute drive into Hackney and just off the buzzing Dalston thoroughfare of Kingland Road is the Shacklewell Arms, another pub-cum-music venue that’s also celebrated for a more indie-leaning music selection. “We have our regular club nights but other than that every month is blank so we can fill up with bands we like and bands offered by promoters we trust,” says Keith Miller, who looks after programming the Shacklewell’s music offering.
I’ll look at the history of the band, sales, if they’ve any press coming up, or if they’ve got a single coming out,” he says. “But if they’re just really good and starting out, then we’ll give them a show at the Shacklewell to help them out. Lots of bands have sharpened their teeth there. The Horrors, for example. They have their rehearsal studios nearby and have played loads at the Shacklewell.”
Keith describes the crowd at the Shacklewell as discerning, but very accepting of new music. This is something Ed echoes when describing the Hackney scene, and particularly the punters who frequent Birthdays.
Based on Dalston’s Stoke Newington Road, Birthdays is one of East London’s go-to basement venues when it comes to the best in cutting-edge electronic music.
“The music is really eclectic; the space lends itself to electronic acts thanks to the sound system and the venue has a big reputation for bringing the newest, coolest US rap artists to London. We also put on a bunch of guitar bands. So it’s about a mix of stuff we like that can fill the venue,” Ed explains.
One of the local artists he’s been most impressed by is Islington-born rapper Little Simz, who played the venue in 2014. She’s been tipped for big things, gaining ground for her intelligent, soulful lyrics, collaborating with some of the most exciting up-and-coming US producers.
Just on the other side of the road is another of Dalston’s more electronic musically minded venues, The Nest. Andy Peyton, who books the venue’s events, speaks very highly of the local Hackney-based talent, saying that he likes to bring through DJs from the area who can then become regulars. His success stories include Hackney residents Lemmy Ashton and Kiwi, who also play at XOYO, the club he owns in Shoreditch.
XOYO is widely touted as one of the best clubs in London at the moment, and in the spirit of Hackney, Andy continually innovates to keep it relevant. A formula that’s been particularly exciting is booking a DJ for a 12-week period where they curate their own events and essentially put their own stamp on the club. “We didn’t want to have just a genre so we thought of a concept that was a bit different,” Andy explains.
It’s yet another example of how the Hackney music scene continues to raise its game. One thing’s for sure; East London is certainly keeping the rest of the capital on its toes.
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