When I first went to London I was shocked to see the size of the Time Out magazine (which was not the weekly freebie it is today but a monthly publication) and its music section: page after page of small prints listing all the bands in all the venues, every day of the month. I nearly overdosed averaging 2-3 gigs a week until I forced myself to slow down. In the process though I visited quite a lot of venues and what I’m sharing here is a list of the places I keep an eye on, as they often host very good bands, mostly unknown or not yet quite popular. To keep track of the best gigs without losing your mind, always flick through the Time Out (free on Tuesdays) or other papers that can be easily found in pubs like Loud and Quiet or London in Stereo.
Address: 96-98 Pentonville Rd, N1 9JB
The beautiful Lexington combines a broad american drinks list and retro decor with an unbeatable soundtrack. Grab a pint at the main bar before heading upstairs for one of the daily gigs. Make sure you buy the ticket in advance as, by experience, they all go sold out pretty easily. This pub is famous for hosting lots of new promising acts and for their music-focused pub quiz on monday nights. Will you dare to test your musical knowledge?
Ain’t nothin’ but…
It took me a few years to discover this place, which I found accidentally while strolling with a friend along the street where his office is. My enthusiasm for this sensational discovery was curbed when I was told that it is mentioned on every travel guide ever published. Well, no wonder it is: this place is truly incredible, if you like blues music of course. Musicians play on the little stage everyday from about 7pm until past midnight. Far different from the fancy bars and trendy shops that populate the streets of Soho this blues bar looks like it has been forgotten here by the relentless redevelopers. My suggestion: get here early, before 8, so you can get one of the few seats available and be part of the show.
Address: 100 Oxford St, W1D 1LL
This place is so good that I wouldn’t believe it existed. Up and running since the 40s has famously declined a slot to the débuting Rolling Stones, hosted glorious names of the likes of Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie and had a fundamental role in the punk movement led by the Sex Pistols. Recently the grey eminences of British and international rock mobilised to save it from closure. With such a history it’s remarkable to notice how it hasn’t really changed much. Small and friendly it could really be a gig venue of any pub but walking under the red awning and down the narrow stair is a step into music history. And not that the club is living on its glorious past, the listing features many new upcoming bands. Needles to say: get a ticket in advance.
One great East London pub, hidden away in a narrow alley off Hackney Road this place manages to balance its east-end working class feel with a modern hip vibe. Their beers selection is rich and the resident Lucky Chips deliver some of the tastiest and greasiest burgers ever tried. Their basement room is dedicated to live music, hosting from the most unknown bands to the next big things. Shame I missed the album launch of Jim Jones Revue, the gig was so loud though that we managed to hear most of it anyway.
Address: 114-116 Curtain Pl, EC2A 3AH
This is a rather unusual place, in fact it’s a vintage clothes shop that at night turns into a quirky bar and the bands perform at the window. I’ve never seen a boring or dull or plain bad act here. The listings are carefully crafted and the bands are picked amongst the most unusual and entertaining acts available, always with a vintage touch to their music. The entrance is free and a DJ set usually follows so don’t be shy and dance the night away, perhaps at the nearby Strongroom once the Paper Dress closes.
Address: The Arches, Villiers Street, WC2N 6NG
Under the arches of Charing Cross station there’s my favourite gig venue in London. Perfect size, it’s quite dark and has a unique atmosphere and, when not hosting the famous gay club nights some very good bands rock its stage. I fell in love with this place when I saw Tame Impala on their first gig in the UK, still a relatively unknown band. Bigger than the other places listed the Heaven usually hosts bigger acts so make sure you book your ticket in advance.
Address: 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, E8 3DL
If you’re tired of rock bands, and you can’t be bothered with blues or garage… or simply want something different, than head immediately to the Café Oto. One of the pioneers of the now bustling Dalston, is conveniently located few steps away from both the Overground stations serving this area. Think of free jazz, world music, DIY avant-garde. Got the picture? Well the music at Café Oto is usually way weirder than that. Look at this video if you don’t believe me.
Honestly I think that even if you’re not too much into this kind of music, it’s worth going for one of the many free gigs, at least for the experience. You can always skive off to the Vortex Jazz Club, which is 5 minutes away.