The devil might have all the best tunes, but the Union Chapel is proof that him downstairs knows nothing about architecture. The Grade I-listed gothic masterpiece, completed in 1877, is still used as a working church – but equally uplifting is the effect the environment has on performances and performers. Bands raise their game when they’re playing the Union Chapel – it’d be sacrilege not to – and the spellbinding surroundings and acoustics mean it still beats the crap out of most modern, purpose-built venues. Having made its name hosting acoustic nights and occasional jazz shows, the Union Chapel has since become a magnet for big names looking to perform somewhere truly special.
Open since 1930, this stately red-brick building was purpose-built as the home of the English Folkdance and Song Society (and is named after its founder), and plays host to a musical selection inspired by their mission to ‘preserve and promote English folk dances in their traditional forms’. As a result, the roster is packed with barn dances, ceilidhs, traditional folk luminaries and the occasional ukulele shenanigan. More unexpected acts like Goldfrapp and Sigur Rós have played here in recent years too, but they’re very much the exception to the cultural heritage-based bill: this is the undisputed centre of London’s folk world.
Right at the centre of the vast concrete Barbican estate and arts centre, the Hall is the permanent home of the London Symphony Orchestra, which performs 90 concerts a year. But it’s not all concertos here by any means: the Barbican Centre’s exciting performing arts programme includes gigs by some of the best contemporary artists around, including electronic envelope-pushers, rock veterans, folk music legends and jazz giants. The venue also specialises in one-off concerts that bring together artists to perform themed selections of songs, such as its famous 2010 tribute concert for Nick Drake, or Beck’s ‘Song Reader’ event last year.
Established in 2010, this excellent Shoreditch venue quickly cemented itself as one of the most tasteful gig and clubbing venues in the area thanks to a booking selection that ignored genre and simply focused on quality. It continues to operate in a discerning way, thankfully, with an enormously wide range of the latest DJs, bands and producers all finding a home over its two floors, and it’s one of the best places in the city to catch rising pop stars, intimate launch gigs and stylish indie bands.
Since 1959, this legendary Soho jazz club has been hosting some of the biggest names in music. Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich and Chet Baker all played here, but Ronnie’s has also made room for other artists that fit its distinctive vibe, such as Tom Waits, Curtis Mayfield and Prince. Expanded to a capacity of 250 in 2006, the club hosts gigs every night of the week and has been a major force in the establishment of world-class London jazz scene – just as sax legend Ronnie Scott intended when he founded it back in the ’50s.
Boasting perfect acoustics, art nouveau decor and an excellent basement restaurant, the ‘Wiggy’ is one of the world’s top chamber music venues. Built in 1901 as the display hall for the German company Bechstein Pianos, the building was seized as enemy property in WWI and sold at auction for a fraction of its value. Current programming leans on the classical and Romantic periods, and musical luminaries who have performed at the Wigmore Hall include Sergey Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and Francis Poulenc.
Constructed in 1846 as a railway turntable shed, the Grade II-listed Roundhouse came into its own as a legendary music venue in the ’60s and ’70s when it hosted the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Ramones. After an extensive overhaul, it reopened in 2006 as a modern arts and mixed-media performance space. The main room benefits from quirky Victorian metal ‘ribs’, and regularly accommodates a staggering variety of acts – especially in September, when the iTunes Festival at the venue attracts the kind of artists more often found blowing the roofs off arenas.
Built in 1934 and nestled in Kentish Town, The Forum is a beautiful building that has played host to some of the music industry’s biggest names since becoming a live music venue in the 1980s. Rihanna, Kiss, Justin Timberlake, The Killers, Jack White, Amy Winehouse and more have played gigs here, with the 2,300 capacity and Roman-themed art deco interior lending both a sense of occasion and an intimate feel.
Naysayers be damned – ever since The O2 opened in 2007, transforming the endlessly floundering Millennium Dome into a multi-entertainment centre and London’s biggest indoor music venue, its main selling point has been the pulling power of some of the planet’s biggest superstars. Everyone from veterans in various states of decay (Barbra Streisand, Status Quo, The Four Tops) to fresher pop prospects such as Beyoncé, Kanye West, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus have pitched up at The O2, and even if it’s not known for its affordability or atmosphere, it’s hard to argue with a venue that regularly sells out 20,000 seats.
Built in the 1920s as a cinema, since the ’80s the Brixton Academy has grown into London’s most credible major rock venue. As one of the capital’s largest non-arena rooms, the (currently O2-sponsored) Academy has played its part in rock history, including hosting The Smiths for their last ever gig in December 1986. Although it’s echoey when half-full, the 5,000-capacity space is eternally popular because the raked standing area gives great sightlines of the metal, indie, alt rock and hip hop superstars who still take to its stage every week.
Built as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s husband in 1871, the Royal Albert Hall has been the venue for the (now BBC) Proms since 1941, despite acoustics that do orchestras few favours. Its splendid exterior is matched by the regal red-and-gold interior, crowned by a domed stained-glass skylight. Occasional classical concerts are held throughout the year, but nowadays pop and comedy gigs (including the annual Teenage Cancer Trust shows) are the venue’s bread and butter, and it’s still a symbolic venue for bands looking for some old-style credibility: if you play under that dome, you know you’ve made it.
Commonly known as the ‘People’s Palace’ – or Ally Pally – this enormous building has survived two devastating fires, years of poor funding and periods of bad management, and continues to hold a spot in the heart of Londoners. Its vast gig space has the biggest standing capacity in the city – 10,400 punters – meaning it’s a frequent stop for acts looking to do something spectacular: Disclosure, Bastille and Foals are only the latest bands to play huge homecoming shows here.
The Jazz Cafe is something of an institution on London’s live music scene. Converted from a branch of Barclays Bank and refitted with a quasi-industrial feel, it boasts two bars – one separating the small lounge area out front from the large live room – and an upstairs restaurant and seated viewing gallery. Its programme is by no means jazz-specific, as you might assume – it also features hip hop (heavily), soul, funk, R&B, reggae, dancefloor-driven electronic sounds and indigenous music of all kinds.
This former BBC theatre is one of London’s best mid-sized venues, with a gig roll that would put the likes of Wembley to shame. David Bowie, Kylie Minogue, Elton John, Smashing Pumpkins, Muse and The Rolling Stones have all played at the Empire – although one of the most notorious events in its history took place in 2003, when Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines provoked angry Texans to burn her band’s albums with a throwaway on-stage comment about George Bush. When it comes to London’s own famous Bush, the Empire is far and away the best reason to visit.
If you’re after a mixture of underground sounds and a lounge space where you can actually hear what your mates are saying, you can’t do much better than ‘The Lex’. With an unashamedly American retro feel running through the decor (and the bar, which boasts over 40 whiskeys), it’s one of London’s best spots to hang out and hear live music of an alternative bent. Further diversity is offered by regular club nights, a weekly pub quiz (conducted by Rough Trade), swing dance classes and a rock ’n’ roll bingo night – but whatever’s happening here, music rules.
Not to be confused with the actual Brixton Windmill a stone’s throw away, The Windmill is a small, eccentric but perfectly-formed venue in a back street off Brixton Hill. A DIY approach to booking (and everything else) has earned the place respect for its seven-night-a-week bills of all things cultish, underground and generally leftfield. Rough and ready, but also candlelit and welcoming, The Windmill also benefits from a small back yard where barbeques are held every Sunday afternoon. Be warned, though: among the venue’s quirks is the mysterious dog that’s regularly seen prowling across the venue’s low roof.
Koko’s ornate, Grade II-listed building has endured through numerous incarnations: as a vaudeville house, a cinema, a BBC theatre, and (since the ’70s) a music venue and club. As The Camden Palace it had a high profile on London’s New Romantic club scene (it hosted the very first London gig by Madonna, no less), but since reopening as Koko in 2004 it’s been home to everything from indie and alt rock to big hip hop and pop names. With its colossal mirror ball as the ceiling centrepiece, its painted gargoyles and steep tiered balconies, Koko remains one of London’s most atmospheric music venues.
Open since 2008 and tucked away down a side street behind Kingsland High Street, Cafe Oto provides a fine home for a wide range of experimental music – including free improv – that exists well outside the mainstream. Expect to encounter anything from a Norwegian improv/free jazz/psych-rock power trio to a lecture by a minimalist composer to a surprise performance by Yoko Ono and Sonic Youth guitar legend Thurston Moore (who’s also sometimes seen working the door).
Over the past few years, the Southbank Centre has morphed and expanded to securing its position as one of the most attractive cultural hotspots in London. The dramatic, brutalist QEH is the second largest space within the sprawling Centre, and hosts prominent music events daily from across the genre spectrum – especially every June, when some of the key gigs in the annual Meltdown series are held here.
A former blue cinema in King’s Cross, Scala became a music venue in the ’70s, when Iggy Pop and Hawkwind strutted their stuff here. Now one of London’s best-loved gig spots, this multi-floored monolith is surprisingly spacious, spread out over four floors with three bars, two dance rooms and a main stage for live performances. Hosting a laudably broad range of indie, electronica, avant hip hop and folk, Scala is a relatively intimate space to catch fast rising acts as well as established stars playing low-key gigs.
As part of the inaugural London Music Awards, organised by the Mayor's Music Fund and sponsored by Raymond Weil, Time Outers were given the chance to decide which of the capital's great concert halls, clubs and gig venues should be awarded the title of 'London's Favourite Venue'.
After a month of voting, the Union Chapel in Islington was announced as the winner, making this the second time that the Union Chapel has been voted the best gig space in London by our readers – it won our poll back in 2012.
Second place in this year’s poll went to Cecil Sharp House, the folk music mecca near Regent’s Park. The headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society narrowly beat Barbican Hall into third place. All three venues – and the other 17 on our shortlist – are well worth checking out.