Birmingham live music venues
Alfie Bird’s is a multi-storey temple to coolness, with a split-level personality and a great selection of drinks to choose from. The bar is perfectly placed in the heart of Digbeth, once Birmingham’s manufacturing powerhouse and now the scene of a wholesale takeover by vintage shops and creative studios. At the heart of all this is The Custard Factory, the converted former headquarters of Bird’s Custard, whose current tenants include two art galleries and a 1950s beauty salon. Taking its name from the man who built the brand, Alfie Bird’s overlooks the pool at the centre of the courtyard. Walk into the ground-floor space and things feel a bit like a hipster frathouse. There are luxury Chesterfields to lounge on, a foosball table and a red telephone box (in case your iPhone 6 dies, of course). They call this The Pizzeria, and the casual vibes go perfectly with the fantastic stone-baked pizza on offer. Next level up is Libby’s Lounge, a wonderfully kitsch space that sends you straight back to the 1970s. Orange and brown flowers on the wall tread an extremely fine line between vintage and naff. Luckily, the cocktails pull it back from the edge. The Tom Collins (£6.50) is definitely a classic rather than an oldie; gin, lemon, sugar syrup and soda unite for a timeless and refreshing blend. But the must-try here is Alfie’s vanilla custard martini (£7), a delicious nod to the guy who started it all back when the Custard Factory was just that - a custard factory.
One for the dancers, the rockers, the hipsters and the ravers, The Hare & Hounds has an eclectic programme of live music and party nights to cater for almost every taste. It’s also a great place to while away a lazy Sunday. King's Heath, the increasingly vibrant area to the south of the city centre, is where this musical mecca is found, in a Grade II-listed building sprawling across multiple floors and spaces. Ever since UB40 played their first gig here back in 1979, The Hare & Hounds has been on the city’s music map. The high ceilings and heritage interiors are a great setting for the buzzing crowds that throng here every weekend (and often during the week, too). There’s a relaxed and friendly atmosphere – even on busy nights – in a venue that manages to retain its neighbourhood pub vibe. You’ll pay £4.50 for a pint of top-notch local craft beer, but there are plenty of cheaper options like San Miguel and Estrella. They also stock a good range of spirits including Chase gin and various vodkas. And, as if being a great music venue and pub wasn’t enough, like so many of Birmingham’s bars, The Hare & Hounds has caught on to the city’s foodie revolution, too. The increasing Brummie appetite for high-quality, casual dining is served here by a series of pop-ups by the likes of Soul Food Project, who regularly take over the kitchen and serve up their wares.
Expect beards, knitwear, scuffed-up floorboards and ripped red leather sofas. Going strong since the late 90s, The Sunflower Lounge is probably Birmingham’s premier venue for the boho crowd that likes things rough and ready. On your way in, prepare to negotiate the odd puddle of spilt beer and don’t be put off by the cracked window patched up with brown tape. The décor is part punk-chic, part 60s psychedelia and De Stijl simplicity. One entire side of the (quite narrow) venue is covered in black and turquoise floral print wallpaper; posters of Elvis Presley and ‘La Dolce Vita’ hang on the walls. The sound system pumps out a mixture of soul classics and left-of-the-dial alternative rock bangers from the 80s and 90s. It’s not all strictly alternative though – The Sunflower Lounge shows televised football and the bar serves a lot of lager. A range of promoters use the venue for live shows and local unsigned bands have long found a home here, with its intimate nature making it a popular spot for up-and-coming acts on initial tours. The downstairs, box-shaped gig room itself is a veritable feedback chamber with sheer red and black walls helping create the perfect sleazy vibe. The faint of heart may want to bring earplugs.
Think sloping roof beams, dark wooden furnishings and skull-pattern wallpaper alongside exposed brickwork: The Flapper's distinctive character is engrained in its material peculiarities. It can seem a little tucked away – hidden from the main road, its entrance lies at the end of something resembling a small metal drawbridge – but that suits a venue renowned for its fiercely independent atmosphere. Built in the late 1960s, but renamed 'The Flapper and Firkin' in 1991: this spacious canal-side pub has been an institution of the independent music scene ever since. Back in the 90s, bands as diverse as At The Drive-In and Doves chose its modest downstairs stage for early UK tours. Today, it remains popular with bands of a hardcore sensibility; Pulled Apart By Horses and Dinosaur Pile-Up recently passed through, no doubt attracted by a subterranean live room built to reverberate with energy and noise. The Flapper even boasts its own yearly 'Off The Cuff' music festival dedicated to local and touring acts that practice noise-rock and other electronic-infused madness. The upstairs bar operates as something of a hub for those on the fringe of more overt local shrines to heavy-metal iconography; its walls display punk and glam rock stars side-by-side, just opposite the pinball machines. Gone are the days when punters could try their luck with a £1 pint of Dogbolter (the stock behind the bar is largely standard issue), but The Flapper still excels in a spirit of alternativeness for
Tucked away in a corner of Bourneville, behind a Tumble Jumble indoor playground and within an unassuming façade that most resembles an industrial storage unit, is one of Birmingham’s most reputable and delightfully odd live music venues. Honestly. The Roadhouse’s dedication to staging live music is incomparable, with local bands and tribute acts every weekend, plus jam nights and open mics most days of the week, covering almost any musical genre you’d care to name, including their trademark Blues-day Tuesday. The live room is fairly large with a massive stage, but still manages to feel intimate thanks to the way things are arranged, with seating at the front and standing-room towards the back. Open Mic nights at The Roadhouse are renowned for being as chaotic as they are fun and draw a good crowd of honest music lovers who come along for the ride in good faith of the venue’s reputation. Just off the main bar area, there’s also a smaller second room that, in recent years, has mostly been used to stage comedy acts – again, often with an egalitarian, open-mic agenda. If you’re looking for great entertainment with an eclectic twist, outside the city centre, then The Roadhouse is as good a shout as anywhere in Birmingham.
Strictly Dixie in terms of décor, with the elegance of New Orleans greeting you through the door, The Jam House prides itself on a status as one of Birmingham’s more sophisticated venues. The downstairs bar keeps things simple; there are a few bar stools scattered around, but, failing that, you either stand or lean against the olive and leaf green walls. If you’re not keen on standing up all evening, your best bet is to book ahead at the upstairs restaurant that surrounds the central stage area in a near-horseshoe balcony. The walls are lined with framed photographs of past performers at the venue – many are what you’d expect from a jazz club, while others like Snow Patrol, Alvin Stardust and Tony Christie demonstrate there’s more than just jazz on offer here. It’s important to know before visiting that this is a venue where the champagne menu is roughly the same length as the wine list, and seems to be an ever popular destination for groups of women over the age of 30. Perhaps this is down to The Jamhouse’s status as one of Birmingham’s few over-21 music venues and its dress code that demands gentleman wear a shirt on the weekend. It might sound formal, but as a jazz club, The Jam House certainly looks the part.
While some arts centres can be quite limited in what artistic disciplines they feature in their programme, mac doesn’t discriminate, and offers everything from theatre and comedy to cinema, dance, and visual art. Situated on the edge of Cannon Hill Park, it’s been at the centre of Birmingham’s arts community for decades, and once counted Oscar-nominated Mike Leigh as one of its resident theatre directors. Simply put, anyone interested in the fringes of modern theatre should make the mac one of their first ports of call, as both the main theatre and smaller Hexagon space give room to some of the most cutting edge (and, often, bizarre) theatre companies working today. There’s a small outdoor arena that comes into use in the summer, hosting theatre and live music, and the designers even found room for a first-floor gallery that offers both touring works and commissions from Midlands artists. The mac holds a plethora of workshops and courses – running the gamut from animation and capoeira dance to ceramics and tai chi – and Birmingham comic James Cook leads a regular stand-up course for anybody looking to turn their gags into polished routines. Throw in a small cinema that often screens films you won’t see anywhere else in the city, and you’ve got one of the most important cultural spaces in Birmingham.