When it comes to live music, Leeds is up there with the best of 'em, with a diverse and very credible selection of musical goodies ranging from hip hop and house to rock, reggae, rockabilly and everything in between. But with such a wide choice on offer, it can be difficult to pin down where it is you should be heading. We've picked some of our favourites below, so if you're looking for the next big thing - or the big thing itself - this selection should stand you in good stead. See you at the front.
Few bars can boast a reputation as legendary as Fab Cafe’s. The small pink UFO of the bar’s logo gives a tantalising glimpse of what’s to come as you step down the space port-like stairs into the mind-bending maze of memorabilia and sci-fi artefacts. Kitted out to look like a cross between Jabba the Hutt’s cave and a 15-year-old trekky’s bedroom, it is bedecked with decades’ worth of toys, posters and statues. The weekend hosts house and often famous guest DJs who spin the best rock and pop from a kind of space pulpit elevated above the dancefloor, while a life-size Darth Maul presides over a row of arcade games.
It may not be Prohibition-era America, but there’s definitely something clandestine about venturing upstairs into a dimly lit bar to the sound of smooth jazz and blues. Weeknights often see a selection of bands and singers perform in front of an invariably sparse, yet attentive, crowd. On an ordinary weeknight, Smokestack may get overshadowed by the its louder, brighter and funkier neighbours in the debauched Call Lane, but, come the weekend, some of the best DJs in town arrive to play a body-shaking mix of disco, Motown and soul.
This St Peters Square pub has enjoyed enduring popularity in a rather challenging location, thanks to solid word-of-mouth reviews of its menu, a packed calendar of gigs, and excellent cocktails whipped up by friendly staff. The upstairs bar has a trendy, unbuttoned vibe, hosting live funk acts on Saturdays, while monthly burlesque show The Wet Spot and a number of larger gigs held downstairs mean the venue is regularly packed.
Those in the know will eschew the surrounding chain pubs in favour of the invitingly worn leather sofas of Nation of Shopkeepers. Frequented by the bearded, tattooed, fixie-riding denizens of Leeds, the large, open-plan and undeniably trendy bar offers a place to hang out, take a first date or watch an up-and-coming indie act break in their stage routine. Mirrored tiles and copper piping in the loos make you want to powder your nose for that little bit longer, and there’s a constant pump of synthpop being played all day, before things get noisy with a club night or gig.
Since it opened in 2002, Sandinista has been a late-night watering hole par excellence. Named after the band of Nicaraguan revolutionaries and the fourth album by The Clash, Sandinista bills itself as having a ‘non-conformist spirit and complex ethos’. As soon as you walk in, you get the gist of what it means. And if you’re there in the evening at the weekend, the music really hammers it home, with a head-spinning mixture of 60s and 70s pop, rock and punk classics combined with post-80s indie. The recently unveiled student night Nevermind, held every Thursday, is a fantastic example of the music it has to offer.
When the Belgrave Music Hall opened in 2013 it responded to a need for a large-room music venue with a decent bar and reliable food. What was once a large nursery school in the city’s Northern Quarter is now a vibrant, youthful, multi-storey hangout that, after having only been open for a year, could be considered the city’s best live music venue. Larger than its closest Leeds counterpart, Nation of Shopkeepers, Belgrave is the brainchild of the Beacons Festival organisers, and offers all the socialising opportunities and entertainment of an outdoor event without the rain, mud and portable loos.
Deep in the heart of the Student Union building at the University of Leeds is the cavernous Stylus, a nightclub that occasionally doubles up as a live music venue. On Friday nights during term time it’s the focal point of weekly student night Fruity – a veritable apocalypse of wasted freshers, cheesy 90s pop and Jägerbombs. It’s something to do once as a student and, quite possibly, never again. It hosts around half a dozen concerts per month during the normal touring seasons (January to April and September to December), but in the past has hosted a diverse range of names, from Ms Dynamite and Public Enemy to The Kooks and Dinosaur Jr.
Having spent the 90s as the Town & Country Club, this gothic venue was refurbished and opened as the O2 Academy in 2008. Old bands reuniting to pay their mortgages seems to account for half of its schedule, and tickets are normally quite pricey – nearly £30 to see the The Boomtown Rats, for example – but it also attracts more current names. In the past 12 months, it’s hosted chart stars such as Clean Bandit, Sam Smith, The Courteeners and a two-night Christmas extravaganza by local indie icons The Cribs. Propaganda, a popular student night that offers cheap Jägerbombs and beer, offsets the big-ticket events.
Although most of Leeds’ key places for nights out are city centre venues, every once in a while a suburban spot will find its place on the map. Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton is not only an independent arts venue, with the bar doubling up as a gallery, but is also a contemporary performance space famed for its gigs, fine wine, and impressive menu. The upmarket town isn’t short of quality places to drink and dine, but Seven turns an evening into a sophisticated, self-contained package of entertainment with a constant calendar of jazz, folk, blues, rock, spoken word, and comedy acts.
With its motto ‘Music For The People’ emblazoned above the well-stocked bar, and the array of rock ’n’ roll and Americana memorabilia adorning its walls, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that Mojo is about music first and drinks second. To an extent, that’s true, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of places to drink, but very few of them are as adept as Mojo at providing unpretentious, cocktail-fuelled good times. The owner describes the weathered decor as ‘clean but dirty at the same time, like some long forgotten blues riff’. But there’s more to Mojo than the sounds of the 60s – it’s as in love with modern classics as it is with Hendrix and Harrison.
This unassuming basement club is a reliable option for a good night out if your horizons extend beyond the usual Pryzm/Space/Mission commercial sweatboxes. For those who love alternative music – be it indie, electronica, hip hop or a mix of genres – The HiFi Club is a veritable treasure chest. It has hosted gigs by everyone from SBTRKT to The Pigeon Detectives, as well as DJs Gilles Peterson, Andy Votel and Jerry Dammers, and is home to a weekly stand-up comedy night and four weekly club nights that encompass a range of sounds from Motown to funk, soul and hip hop.
The arrival of Leeds’ first large-capacity venue was undoubtedly long-overdue: it was left behind for years as huge rock bands toured the country, yet were forced to play in Sheffield, Liverpool or Manchester, instead of the city equally famed for its contribution to music. The First Direct Arena was not only a game-changer for the city, but also for big concert halls all over. The calendar has a heavy emphasis on rock ‘n’ roll royalty, with acts including Jack White, Dolly Parton, Pearl Jam, Eric Clapton and Elton John having already performed here.
The recently rebranded Leeds Beckett University (formerly the Met) easily rivals the Leeds Uni’s social space, boasting one of the best mid-size venues in the city, as well as a sprawling bar area to hang out between lectures, play pool and get together to chant sporting mantras. Countless acts pass through The Stage each year, and it’s a key venue during the annual Live at Leeds festival when the best up-and-coming bands can perform on the same billing as well-established performers.
Concerns about Wire’s more aesthetic issues aside, it’s host to some of the city’s longest-running nights, and the indie disco Fuzzy Logic and the pop and contemporary beats of Straight Up have provided welcome deviations from the dubstep/jungle/house soup of many of the city’s other clubs for years. The venue proudly brings in high profile and big-on-the-scene underground DJs, and has hosted sets by the likes of Alt J, Metronomy, The Horrors and Erol Alkan over the years.
Sitting at the heart of the student-orientated Hyde Park community, the Brudenell Social Club is arguably the jewel in Leeds' music scene crown, acting as the epicentre of the city’s indie music community. Whereas the O2 Academy and the First Direct Arena play host to the big names, ‘the Brude’ has the character, pulling in new bands and established cult acts from both sides of the Atlantic. In the recent past, the Brudenell has hosted secret gigs by indie rockers Franz Ferdinand and Leeds’ own Kaiser Chiefs. Most nights of the week, though, the Brudenell puts on small gigs by artists from all manner of musical disciplines.