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London's magical music venues

Sure The O2 attracts the biggest names, but there's a lot to be said for London's unusual, secret and quirky gig spaces

The gothic getaway (© Tom Oldham)
© Tom Oldham

Chapel of St Barnabas, 1 Greek Street, W1D 4NQ

Soho was a very different place when the Chapel of St Barnabas was completed in 1864. Now, nipping into this holy spot off rowdy Greek Street feels like stepping from the ridiculous into the sublime. The chapel’s architects were inspired by the rustic majesty of the medieval Montmajour Abbey in the south of France, and created a simple yet wonderful place for worship, which is now also used for gigs. Look out in particular for world music maven Gilles Peterson putting on intimate acoustic events with some of his favourite rising musicians.

‘From the mosaic tiled floor to its domed turquoise ceiling, the chapel has charm in abundance. Unspeakable magic can occur unimpeded. Musicians and audiences love it.’ Folk hunk Nick Mulvey (pictured above playing at a Gilles Peterson showcase last year)

Read more about Chapel of St Barnabas

The speakeasy (© Rob Greig)
© Rob Greig

Nightjar, 129 City Rd, EC1V 1JB

It might seem like every other London basement is a Prohibition era-themed cocktail bar these days, but some are more special than others. Nightjar – found behind an inauspicious door near Old Street roundabout – takes its inspiration from New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, and has vintage glamour down to a Long Island iced tee. The venue squeezes a different band onto its tiny stage nearly every night, for drinkers to get their Gatsby on to from 9pm.

‘It's a venue where you can have fun, fall in love, or fall on the pavement drunk.’ Benoit Viellefon, guitarist (pictured above)

Read more about Nightjar

The west London timewarp

Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Rd, W12 7LJ

Gilt-edged mirrors, chandeliers, red velvet curtain, disco ball… oh, and seriously, check out the decorative mouldings. Bush Hall, built in 1905, seems to tear a rent in the space/time continuum on a fried-chicken dominated stretch of Shepherd’s Bush. Big names including Kings Of Leon, The Killers and Florence have all appeared in the past, though the hall is more often used for intimate singer-songwriter gigs. When the upstairs is open, factor in a second bar, a roof terrace and a balcony overlooking the stage. Lovely.

‘It’s nice to feel in that tradition of treading the London boards.’ Serafina Steer, folk-pop harpist (pictured playing at Bush Hall in early 2013)

Read more about Bush Hall

The boathouse (© GYC Events)
© GYC Events

Greenwich Yacht Club, 1 Peartree Way, SE10 0BW

Crouched on wooden stilts between the O2 and the Thames Barrier, Greenwich Yacht Club is a striking rectangle of steel and glass. It’s the perfect venue for a cappella trio The Ballina Whalers and contemporary folk crew Nest Collective to host their monthly series dedicated to the songs of the sea. The Shanty Sessions take place in the naval flag-decked Members’ Bar, where floor-to-ceiling windows give a full view of the river and, by night, an ocean of twinkling city lights.

‘Having such a tangible connection to the water brings huge resonances to the music.’ Jamie Doe, singer from The Ballina Whalers

Read more about Greenwich Yacht Club

The antiquated music hall (© Rob Greig)
© Rob Greig

Wilton's Music Hall, 1 Graces Alley, E1 8JB

John Wilton’s ornate rumpus room was one of several trendsetting musical venues when it opened in 1850. Unlike the others, however, Wilton’s Music Hall survived fires, floods, collapses, the Luftwaffe and ’60s redevelopment. Apart from some charming wear-and-tear, the hall – now the oldest of its kind in the world – looks as it did 150 years ago. One of the city’s most special places.

‘Looking out on stage, it’s incredibly beautiful: full of splendour, but at the same time old and crumbling. It’s a great combination.’ Anna Calvi (pictured before playing Wilton’s in September 2013)

Read more about Wilton's Music Hall

The cinema paradise

The Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way, SE11 4TH

Formerly part of Lambeth Workhouse, The Cinema Museum in Kennington is now a treasure trove of fusty cinematic antiques. Occasional gigs take place in the old chapel, where a huge statue of Charlie Chaplin (who was resident at the Workhouse as a nine-year-old boy) looms over the audience. Everything from the lights to the audience’s chairs come from cinemas. For extra authenticity, volunteer Maurice Hardcastle dresses up in a period usher’s uniform to welcome you at the door. Bless.

‘It is tucked away – bizarre but also majestic and humble. It puts the audience in an interesting mindset: half full of surreal wonder, and half regressed to a nervous school trip mentality.’ Singer-songwriter Keaton Henson (pictured above playing at the Museum)

Read more about The Cinema Museum

The living room

Sofar Sounds, various living rooms in London

Offering an alternative to noisy bars and impersonal arenas, Sofar Sounds has been staging free gigs in music fans’ own homes since 2009. Past performers on the surprise bills have included synth-rock stars Bastille, folk-leaning sister act The Staves and even Robert blooming Pattinson. Make the guestlist for one of the several London gigs a month and you’ll be directed by text to a private address, where you may find yourself discovering tomorrow’s talent (or today’s A-listers) in the company of the host’s pet cat.

‘It can be a bit surreal, but the Sofar gigs are always fun and memorable. The atmosphere is intimate and the crowds warm.’ Dan Smith, frontman of Sofar regulars Bastille

For secret gig alerts see www.sofarsounds.com

The industrial hangar

Oval Space, 29-32 The Oval, E2 9DT

Oval Space is great inside and out. The former medical supplies warehouse – found high up within a Hackney industrial complex – has a terrace offering stunning views of the derelict gasworks next door. Inside, the hangar-style space is a favourite for leftfield musicians including Thom Yorke’s band Atoms For Peace. Those of a pedantic nature beware: it’s not oval-shaped, it’s square.

‘The view is proper. Hanging by the gas towers is worth the ticket price alone.’ Funky electronicist and Oval Space supporter Jamie Lidell

Read more about Oval Space

The tunnel (© Vickie Flores)
© Vickie Flores

The Thames Tunnel Shaft, Brunel Museum, Railway Avenue, SE16 4LF

The Thames Tunnel Shaft is the cavernous entrance to a disused under-river subway dating from Victorian times. It can be pretty eerie, clambering through a dark passageway and heading down 50 feet of stairs to reach the stage, but the musicians are soothing, and the homemade cakes make it more ‘Great British Bake Off’ than ‘The Descent’.

‘Like performing inside a giant well, steeped in history and atmosphere.’ Singer-songwriter Jon Bilbrough, aka Wilderthorn

Read more about The Thames Tunnel Shaft at Brunel Museum

The Thames barge

Tamesis Dock, Albert Embankment, SE1 7TP

Tamesis Dock is a 1930s Dutch barge that was rescued from disrepair in 2008, and is now moored in the Thames near Vauxhall. Inside it’s a cosy, quirky boozer and occasional gig venue, containing a two-floored pick ‘n’ mix of antique furniture and oddball art. Catch new and rising bands there, or head down for party-primed DJ nights. Seasickness-sufferers, beware: when the tide shifts, Tamesis sways like a drunk giraffe, so work your sea legs into your dance moves.

'Like most boats on the Thames, this one is slightly on the piss. But what it lacks in luxury it makes up for in atmosphere and low ceilings.’ Party veteran and Tamesis DJ Bill Brewster

Read more about Tamesis Dock

Not all magical gigs happen in established London venues. Some take place in quirky, intimate and out-of-the-way places that you have to be in-the-know to find. As ever, Time Out is on hand to point you in the right direction. Take a look at our pick of ten incredibly cool venues. All of them offer extra-special live music experiences in jaw-droppingly beautiful spaces.

Did we miss out your favourite unsung gig venue? Let us know in the comments box below or tweet us at @TimeOutMusic.



I am biased because I work there but Handel House Museum is a very special venue. The baroque composer Handel lived for 36 years in a mid terrace Georgian townhouse off Bond Street and where a number of important works - including Messiah - were written. The House is now a museum and weekly concerts are held in Handel's rehearsal and performance room which has a capacity of only 28 seats. It is a chance to immerse yourself in early music in a very special room where Handel himself gave private performances of his new operas and oratorios.


A great live music venue in south London is Tooting Market - fantastic live music Thursday evenings in a traditional covered market. And it's free. Check out Bindlesticks for details https://www.facebook.com/Bindlesticks

Peter Lorenzo

Re: ...in industrial east London. Your reviewer wrote "those of a pedantic nature beware: it's not oval shaped". Pedants would also state that it is in Tower Hamlets not Hackney and that the gas works are gasometers and nor are they derelict. But apart from that....