With a musical legacy as good as Manchester's, it's little surprise to see it's still a town at which the world casts an envious eye. And whatever pleasures your musical palate, you'll probably be able to find it here, be it classical or calypso, beats and bass or bossa nova, hip hop, house, garage or gabba. Okay, maybe not the last one but you get the idea - there's a lot of quality music to bathe your ears in. And while our bars and clubs sometimes serve up some pretty darn good tunes, you can't beat those venues dedicated to the art. So here's our pick of the best music venues in Manchester. Happy listening.
Manchester live music venues
Having been refurbished and engineered exclusively with live music in mind, Band on the Wall has one of the best reputations in the city for shows and clubnights. The venue is spacious, with both a huge wooden dancefloor and a series of snug balconies in the round. The music programming leans towards world and experimental, and has won regular acclaim for its support of jazz, for which it’s regarded as one of the best venues in the UK.
In 2013, Manchester International Festival worked with the new owners Trof, the people behind other great Manchester venues such as Gorilla and the Deaf Institute, restoring and reviving this truly spectacular space for performances by, among others, Goldfrapp, Mogwai and Maxine Peake in The Masque of Anarchy. Thank the musical gods they did. The main space is astonishing.
There aren't many places where you can see Mahler's 5th one night and Liza Minnelli the next. Manchester's premiere concert venue is such a place. Boasting over 250 performances a year, Bridgewater Hall is the grand home to three resident orchestras: the Hallé, the BBC Philharmonic and Manchester Camerata. No surprise then to see a programme reflecting an impressive range of classical performance, where the more prom-friendly likes of Bach, Beethoven, Sibelius and Strauss share the stage with more challenging composers.
Once the bar was established, the performance space re-opened, making Gorilla a great, mid-sized venue for gigs, book readings, club nights and everything in between. The line-up suggests a desire to mix established artists with those still emerging or trying to break through, so it's good to see that some of the old Green Room ethic still remains.
As a club and gig venue, Islington Mill truly excels. Helped by a generally dedicated and up-for-it crowd who’ve taken the time to venture out of the city, not to mention a rare 24-hour bar licence, parties at Islington Mill are known to run until the sun’s up and beyond. Regular parties include Bohemian Grove, home of cutting-edge and underground house and techno, and the completely bonkers Gesamtkunstwerk, dedicated to boundary pushing experimental noise.
Soup Kitchen strikes a unique balance between enduringly pleasant canteen in the day and anything-goes club by night, not to mention a favourite venue of travelling bands. It has one of the most jam-packed schedules of any venue in Manchester, and its passionate management are always making changes to improve the experience.
One of Manchester’s most popular pubs, The Castle on Oldham Street has proven to be one of the Northern Quarter’s big success stories since its refurbishment in 2009. Originally founded in 1776, it’s well known in indie rock circles as the site of a legendary interview between John Peel and Ian Curtis in 1979, and today pays heed to its musical heritage with several weekly gigs at its own charming music hall.
Recent changes have seen The Ritz become one of the best live music venues in the city. From The Horrors to Martha Wainwright and Public Enemy to PJ Harvey, the live music programme now reflects the quality of the venue's yesteryears, where bands such as The Smiths, The Stone Roses, R.E.M and even The Beatles and Frank Sinatra graced its stage. Investment in the sound equipment has really paid off.
Dressed and lit in sultry shades of red, Ruby Lounge is split into a gig and lounge area, with an ornate, speakeasy-style bar in between the two. It’s an inviting atmosphere that belies the venue’s somewhat blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance, sitting between a bakery and a betting shop and beneath a dentist.
The gig room upstairs is now a subtly lit, quietly elegant space for an indie gig, club night or even live theatre. It’s now a world away from its previous state, which was known for its boiling temperatures and a small occupation of live bats in the ceiling. Gigs usually cost between a fiver and a tenner, and as well as local promoters such as Now Wave hosting up-and-coming international acts, there are usually local showcases with three or four bands on the bill, as well as the occasional punk or ska all-dayer.
Like most independent ventures, the events calendar is somewhat scatty, but regular nights include Wet Play; a cosmically tinged disco and boogie celebration with a unique personality, both in terms of its psychedelic aesthetic and its regulars. The monthly Black Bee Soul Club pays tribute to Manchester’s northern soul heritage, without laying on the nostalgia like so many others in town.
Manchester’s gig potential has expanded of late, thanks to venues such as the Albert Hall and independent ventures such as Soup Kitchen. Manchester Academy, once the beating heart of the city’s live music scene, remains the last bastion of sweaty mosh pits, plastic pint glasses and paper tickets you can take home as a keepsake.
For aficionados of live jazz, this cosy Northern Quarter club has been at the heart of the Manchester music scene for years. Now, with up to six gig nights a week, the venue offers the best in jazz as well as folk, gypsy, electro, salsa, swing, world and ska music, too. It’s not just a place for small-time up-and-comers, either – artists who have graced the stage here include Adele and Jamie Cullum.
Opened in 1991, Night & Day was a fish and chip shop that slowly morphed into a popular and pioneering live music venue in what was then one of the rougher parts of town. And although its pull isn’t quite as great as it once was, there’s still a steady stream of alternative bands and live acts filling the bill almost every night of the week, with a respectable focus on local talent.
With a total capacity close to 1,000, Sound Control is a strangely undervalued and occasionally underutilised Manchester night spot. Conveniently, albeit not particularly obviously located just off Oxford Road, the club is split into three different levels that will occasionally join together into a sort of megaclub.
The downstairs pool room doubles as an event space so there are always new exhibitions, open mic nights and basement gigs taking place. Consequently it feels very much like somewhere actively supporting fresh local talent. A gentle, sensible door policy helps add to the feel that the Bay Horse isn't really putting a hoof wrong.
Yes, it’s a curious name for a live music venue, but The Deaf Institute is a great new use for what was once, in less enlightened times, a deaf and dumb school. Another venue in the Trof empire (see Gorilla and Albert Hall), the ground floor offers space for drinking and dining, while upstairs there's a music hall with space for a few hundred people. Along with live acts, regular club nights keep the crowds coming.