There aren’t many cities where you’ll be more spoilt for choice with music venues than Manchester. From beautiful, pristine venues fit for the world’s finest orchestras to dark and dingy basements that host a vibrant underground scene, Manchester really has it all. In this article, we take a guided tour through the city’s most high-profile gig spaces, with a few of my favourite personal anecdotes along the way.
Opened in late 2018 by one of the UK’s finest promoters – Now Wave – YES has burst onto the Manchester scene with guns-a-blazing. Across three floors you are usually going to find three very different performances and equally varied clientele. The dimly lit Basement hosts a number of live shows dotted across the calendar as well as a wide array of club nights, and is usually packed with students getting their dance on. The aptly titled Pink Room is doused from top to bottom in pink paint, and is where you will find the majority of live performances. The striking appearance of the room makes it the perfect setting for airy/ambient performances as well as DIY indie music, and the audience reflect this with a blend of proper musos and its fair share of hipsters. Within its comparatively short lifespan, YES has boasted a roster including BC Camplight, Squid, Stephen Malkmus, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and some of the finest outfits Manchester has to offer.
Formerly an actual “Deaf and Dumb Institute” conceived in 1877, this Grade II-Listed Victorian building was beautifully restored in 2008 and is now a stalwart of the Manchester music scene. The 300-capacity upstairs hall holds the majority of live music events, with a high-rise stage and a large glitter ball suspended above the crowd. Playing host to a wide variety of concert types – from raucous punk shows to cozy folk nights – it provides the perfect backdrop for any intimately sized event. Attracting people of all ages, shapes and sizes, the versatility of the venue is reflected in the diverse audience who frequent it. Over its lifespan of almost a century and a half, the Deaf Institute has transformed from a handicapped service into one of Manchester’s most loved venues.
Deep into the heart of Salford is where you may stumble across the Eagle Inn. At first glance from the outside you would never guess that it contains a gig venue, yet within this old timey pub lies one of Manchester’s most delightfully tranquil concert spaces. Straight across the road from Blueprint Studios, the upstairs bar has become a favourite haunt of some of Manchester’s finest musicians, spilling out of the studio late at night for one or two well-earned shandies. The downstairs venue is wonderfully unfurnished, with bare brick walls housing a modest 80 capacity floorspace. This venue was perfect for me to witness Manchester’s own dream pop maestros Diving Station lull the crowd into a sweet serenity, before hitting it headlong in deeper, heavier moments. Also the perfect scene for minimalist solo performances as well as heady, ambient soundscapes, The Eagle Inn provides a beautiful backdrop for any small scale, intimate show.
Band On The Wall
One of Manchester’s most historic venues, Band On The Wall has been at the forefront of Manchester’s music scene since the early 1900s. A busy jazz venue in the early days, it earned its name as the band would literally play on a stage risen halfway up the wall. Come the 1970s, it was holding some of the city’s future favourites first concerts, with bands such as The Fall and Joy Division gracing the stage.
Fast forward to 21st Century Northern Quarter Manchester and once again the venue has largely returned to its jazz roots, alongside holding a variety of energetic reggae, rock and pop shows. Seeing Bill Lawrence perform material from his second album here really opened my mind as to how well suited to venue was to showing off contemplated, exposed music. Filled largely with an elder generation of jazzers as well as Manchester music students in droves, Bill pointed out and got everybody to wave at his mum in the audience, if that gives you an idea of the atmosphere in the room that night. Away from concerts, the top brass of the venue also curate a number of music and community-based workshops, solidifying its place as a bustling hub of Manchester’s creatives.
This two-floor venue with an upstairs pub and a downstairs stage has held performances by touring bands, a regular open mic, weekly music quiz, and hosts its own R-Fest championing local talent for a very affordable ticket price. A regular hang out for radio DJs as well as those bursting onto the music scene, Retro has achieved a large amount in its relatively short lifespan. While the majority of live music takes place downstairs, when holding its own festival the venue makes excellent use of the upstairs area as an acoustic stage and staggers the performance times. This allows punters the chance to move from high octane, big energy performances downstairs to something more mellow upstairs, and all the while avoiding the lull of stage setup times. Utilising this setup for Bethlehem Casuals’ self-run festival, the venue has seen the Casuals, Mama Racho, Oya Paya, Lady Lamp, Bunny Hoova, Ask My Bull, Anna McLuckie and more play across two nights – a fit to burst line-up for such a new venue!
Matt and Phred’s
Declaring itself as “The only true dedicated jazz venue in the North-West of England,” Matt and Phred’s sets its stall out clearly in terms of its clientele. Hosting live music six nights per week, it holds regular nights for esteemed Manchester artists such as Stuart McCallum and Luke Flowers, and there are plenty of turn-up-and-play jam nights. A regular night out for Manchester’s jazz leaning music students, this stage regularly hosts some of the most innovative jazz ensembles the city and the country have to offer, and is a tried and tested stage for new groups to cut their teeth before heading out into the wider world. Aside from your more traditional jazz events, Matt and Phred’s also champions experimental music, and you can often find bizarre musical line-ups as well as individuals delving deep into the art of explorative electronics. The audience area is largely seated, and helps add to the relaxed yet attentive atmosphere whilst watching the coolest cats in town.
Located in the Northern Quarter, the Castle Hotel is primarily a bustling pub that has a small-scale function room/venue in the back. Frequented by a cross section of the city’s gig goers, the 200-year-old bar is one of Manchester’s most dearly loved haunts. A favourite backdrop for John Peel, this iconic venue has played host to countless meetings of some of Manchester’s finest musical minds, and serves music inspired ales such as Robinson’s “The Trooper” – created by Bruce Dickinson. With an advertised capacity of 80 people, the back room is a perfect spot for start-ups who are plying their trade in the local music scene, and the intimate aura of the room lends itself perfectly to acoustic/folk performances for the eyes of an attentive crowd.
Royal Northern College of Music
The Royal Northern College of Music is one of the most prestigious music colleges in the country, and also holds a number of concert spaces. As well as students and alumni performing their own works and high-level repertoire at recitals, visiting tutors at the college regularly perform in the concert hall, and touring artists who have no affiliation to the college also choose the venue because of its excellent performance space. Whilst most concerts are understandably in the classical genre, pop and rock artists such as Alt J and Black Midi have held shows there, as well as esteemed music-centred lectures via TEDx and David Byrne. A hub for musicians up and down the country, the Royal Northern College of Music is one of the focal points of the city’s musical talents.
Night and Day
Beginning life as a fish and chip shop in 1991, Night and Day is now almost unrecognisable from those early days and has grown into one of Manchester’s most iconic venues. Owned by the late Jan Oldenburg, this spot has played a crucial role in many bands’ fledgling careers. The venue hosted early performances by the Arctic Monkeys, and can still count itself as one of Johnny Marr’s favourite spots. It also regularly curates stages for local festivals such as Manchester Psych Fest and Dot to Dot, and has an old school rock venue aura which is impossible to fabricate. The fact that when threatened with closure due to noise complaints, Marr, Tim Burgess, Guy Garvey and Frank Turner all lent their voice towards the cause shows what an integral part of the scene this venue remains. Night and Day is always the perfect location for bands who want to kick up a fuss and get sweaty, as I witnessed when watching the relentless Le Butcherettes some months ago. With mosh pits, stagediving and a raucous energy belonging to far bigger spaces than this, when things get exciting Night and Day delivers in spades.
Deep into Levenshulme, there lies a venue known as the Talleyrand – one of Manchester’s smallest and most intimate venues. The ideal space for experimental artists, this venue can hold an audience probably around 50-60 strong, and given the size of the venue it blurs the lines between performer and viewer. White painted bare brick walls draped in long, burgundy theatre curtains give the room an all- encompassing art space vibe, as opposed to purely a room with a stage that you can watch music in. It involves the beholder, and beckons them in to become part of the overall experience. Holding compelling performances from the likes of Alabaster dePlume and the bizarre Paddy Steer, I have seen audiences both silently captivated and infectiously energised by this sweet little gig space.
The Albert Hall is easily one of my favourite venues in the city. I have seen a number of concerts there spanning a wide array of genre – from the spellbinding post-rock of Explosions in the Sky to the gentle beauty of Laura Marling and the genius of Big Thief – and every time I’ve left in wonder of the atmosphere it creates. A Grade II listed Gothic building with a large downstairs standing area and unreserved seating via wooden benches on the upper deck, the venue enables the punter to enjoy the concert in whichever way they would prefer. I’ve seen crowds lose their minds in frenzied mosh pits and others rooted to the spot, spellbound by what they’re witnessing – sometimes all in one night! The visual beauty of the room is one of the main selling points, and gig-o-clock is the perfect time to find yourself in such a beautiful environment. The stained glass windows welcome in the glorious sunset right as headliners usually take the stage, and provide an amazing ambience unrivalled in Manchester.
The clue is in the name – upstairs you can find a long menu of delicious soup dishes, but downstairs is where the fun really happens. Hosting a number of well attended, bouncing psychedelic nights, the venue can certainly cater for high octane situations, and with one of the largest stages of Manchester’s venues it can accommodate for any band setup. With the ability to hold gigs across two stages – one upstairs and one downstairs – there is sure to be something suitable for you here. With a generally young/student-type crowd, Soup Kitchen attracts a real spread of artists who appeal to a generation with their finger on the pulse. The most well-suited gig I have seen here myself was the local Bunny Hoova’s magical album launch. The capacity crowd bore witness to a tour-de-force of lo-fi, wonky pop viewed through a powerful, self-assured veneer, and the performance was rampantly received. Packed from front to back, the energy channelled through the whole audience, with everybody in the room captivated until the final chord.
A two-storey venue run as a co-operative, Partisan is not just a gig site but an all-round arts venue, hosting music, art, theatre, workshops and more. Downstairs in the Basement is where most of the music centred fun is to be had, and the venue has a few different looks available. The most effective, striking setup I have witnessed was at one of Manchester’s most exciting independently run events, RITE, with local psychedelic/cumbia quintet Mama Racho performing in the middle of the room on a 360 ̊ stage. It was a relentless, energetic show which was perfectly housed in the deep, dark and dim setting. The venue itself is situated in Cheetham Hill outside of central Manchester, giving the venue some more wiggle room in terms of restrictions that are put upon venues in the city centre. This combined with its elemental approach to decoration harks back to times of underground raves and DIY phenomenon, and thus is a welcome return to better times for many of Manchester’s most devoted gig goers.
From raucous performances from the likes of Squid through to live podcast interviews and 12-hour raves, Salford’s White Hotel is dark, dingy, and bursting full of life. Set in a converted car garage overlooked by the notorious Strangeways, this is a venue run by clubbers for clubbers, and doesnt’ pretend to be anything otherwise. With Sways Records at the reigns, White Hotel was never going to conform to the status quo, and – similar to Partisan – its position outside of town allows it to really push the boundaries of how weird and wonderful it can get due to less public restrictions. This, combined with the owner’s apparent disregard for turning a profit, means the White Hotel regularly hosts some of Manchester’s most vibrant and original nightlife. Don’t expect to come here and stand in a respectful stillness, taking in every nuance in a performance. Instead pull up your socks, neck a few cans on the way down and get ready to give it large.
One of Manchester’s larger venues, Victoria Warehouse in Stretford was born out of two early 20th century disused warehouses steeped in a rich history centred around the cotton trade. Following a huge scale conversion and an injection of a wealth of spirit, it now regularly hosts some of the more prestigious acts to ply their trade in Manchester. From Thom Yorke to Damian Marley, all the way through to Scooter, Victoria Warehouse does not discriminate when it comes to putting on a spectacle. One of the more visually impressive venues Manchester has to offer, concerts inside the warehouse often boast stunning light shows and intense pyro/dry ice/lasers, leading to an all-round sensory spectacle not to be missed.
Manchester’s most prestigious predominantly classical venue, the Bridgewater Hall is the perfect backdrop for any orchestral gig. Having seen the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra there a couple of years ago, I was captivated by not only the music but the ambience of the venue, the luscious natural reverb enhancing even the softest of notes. The organ alone is a stunning sight, with the 5500 pipes (yes – five and a half thousand!) towering above the choir seats all the way to the ceiling. Expect to see an older, more attentive audience than in most other venues, mainly due to the kind of events programme which the Bridgewater curates. Far from a classical one trick pony however, you will also find concerts the likes of Kraftwerk’s stunning 3D show, TEDx Conferences, and George Benson. This hall is a perfect location for any performance that really wants to grasp the mind of the viewer and allow them to indulge.
The O2 Ritz
Boasting past performances from The Beatles, Stone Roses, The Smiths and many more, the Ritz has a long, colourful history of holding performances by some of Manchester and the UK’s most powerful acts. Holding one and a half thousand fans at capacity, the Ritz is a medium sized venue perfect for capturing the energy of a bustling crowd. It’s sprung dancefloor – dating back to its days as a jazz dancehall in the roaring 20’s – complements the most energetic of modern rock gigs a century on, creating an all-encompassing full body experience unlike anything you feel in another venue. The Ritz really does attract a cross section of the modern gig going crowd, from Parka jacket donned Noel Gallagher fans through to bucket hat wearing ravers, the Ritz appeals to any crowd who wants to get nice and sweaty.
Formerly known as Club Zoo, the Bread Shed hosts a variety of live events, from student nights to live gigs to comedy performances. One of my favourite experiences of the Bread Shed was seeing it from the other side of the stage when performing with Bethlehem Casuals at Manchester Jazz Festival. One of the only stages in Manchester which comfortably physically fits us on stage (there are seven members), it really allowed us to channel our energy into the performance, and being so close to the crowd meant that we could feel that energy throwing right back at us onstage. Holding a capacity of 450 punters, the Bread Shed is a fantastic venue to find and experience up and coming bands in their fledgling years. Equally, it doubles as a perfect setting for workshops or anything boasting a number of stalls, as the layout has a risen area with tables and chairs. There are also a number of nooks and crannies in the room which are perfect for people creating their own artistic space, something I have seen done to great effect a number of times in this venue.
Just across the road from Hulme Community Gardens you can find the Radical Arts and Culture Centre, NIAMOS. Having recently attended a show called Un-Convention there, NIAMOS has quickly become one of my favourite Manchester venues. Sporting a giant stage, a huge sound system and a dazzling lighting rig, shows here are infectiously multi-sensory, more of an overall experience than your run of the mill performance. As the wonderful Honeyfeet treated an excitable audience to a high octane set, the energy flowed from the band into the audience, and back to the band onstage – a symbiotic relationship fuelled by good ol’ boogie. With a large floor area and tiered seating on the balcony, there was plenty of space for everybody to experience the show in whichever way they fancied. Add to that the visual beauty of the room, and NIAMOS is the perfect housing for almost any kind of artistic performance.
Just six months before the venue hit headlines around the world for the most heartbreaking of reasons, I found myself in the middle of the Manchester Arena, one of Manchester’s largest and most prestigious gig ranges. Placebo took to the stage and blasted through a 20-year strong greatest hits set with all of the gusto one would expect from a band in its infancy. Melodies carried all the way to the nosebleed seats way at the back of the venue, and the band generated the kind of dense sound you only ever really experience in an arena of this size with the rig pumping out at full volume. The gig wasn’t sold out by any means, but the band managed to fill the space with a spirit that flowed throughout those in attendance. Whilst there is an undeniable joy in seeing acts in smaller, more intimate settings, there is an irrefutable satisfaction that comes with watching an arena rock band smash through material in large spaces, and Manchester Arena provides that in droves.
Manchester Academy is actually a cluster of four venues under one brand, divided into Academy 1, 2, 3 and Club Academy. Situated bang in the middle of the University Campus, when walking down Oxford Road passers-by are constantly manoeuvring around long queues of gig goers excited to get inside. Steeped in a rich history of some of the world’s finest musical acts – Nirvana and Jeff Buckley to name but two – between the four venues, they really have seen it all. Due to its location, the various Academy venues are mostly frequented by an animated young crowd, and this kind of energy was the perfect environment for me to witness the frantic King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Circle pits, crowd surfers and an expansive sea of waving arms are all run of the mill here, and stamina in abundance is a requirement to get through the door.
One of Manchester’s most-loved medium-sized venues, Gorilla regularly welcomes marquee names to “Cottonopolis” for the benefit of a 600-capacity crowd. Having witnessed the party bringers Hypnotic Brass Ensemble stir up a frenzy here, the venue will forever be full of festivities in my mind, with the party carrying on through the night. The venue does however entertain a wide variety of artists, regularly hosting stages at Manchester music festivals including Dot To Dot and Manchester Psych Fest, as well as welcoming Andy Schauf and even – believe it or not – Kylie Minogue for a small-scale event by her own standards! This name value represents the kind of reputation Gorilla holds as one of the city’s finest venues.
Located in Manchester’s famous Northern Quarter, Gullivers offers a mixture of local talent with upcoming acts from further afield. Sistered with the aforementioned Eagle Inn and Castle Hotel, Gullivers shares in their ethos of providing small scale, intimate gig experiences for a lower end ticket price. Holding two performance spaces, Gullivers is a perfect venue for performances ranging from music through to comedy and poetry. With its high-rise stage easily viewable throughout the whole venue, Gullivers is a wonderful backdrop for some of the more serene performances witnessed in Manchester, and I found it precisely the perfect setting for Leeds indie-electronica outfit Polo. Filling the room with a soundscape of ethereal pop, the space really allowed the crowd to connect with each member on stage and fully engage with the show. Attracting ensembles from all around the country, Gullivers could be the place that you see the next big thing in a little ol’ room before they finally break it into the big time.