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A gig out of the ordinary: London’s magical music venues

Posted at 10:00 am, October 23, 2013 in Music & Nightlife, Secret London

Sure, the O2 pulls in the big names, but some of London’s best gigs take place at unusual, quirky and often secret locations. This autumn, be certain to see a gig at one of the capital’s magical live music spaces:

A handful of London’s 240-plus museums double up as music venues – especially for more intimate classical and acoustic gigs. The Cinema Museum in Kennington often puts on rising singer-songwriters, while The Foundling Museum commemorates the city’s first home for abandoned children and hosts semi-regular piano recitals. Look out for their autumn ‘Folk at the Foundling’ nights, at which two folk acts perform in the museum’s gorgeous Picture Gallery – Lisa Knapp closes this autumn’s series on November 22.

The home of English folk music in London is Cecil Sharp House (pictured above), headquarters of The English Folk Dance And Song Society. Okay, it’s not strictly a museum – built as a grand house in the ’30s, it was preserved despite substantial war damage as a cultural centre – but with its art deco staircases, flourishing library space and recently restored mosaic floors it’s a rich space to discover emerging folk musicians as well as seasoned masters of the craft.

Some folk fans will be making the journey to Greenwich this autumn, too, to celebrate the opening of a new gallery at the National Maritime Museum with a long series of maritime folk music events. That means more shanties than you can shake a capstan at, with concerts, musical gallery tours and workshops exploring the role that music played in life at sea. The series runs from October 21 to December 12.

Wilton's music hall

Music halls
There used to be hundreds of music halls in London, but only a handful remain. Wilton’s (pictured above) is one of the few to have escaped war damage and developers’ bulldozers. Another preserved gem is the small but beautiful Hoxton Hall, which has been run by a Quaker charity since it lost its music hall licence in 1871. As well as becoming a major centre for youth arts, the hall has started hosting concerts again: its 150th birthday season this autumn includes pianist James Rhodes (November 14).

Just to the north is the impressive Hackney Empire, built in 1901. It’s a major comedy and theatre venue but you can catch music there too, including Ghostpoet this October. Its architect, Frank Matcham, was also responsible for the Shepherd’s Bush Empire across town, a former music hall that’s now one of London’s major gig venues with music almost every night. Both of Matcham’s Empires have been extensively (and expensively) restored for a flavour of Edwardian music hall luxury: lots of red velvet, white plaster and fiddly gold bits.

Down in south London, Clapham Grand dominates St John’s Hill: this whopping red brick edifice is a former music hall, which opened in 1900 and has since been a cinema and a bingo hall. Nowadays it’s a gig venue and nightclub with a stunning red-and-gold interior. This autumn, catch The Fall (Nov 15) or Soul II Soul (Nov 29) – you can even book a Royal Box.

Union Chapel

Yes, churches can be sober, cold and… well, religious – but they’re also atmospheric, often beautiful spaces with great acoustics. Check out the Church of St Barnabas in Soho and the church at the other end of guitar-store heaven Denmark Street, St Giles-in-the-Fields. Known as the Poets’ Church, it’s an ethereal and shadowy building that has hosted performances by Bon Iver and Julianna Barwick as well as poetry readings by Patti Smith (who named it one of her favourite churches in England). It’s got a grim history, too: originally attached to a leper hospital, it was rebuilt in the eighteenth century after the rotting bodies of plague victims made the walls too damp.

North London lays claim to two very special church venues. Union Chapel (pictured above) is a congregationalist church and was voted by Time Out readers as London’s best music venue last year. Adele, Beck, Paloma Faith and Damien Rice have all played here, taking advantage of the Grade I-listed, gothic Victorian space with its unique octagonal auditorium. Upcoming gigs include Aimee Mann (Nov 29) and Marc Almond (Nov 3).

Further west is St Pancras Old Church, one of the oldest sites of worship in Britain. With a capacity of just 120, this white-and-gold space is perhaps London’s most spectacular intimate venue, with a packed gig calendar. Don’t miss fast-rising singer-songwriter Denai Moore here on November 1.

Have a peek at our gallery of more of London’s most magical gig venues

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