A Magical Mystery Tour of the United Kingdom

The Wooden Man takes you on a guided tour of the United Kingdom, one gig at a time.

 “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?”

I asked this question in the basement of a German-themed bar named Bierkeller, a venue situated in the centre of Bristol. Bristol is a British city about an hour west of London that is home to some of the best live music in the UK, and I was at Bierkeller in the middle of my first ever moshpit. The band I had come to see were one of my all time favourites – a metal group by the name of Electric Wizard. And midway through their classic tune ‘Barbarian’, the crowd – and myself – reached a fever pitch of such headbanging intensity that I felt an enormous noggin thump me right in the back of the neck.

Charged up on the music and adrenaline, I hardly even noticed at the time. But when the song ended, I turned to the greasy-haired metalhead dude behind me and asked, a bit too politely: “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?” He grinned and said, “Yeah, man. I think so.” I couldn’t even be angry – I grinned back and replied: ‘Nice one.”

Moments like these are exactly why I love live music. There’s nothing to compare to the thrill of hearing your favourite artists in the flesh, sharing in the atmosphere and the energy of a performance with like-minded people. In the UK, we’re lucky enough to have some of the best live music venues in the world, and there’s no better way to experience the culture of a city than to get off the beaten path and hear some local bands. So in this article I want to take you through some of the venues and cities throughout the United Kingdom, and recount some tales from the amazing artists I’ve seen there.


Entering the Big Jeff Zone

The city of Bristol is known for a few things. First, it’s the home of Banksy and some of the best graffiti art in the world. Second is the Clifton Suspension Bridge, an impressive feat of Victorian engineering just outside the city centre. And third is the Bristol accent, full of rolled ‘arr’s and ‘urr’s that are famously difficult for anyone outside the city to understand.

But Bristol is also one of the best cities in the UK for live music. It’s home to a floating nightclub – Thekla, an old German timber ship converted into music venue, which sits in the buzzing harbourside area. And it’s also home to The Fleece, a rock bar which plays host to rising talent from around the south west. The Fleece is perhaps as well known for its music as it is for a small square of tarmac near the stage, which has been affectionately dubbed the Big Jeff Zone.

Big Jeff is a resident of Bristol who is something of a legend in the music scene. The man is a towering seven feet tall, and his love of live music is so strong that he attends a different gig almost every single night. That’s no exaggeration: if you go to a live show in Bristol, there is a very strong chance that you might spot the blond-haired giant himself, right up front by the stage and rocking out to his hearts content. At The Fleece, the big man has his own designated standing space in front of a support beam, where his huge height doesn’t obstruct the view of the poor souls behind him.


Tales from the UK rave underground

Bristol is also a hub for electronic music, being the birthplace of the short-lived dubstep genre and containing a thriving scene of drum ‘n’ bass, house and techno. The UK has a storied history with raves, or underground parties – in the 80s, many illegal raves were shut down by police as the nation was swept by fear of the drug Ecstasy, and its effect on youth culture. In the aftermath of these illegal raves, many changes were made to laws on UK nightlife, allowing venues to stay open much later into the night.

The impact of those parties can still be felt at music venues around the UK. In Bristol the nightclub Motion, which is just a short walk from the city’s main train station, plays host to regular raves which channel the spirit of years past: huge speaker systems, loud bass and music playing into the early hours of the morning. Some nights end as late as five or six AM, and clubbers leaving to go home are likely to run into early morning commuters catching their next day trains and buses to work.

All drugs are, of course, banned from the premises, and there is tight security at the door. But there are inevitably some who smuggle illicit substances past the bouncers, and you can usually spot them a mile away. The person stood in the corner by themselves, staring intently at a strobe light and dancing like a confused jellyfish, is probably best left alone.


Music in the capital

It goes without saying that there is plenty of good music in London: the city is among the top billing for almost any international performing artist. One of the best music venues in the capital, though, is the Roundhouse in Camden. This venue, true to its name, is a circular, open space with a stage at the front, and plays host to all the best bands not quite big enough to fill an arena. It is large, but the round shape of the building and fantastic stage setup keep it feeling intimate.

I came here to watch a band named Beach House perform a handful of years ago, and had a fantastic evening all around. Beach House are a band who play a style of music known as dream pop: slow, hazy tunes with wistful vocals and steady drum beats. My enjoyment of the gig was only slightly dampened when I found out, having travelled halfway across the country to get to London, that the band were performing at a venue not fifteen minutes away from my house just days later.

Going up north

That home was in Leeds, where I studied at university for three years. Leeds is another hub for live music and is, alongside Manchester, the go-to place for artists performing outside of London. Deep in the student district of Headingley you’ll find the famous Brudenell Social Club, where bands of all shapes and sizes play to adoring student crowds. I visited the Brudenell several times, to see everything from American punk rockers Viet Cong to freaky noise-pop band Deerhoof.

But the best gig I attended in my student days was one that ended with the lead singer pouring a bottle of whiskey on top of my head. Crystal Castles are an electro-pop group with elements of house music, and their shows are a sensory overload of loud bass, flashing lights and jumping crowds. I saw them at the O2 Academy in Leeds, and the crowd were so hyperactive that at one point a girl slipped and fell, causing a domino effect that left about fifty people lying on the floor. The music was stopped to let everyone get to their feet, and then resumed at the same volume as before.


Having pushed my way to the front of the crowd as the show went on, I found myself up against the barrier for the encore. Lead singer Alice Glass pulled a bottle of whiskey from out behind the stage and took a huge swig from it, then poured the rest into the open mouths of the front row. Unfortunately, the majority of the drink landed squarely on top of my head, but I was so into the music that it didn’t bother me all too much.

That’s the power of live music: an atmosphere and energy so intense it can let you forget being headbutted, or taking an unwanted Jack Daniels shower. And the UK is second to none for gigs: whether you’re up north in Leeds and Manchester or down south in London and Bristol, the country’s cities have a huge variety of shows for all tastes. For anyone visiting the UK, seeing some artists perform is one of the best ways to get in touch with the locals and get a feel for the city, and all the venues above are highly recommended for doing exactly that. Who knows – you might even spot Big Jeff.

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