South London Music Bonanza

I’m not inclined to hyperbole but September’s Wide Awake Festival in Brockwell Park was the best thing I’ve ever been to.

It might have been the fact that I hadn’t been to a gig – let alone a festival – for 18 Covid-drenched months. Or perhaps it was the MDMA. Or could it just have been the music?

We are experiencing a South London music bonanza, and much of it was evident at Wide Awake, not least on the Windmill Stage, so named in honour of the Brixton pub and legendary music institution, at which live music is now available again, seven days a week. 

The idle music-lover could have stayed by that stage all day and seen such rich pickings as black midi, Goat Girl, Black Country, New Road and shame. Not to mention Idles, appropriately enough. And apart from one jaunt to see Slift – a space-rock trio from Toulouse that demanded my attention – that’s pretty much what I did. It was not only the best thing I’ve ever done, it made me realise that rather than take it for granted, I need to get out and experience the local scene a bit more. To support the venues, to support the bands and, not least, to remind myself why I live in London and not Wiltingshire. Here’s where I got to.

Fox and Firkin, Lewisham

Billing itself as “home for underground music”, The F&F smells like a music pub. As soon as you walk through the door you are overwhelmed by the aroma of hot speakers or new plectrums, or whatever it is that makes it smell that way.

I was there for a Sister Midnight-promoted all-dayer to support the reopening of the Ravensbourne Arms down the road as another music-focused pub. It pissed it down all day but under the giant canopy in the garden there’s shelter for all, and when it got chilly we warmed up in the bar which doubles as the main stage. Does Lewisham need another, similar music venue at the Ravensbourne, just 150m away? Answer: Fuck, yeah.  

Music piracy at the F&F

Headliners Porridge Radio were depleted by illness, but the remaining members and special guests, Italia 90, bumped up the running order, delivered a tremendous finale to a great day. And if that’s not enough, the F&F has just had permission granted for a microbrewery on the premises. Decent ale as well as great music and pizza? Yes, please. See you there.

The Junction, Loughborough Junction

Imagine a jazz and tapas table-service pub in Loughborough Junction. It’s tough, isn’t it? But there it is, and it’s quite wonderful. Push open the door from Coldharbour Lane on any evening and you’re greeted with the sound of convivial hubbub and a thousand chords. 

House music

The lamplit tables are more redolent of a ’50s West End cabaret than a South London music pub. Here, the beautiful people of the land between Brixton and Camberwell gather to eat, chat and click their fingers to music of a very high standard. One night last week the house band performed Art Farmer’s seminal LP Modern Art in its entirety. And with open mic nights and regular guest band spots, professional musician Paul Canton and co have created something special here. 

It may be in Zone 2 but, man, it’s far out. And it’s free. Every night.

Old Dispensary, Camberwell

After a long stint at Nunhead’s Skehans (another belting music pub) Andy Hank Dog’s Easycome night has settled in at the intimate and friendly Old Dip, and you can expect the odd star turn amongst the newbies who line up for the open mic. Last week, Joss Cope (younger brother of Julian) and his band showcased tracks from his latest album, Indefinite Particles. Fat White Family and other South London stalwarts have also been known to turn up and try out some new stuff.   

Chemistry

Also free entry, the Dip combines my twin passions of music and football. You get to enjoy a bit of Champions’ League on a Wednesday night before the music is fired up, and then, later, it’s time for two other passions: Guinness and talking shit until far too late for a school night. Just how I like it. Mainly as I don’t have any school. 

IKLECTIC, Waterloo

IKLECTIK is a “creative platform” that showcases contemporary art, experimental music and artistic critical practice. I know. Stay with me.

Housed in an old school building in the shadow of St Thomas’ Hospital, it’s one of the kookiest and most unlikely music venues in the glorious South. And we all love a spot of kooky, right?

Old school

I went for an evening billed as “ambient punk live”, a showcase of artists involved with record label, Pure Life Records. Live ambient music has the whiff of oxymoron about it. Why would I sit and listen to music that’s designed to be in the background? Especially when there’s a lad in the way, apparently struggling with some PowerPoint on his laptop. It turned out he was the first act. 

But the musicians – music artists? – chose their sets well and you could sway along quite happily while enjoying some sensational visuals, especially those by Karen Worden for Twin Galaxxies. A cheeky smoke-up in the garden helped with that, no doubt. But that’s ambient punk for you. It’s modern music for old stoners; you’d be a fool not to.

Off the Cuff, Herne Hill

It started with a sunset and ended with a squid set (meal for one).

We’d gone up the hill where it all started, in Brockwell Park, for the last T-shirt sundown of the year. Back down in Herne Hill we’d been drawn in by the other-worldy charms of Off the Cuff, offering beer and three live acts in a railway arch. Starting life as an antiques emporium cum cheese and wine club, it is now the area’s premier live music venue, offering two bars, two stages and unexpected food offerings.

Up the Cuff

We were on our second pint when we became overcome by hunger. I explained as much to a young woman at the next table, in what passes for conversation by me these days.

“Want a go on my squid?” she asked. 

“Beg pardon?” I said, and she pulled a plastic container of sweet and sour calamari from her bag, still warm, ordered in from a local takeaway.

“All yours, I’m full,” she said, and disappeared into the night, like a seafood spirit. Thank you, squid girl. 

Fortified, I wandered next door and tucked into the electro-jazz of KAŚKA for dessert. Off the Cuff is a music-lovers’ dream, and a worthy successor to the Half Moon, once Herne Hill’s music destination: Odd, interesting and friendly. Well played to Tony and the team there. 

Good value, too. Three bands for six quid. Plus, if you’re lucky, some sick squid. 

Image credits: House music by M. Eames; other photos by the author.