Leicester’s Music History, 2007 to 2009
Tuesday 24th March 2020
Live music is all about venues
In the period between the early 1990s and today, Leicester’s music scene became increasingly dominated by music venues, including The Charlotte and The Shed, which were the most popular and often had the more high-status bands on their stages. The Shed started in 1994 and is still a significant venue for rock music, especially as a launchpad for new bands and singers. These venues specialise in live music and that is what they exist to provide. There are dozens of pubs across the city that put on bands at the weekend but that does not make them live music venues in the sense that is meant here. They are pubs. They happen to have some live music now and then. But then so too can cafes and restaurants. Even Churches can be used for concerts performed by musicians.
In 2000, Darren Nockles became a promoter at the Musician, a venue in Wharf Street East, previously called The Bakers Arms (there was also a pub called The Bakers Arms in Blaby and that too played a significant role in the history of Leicestershire music but for very different reasons.) The Bakers Arms had been a pub since the turn of the century. Writer Jeremy Searle says that Jim Kelly, a local property developer, had a vision of a chain of music pubs across the country, all called the Musician. Six months later, the Musician opened as a live music venue.
The old Musician, with its capacity of about 120 people, closed its doors on 31st December 2004 but re-opened after being refurbished, with an increases capacity of 220. The Musician reopened on 1st February 2005, with a new stage, new PA system, better toilets and even a dressing room for the artists. Further changes were made until the venue came to look much like it does today. As a pub, the Musician does not usually open during the day. Concerts take place at night and there is a fairly full programme of events each week. Many of the shows are put on by promoters (rather than by the pub’s management.) Over the years, numerous famous artists and bands have performed there and the venue has become rightly famous throughout the UK for its dedication to country and western music. Its walls are adorned with framed photographs of the top-class acts to have graced its stage.
Venues closing down and reopening was not uncommon. The Charlotte closed several times only to re-open again under new management. In 1989, Andy Wright took over the Princess Charlotte pub, having worked there since 1985 when it was a traditional public house. Its name changed to The Charlotte and it began to be a permanent live music venue until it closed in 2010.
The Soundhouse opened in 2010, in Southampton Street, behind the old offices of the Leicester Mercury. Prior to that, the premises operated as The Queen Victoria pub and it was there that bands played from time to time. The Soundhouse has, since it started, operated as a specialised live music venue with a stage, sound desk, dedicated PA system and professional stage lighting.
The Donkey, in Welford Road, became a live music venue in 2005. This large pub provides a weekly programme of live music and many notable acts have performed there.
A cafe in the High Street – The Crumbling Cookie – rose to become one of the foremost venues for live music when it opened its room in the basement, have been renamed The Cookie Jar. Today it is called The Cookie.
Alongside these small venues, the music life of the area benefited from the shows and concerts provided by the De Montfort Hall. A large proportion of the city’s music lovers attended shows thereby national, if not world-class, bands and artists.
Prior to its demolition in 2001, the Granby Halls served as a venue for music concerts, alongside its use as a sports centre. Opening in 1915, it was built as a training hall for the army in World War I. Having stood dormant for three years, the City Council pulled it down as it became an increasing cost burden. During the time when it was used as a large arena for rock concerts, it hosted shows by The Rolling Stones and Louis Armstrong, amongst others.
It was not until 2010 that Leicester was to acquire a large-scale venue for music, with the opening of the O2 Academy in the grounds of the University of Leicester. One of the acts to perform on the opening night was Professor Green. Prior to the opening of the O2, the University of Leicester students’ union held major rock concerts in the Queen’s Hall. The oak-panelled room formed part of the O2 complex, being the medium-sized of three rooms, sometimes referred to as ‘O2.2’. The room was converted from a concert hall to student facilities in 2019. The main hall of the O2 has a capacity of 1,450 and the smallest room – now called The Scholar, holds around 150.
Curve theatre opened in 2008 and since then has provided a regular programme of musicals, dance shows and concerts. In the bar area, there used to be regular performances by singers and small acoustic groups. Curve had produced or put on many musicals and some plays where bands and musical ensembles have played live.
Not far from Curve is Phoenix, the arts centre and cinema that has a large cafe area where live music concerts have been held from time to time. Phoenix hosted a series of shows, held on Saturday lunchtimes, mounted by Manic Music Productions. These shows were a showcase of talent for young music artists. With many Leicester venues, the title of the place is not preceded by the word ‘the’, it is a local custom to drop the definite article from the front of place names.
One of the larger venues in the city centre was Firebug. It originally operated as The Firefly but changed its name to avoid confusion with another establishment that had a similar name. Gigs were held in a large room on the first floor, although music has also been put on in the ground floor bar area, on certain occasions. Upstairs the room has a stage with fixed lighting and there is a PA and sound desk operated by experienced sound engineers.
A venue called The Auditorium operated in the markets area of the city centre. Its premises originally served as an Odeon cinema and later a bingo hall and in its time it was one of the largest capacity centres in the city centre. The Auditorium music venue opened in September 2010. One of the best-known acts to perform there was the rap artist Example (Elliott Gleave.)
The Exchange Bar opened, 20 January 2011, in Rutland Street. In its basement room, live music events are held on a regular basis.
The Australian-theme bar Walkabout once hosted live music events. Standing in Granby Street, close to The Turkey Cafe, the bar closed in May 2015. The bar was part of a chain of venues operated by a company called ‘Intertain.’ During the periods when live music was held in the bar, usually about one gig a week held and often local bands were booked to play there. In a large room above Walkabout bar, the venue Sub91 operated between its opening night in August 2010, when the show was headlined by The Damned through to its closure in December 2011.
The Music Cafe, in Park end Street (off Braunstone Gate), has been putting on live music gigs for many years. In 2005, Leicester organisation Get Your Band On put on a rock night there with Ictus, The A.I.Ds, No One Knows and Glitch. At that time the venue changed it name to The Music Cafe from its previous title, The Jam Jar.
Many pubs and clubs in the city centre held live music events throughout the period 2005 to 2015 and beyond. These included Time Bar (adjacent to the railway station), The Barley Mow in Granby Street, The Turkey Cafe (which held weekly open-mic nights), The Queen of Bradgate (in the High Street), Cafe Bruxelles (also in the High Street), O’Neills the Irish-themed pub in Loseby Lane, Original Four, the building that housed Superfly and various other venues (on the corner of Wellington Street) and even Leicester’s longest established gay bar The Dover Castle has been known to put on live music events. One-time gay nightclub Streetlife, in Dryden Street, now serves as a venue for music shows (though not for the gay community.) Other pubs, such as The Criterion in Millstone Lane, also played their part in providing a part of Leicester’s live music scene.
These brief notes about Leicester’s music venues are offered as a digest of the topic, one that I hope to expand on in later instalments of this series.
The dawn of the O2 Academy
The Academy Music Group was one of the UK’s largest music industry corporations (and might well still be.) In Leicester, our O2 was built as part of the student’s union at the University of Leicester. It was just about finished when it opened in September 2010.
It was in May 2010, that news broke about the construction of the new venue. It was described as being three venues in one. The Academy was constructed on the end of the Percy Gee building, part of the University buildings used as a social centre for students. Building works radically transformed the structure of what was the old student’s union. The front entrance to the O2 appeared at the top of an imposing flight of stairs. The main arena was designed to hold 1,450 people while the other two rooms were intended for 550 and 250 persons audiences respectively. All of this was said to cost £16.8 million. A date in September 2010 was set as the opening night. Construction and fitting-out continued right up to (and beyond) the opening night. The three areas were called O2.1, O2.2 and O2.3 but later also got other names, one of them (the second area) being the Queen’s Hall, the locale of many of big-name performance from bands of national standing. The smaller of three areas became known as The Scholar Bar and the largest room was referred to as the ‘main arena.’ When it was finished, it was run and operated by the Academy Music Group although some or all of its halls could be hired out to independent promoters.
At the time it opened, in 2010, it was heralded as providing a transformation of Leicester’s music scene. Sadly, that dream was not realised, certainly not now or in the immediate past. The way the Academy Music Group (AMG) operated the venue was driven by their profit motive and not by any desire to glorify Leicester’s live music scene, in my opinion. There was a lax attitude, on the part of the operators, to live music and more nights attracted greater audiences for the playing of recorded music than nights dedicated to live bands. The main arena was certainly not short of the latest equipment and the lighting and sound electronics were certainly up to the kind of standard you would expect to find at AMG venues. Music-bookers saw it as providing a regional-level outlet for live music events. It could certainly not survive on the patronage of music fans from Leicester alone. Some fans felt its location was too remote and hard to find and parking was a problem, it was said. There was little competition, at the time it opened, from other Leicester venues.
The De Montfort Hall was the only other place in the city that could host audiences running into four figures. All the other permanent live music venues in Leicester were tiny, by comparison. The nearest stadium-sized stages were in Birmingham, Nottingham and Coventry. The only places, in Leicester, where tens of hundreds or thousands of people could see events were Victoria Park and the football ground or the Tigers rugby stadium, which once hosted a three-day music festival. Because the AMG operated a nationwide chain of venues, it could pull considerable booking power with big-name touring bands. Several tours were organised which brought Leicester into the itinerary of famous and popular bands and music artists. The O2 Academy is still considerably smaller than the arena-level concert halls in Birmingham, Nottingham and Coventry. Over the years, discussions have taken place about whether Leicester should have its own arena or stadium. None of these ideas has found favour because they oppose the profit-motives of the big stages in other Midlands destinations. Leicester is likely to remain a place of small venues for a long time to come.
In 2019, The Shed celebrated twenty-five years of being a live music venue. This section of the article, reviews the venue’s history, revealing some facts that current music fans might not know. For the benefit of readers who are not from Leicester, the city is described and the significance of the place and its music is presented.
Where is Leicester?
Leicester is known around the country, if not around the world, for many things. Things like the king in the car park, the burial place of King Richard III, the National Space Centre, the remains of the Roman town, its castle and its cathedral and of course its two outstanding universities. As an urban area, Leicester is one of the longest inhabited towns and cities of the UK. It boasts two thousands years of continuous habitation. The name Leicester is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for the town – Ligora-ceastre – but, before that, the Romans called it Ratae Corieltauvorum, the principal town of the district of the Corieltauvi tribe who lived in the settlement on the banks of the River Soar, prior to the Roman invasion. Hence, the peculiar name for the present-day city, which many people do not know how to pronounce. When the Romans left Britain, Leicester was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons and then the Normans. There are many layers of history during which the city changed both commercially and culturally. Probably the most famous things to happen, in living memory, was the discovery of the remains of King Richard III, beneath a car park in the city centre. The king was then re-interred in Leicester Cathedral in a ceremony that was covered by the world’s media. The city of Leicester is located in a region dominated by Nottingham and, nearby, by Birmingham and Coventry. These larger cities have often thwarted the development of Leicester’s entertainment industry.
Venue since 1994
The Shed is a live music venue in the centre of Leicester. The longest-running of all the city’s small music venues, The Shed opened in 1994, on Christmas eve. The opening night show featured the Soul and Motown band, Ten Feet Tall. Before the building became The Shed, I am told, it used to be a night club, though little is known about it, in those days, and I have failed to find any reference to it in old directories. Kevin, the previous manager of the venue, told me, “… it was The Last Resort, The Hothouse, Viceroy and originally The Leicester Variety Artistes Club…”, (given as originally located in Cank Street) so that’s four licensed premises before it became The Shed. The Shed stayed open continuously until it was fully refurbished in 2017 when it was closed for three months, while building work went on. Having been sold to new owners, the whole venue was radically transformed, having a new stage, bar and sound desk in the main room. Astonishingly, windows were placed in the wall that overlooked Yeoman Street. The inside of the old venue never had any natural light in its interior rooms. It continued to flourish as one of the city’s important centres for live music.
The significance of The Shed
In my view, The Shed should stand alongside the Clock Tower, The Racecourse, The King Power stadium, Grace Road cricket ground and the Tigers rugby ground, as being one of the iconic features of this ancient city. Why? Because many musicians began their careers there and some later went on to be famous around the city and county and a few to become stars of the music scene nationally. I went there for the first time in November 2002 and have been going back ever since. The place has played an important role in my life. It has also played an important role in the lives of many thousands of other people, being the venue where many of our local musicians played their first public performance as a band, musician or singer.
In the seventeen years that I have been going to The Shed, I have witnessed many exceptional gigs and seen hundreds of rock bands, some of which have been world-famous. There is hardly a musician or singer who has not performed on the stages of The Shed, at some point in their musical careers. Bands have come from literally all over the world to play at the venue. The place has notoriety and a celebrity equal to that of the Cavern Club in Liverpool, Rock City in Nottingham, The Leadmill in Sheffield, Camden’s Dingwalls, London’s Roundhouse and many others. The Shed deserves to be in the UK’s top 30 live music venues of all time.
What was it like before it was refurbished?
I will tell you about some of the bands that have played there over the years, but first, let me explain what I know about the building. Not many people who have been to the venue, and there must be many tens of thousands of them, know anything about its past. Except that, its branding makes clear that it was opened in 1994. It is difficult to know what the strange little property was before it became The Shed, but some have told me it served as a night club before the mid-1990s. The building is situated in Yeoman Street, not far from Leicester’s iconic clock tower – the Eros and Piccadilly Circus of the city. From the main entrance on street level, you ascend a flight of stairs to the ticket desk and the doors to the main room are just to the left of that. Along the corridor, a flight of steps leads down to the outside smoking area and further down to the foyer for the second stage – the Vault – and toilets, which are effectively in the basement. The main room has a capacity of 180 standing. There are a few seats. The bar used to be located right along the wall that now has the windows in it, following the refurbishment. Downstairs, the bar used to be to the left of the entrance door and the stage was initially at the opposite end of the room. Later on, the bar area was removed completely and the stage moved to the end of the room where you went in. There is no seating when gigs are in operation. At the far end of the room (from the main entrance) there was another door. This lead to a flight of steps that went up to the main bar. Customers could get down to the lower room via either flight of steps. The venue did not have any changing rooms for musicians until its refurbishment in 2017. another feature of the lower room was that the entrances to both toilets were located there. This meant that fans attending the shows upstairs had to walk through the crowd (and in front of the stage) in order to use the facilities.
The place looked and felt very different when I went there for the first time. It is not clear whether The Shed was built as a night club or whether the building had another use prior to it becoming that. I have searched many old maps and street directories prior to 1994, trying to see if there was any reference the place.
The road in which the Shed stands was once called Nelson Street, which ran from Humberstone Gate through to Halford Street, although the half adjoining Halford Street was known as Yeoman Street. Halfway along, there was a minor side road called Yeoman Lane which lead up to Charles Street. That was from a map of 1888 but it showed no buildings, only the streets and their names. A map published in 1892, showed Yeoman Street running from Rutland Street to Yeoman Lane, where it then became Nelson Street and off that was an area known as Nelson Square. Again the map did not show buildings. Humberstone Gate was shown in a famous map of Leicester drawn by John Speede in 1610. The Romans built a wall around the city and various place names that survive to this day are based on the gates of the city walls through which major thoroughfares ran.
Back in those days before the 2017 restoration, there were no windows in the main room of The Shed. The stage, at one end, overlooked a large floor area, alongside which ran the bar, from one end of the room to the other. At the side of the room, there was a long alcove, an area of the floor where the ceiling was lower than in the rest of the room. In this area, there were some chairs and tables and it provided a convenient location for the bands to leave their equipment. At the far end of this low area, there was a small room that originally served as a little kitchen and servery that provided hot meals and snacks to the customers. This was later closed and converted into toilets for the staff. The sound control box was originally just inside the main doors on the corner of the small kitchen. It was later moved to the back of the room and converted into a high sound control desk with a clear view of the stage. Downstairs, the long narrow room that served as a secondary performance area, had its own little bar and the entrance to the gentlemen’s and ladies toilettes. There was no separate sound control desk, as there was upstairs. At the end of the room, opposite the bar, there was a low stage. The layout of the basement room was later changed when the bar was removed and the position of the stage changed.
There has always been a smoking area at the back of the property and this is still there today. Of course, when I started going there it was before the smoking ban and fans smoked throughout the shows, the air in the room taking on a blue tinge and the floor being covered in discarded dog-ends. In July 2007, smoking was banned in enclosed areas and the atmosphere became healthier for the bar staff and sound engineers, as well as the musicians and the fans. Some say that the smoking bans spelt the death knell of the licenced trade and they argue that it has never since recovered from it. As I said earlier, many famous bands have played at The Shed. Probably the most world-famous band to play there came from the USA.
The band from Los Angeles
So many bands have played at The Shed over the years, it is difficult to know where to start. Many of our local bands started there, playing their very first gig on its stage. But, not just local groups. Some groups have travelled around the world and included The Shed on their itineraries. Take, for example, the band from Los Angeles called Boy Hits Car. This band was massive in the late nineties and early noughties. They played at The Shed on 3rd December 2007. For me, that was an unforgettable experience. Visiting Leicester as part of the band’s UK tour, BHC visited 18 towns and played a gig every day. The band could have filled some of the country’s largest arenas but instead, they chose to play small venues, in order to get back to the roots of what rock is all about for the majority of bands. Travelling from gig to gig in a massive two-story tour bus, the lads worked incredibly hard but, by all accounts, received a rapturous response from their adoring fans. I remember that bus being parked opposite the entrance to The Shed, cables running into it to power its extensive facilities. It was like a hotel on wheels. It filled the whole of the parking space on the opposite side of Yeoman street from the venue.
BHC toured with System of a Down, Incubus, Papa Roach, and Flyleaf, to name a few. Not only do they have a repertoire of extraordinarily powerful and poetic songs, but they have a massive stage presence which makes a live encounter with BHC, an exciting experience which is never forgotten. Formed in 1993, the band played at the Reading Festival in 2001. They released their first album in 1998 and their seminal album Boy Hits Car in the same year. I still find it difficult to believe that this actually happened. For me, it was like being in the same room as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. As they stood in front of me, after the gig, I froze; for once, I was speechless. I desperately wanted to meet them and ask them some questions but my feet were rooted to the spot. Eventually, I did pluck up the courage to speak to one of the band members about how the tour was going. He explained why the band chose to play in the UK’s small venues rather than in arenas and vast stadia and that was because they wanted to get back to their roots and connect more intimately with music fans. That night was an unforgettable experience and one of the highlights of my career as a music journalist.
A decade of competitions
Over the first ten years of the new millennium, the period when I started to go there, The Shed witnessed many of the competitions we call the ‘Battle of the bands.’ One that still resonates with music fans today, was called Original Bands Showcase. The organiser was careful to stress that this annual event was not a Battle of the Bands. It was a showcase of the city’s musical talents. During the early years of the OBS (as we called it) all the gigs were held at The Shed. Later, the OBS migrated to The Musician. Each annual cycle of shows leads to one band being crowned the overall winners of that year.
OBS was not the only series of competitions held at The Shed, in the early noughties. Various other promoters held such events there. If they did nothing else, such events brought large numbers of people into music venues to vote for their favourite bands. The Shed was also used by a variety of local festivals including the well-established Oxjam Leicester Takeover, which has happened, annually, in Leicester, since 2010. I doubt that there was ever a year when The Shed was not one of the city centre venues that played its part in this annual charity fund-raising event. Charity shows often saw large audiences who wanted to support their chosen good causes. Band competitions became a standard feature of almost all music venues and they invariably brought in bigger audiences that the majority of regular gigs. The other thing I remember about nights at The Shed was the shows that had no audiences. There were gigs where the audience could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Despite there being a lack of audience, many bands still delivered superb performances. Undaunted by the absence of fans, they played as they normally would at packed events. These band earned my respect and I reviewed their sets in favourable terms because, I felt, they deserved to be honoured for their resilience and professionalism.
Many music fans still have happy memories of attending gigs at The Shed. It was not long after I started going there, that I started to write about live music and have been doing that ever since. In the next instalment of this article, I will write about some of the more memorable gigs that have taken place at the venue and some of the famous bands and singers who have appeared there.
Other articles in this series