Whither Live Music? Dragonslaying in South London

Undefined It is widely known amongst the hoi polloi who dwell north of Old Father Thames that dragon lairs exist in South London. This is why North Londoners point at maps of South London and shriek fearfully: "HERE BE DRAGONS!" In their naivety/ignorance they fervently believe that culture ceases to exist beyond Southwark due south. The dragons scorched it, so the theory goes. Apparently.

I've have yet to witness any large, scaly, flappy sights in the South London skies. For sure, occasionally there are police helicopters, but only when occasion calls for it.

Beyond the South Bank Centre, Brixton and the O2 Arena complex, it's true that the perceived lack of viable transport has so far stymied development of anywhere south of the river to rival Shoreditch/Hoxton and Camden, despite New Cross's best efforts. We hear that The Amersham Arms, where we've seen everybody from Crystal Castles to The xxis up for sale. And the spectacular Rivoli Ballroom at Crofton Park ought to be used much more often; The White Stripes and Florence And The Machine both played special event gigs there. A consistent programme would surely be better than its current moribund status, but is there the will to bring one about?

On the flipside, The New Cross Inn defies all trends, booms and busts and benefits from the recently opened Overground line running either side of it. Corsica Studios at Elephant & Castle remains one of our favourite venues – we dropped by to catch the amazing Austra again last week, and still vividly recall Dan Deacon's insane set there a few years ago. And the Eat Your Own Ears and Upset The Rhythm operations have brought an exciting range of artists to venues from The Grosvenor in Stockwell (we caught No Age there) to the Bussey Building in Peckham (Darkstar, anyone?). There's a sense of occasion about gigs in these places; they're not staging gigs night in, night out. And all these venues enjoy excellent transport links, whatever North Londoners would have you believe.

So does one of the longest running music venues in South London, the Half Moon at Herne Hill. As with the Amersham Arms, it's a place I occasionally ventured to as a teenager to see bands formed at my school. It had dropped off my radar recently, but its longevity was matched a couple of weeks ago by an eyecatching bill promoted by one of the longest running independent music websites, Penny Black Music. They've been around just about as long as musicOMH, with founder John Clarkson still at the helm. Fitting the venue and promoter, the acts booked have also been around awhile, though they've not lately been seen in London – South or otherwise. 

Nick Garrie, whose 1969 album The Nightmare Of JB Stanislas was finally given a full release last year (we reviewed it here), sat on stage with a guitar and played songs he wrote 40-odd years ago. "Wheel Of Fortune on the album had a 52 piece orchestra, but they couldn't get it in," he drawled. In the intervening years he ran a ski school in the alps. Introducing another song, he announces "I wrote this on the ski train". Not one you hear often, that. 

Sometime musicOMH scribe Anthony Reynolds (pictured) headlined the evening, his first London gig since 2003. The Jack and Jacques founder is using his own name these days, but his set was a carefully chosen selection spanning his earliest works and later numbers. White Jazz, Filthy Names and F.U. from The Pioneer Soundtracks were welcome treats, though there were no Jacques tracks at all. He was joined by a hotch-potch assortment of musicians on violin, guitars and keyboards – though curiously no drums – to tease out the moodswings of his work. But as befitted his headliner status, twice in set closer Biography Of A First Son he let the microphone fall and revealed that voice; unamplified, his sonorous baritone still reached every corner of the room. 

This was an evening which, like the best of Eat Your Own Ears and Upset The Rhythm's forays across the land south of the Thames, felt unique, both for the artists billed and the location in which it was staged. Artists beyond the mainstream matched with venues below the radar? There's an idea in there somewhere, and not a dragon to be seen.

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