I have a confession to make: sometimes I go to see gigs to actually check out a venue. Because I honestly believe that where you play can either make or break your show. The devil lies in the detail, that is the tech specs: how good the sound system is, if the lighting is suitable for the show, if the general layout of the room allows for good view of the stage and how conveniently located the infrastructure is (i.e. how far it is to the bar).
Part 7 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE
But it’s actually much more than that. The place’s general vibe and reputation have a major impact on the performance, too. Ask any muso. There are places that instantly help create a bond between the audience and performers. Others can overwhelm and feel less intimate. That’s why venues of all sizes in Australia have to step up their game to offer unique experiences to both gig-goers and artists alike.
2 years ago I came up with this amazing plan to visit as many live music venues in Melbourne as possible in the span of one year. Today I know it was a crazy idea. In my post from last week (that you can find here) I mentioned that there are 553 live music venues in the Greater Melbourne area. Which means that even if I wanted to see a gig at a different place every day, it would take me over 18 months. But hey, a crazy plan is better than no plan!
I obviously haven’t even been to 10% of the venues in Melbourne but I’ve visited a few. And because there can be only one Opera House which, on top of it all, is in Sydney, below I’m giving you a short list of my favourite live music venues in Melbourne so far.
I’ve divided them geographically, so you’ll get one from every direction in the city (North, South, East, West and the CBD). And considering that the Northern suburbs have probably more live music venues than coffee shops, it wasn’t an easy choice to make. There’s also a place I have a special relationship with, one to watch in the near future and one outside of Melbourne. The list is, naturally, super subjective but at least you’ll have a general idea of what Melbourne has to offer. So here we go.
THE EAST – CORNER HOTEL IN RICHMOND
Address: 57 Swan St, Richmond, VIC 3121
Description: A true institution in Richmond: live music venue (band room) with a few bars, a rooftop bar/beer garden and function spaces.
History: The Corner dates back to the 19th century (1871, for reals!). It used to be quite a popular pub because it’s close to the Richmond railway station. The jazz era in 1940s brought live music to the venue. Sadly, the original building was knocked down in 1966 due to the rail tracks extension. The first proper live gig happened in 1983. After that, regular Friday and Saturday night shows followed. Live music at the Corner flourished under Wayne Gale’s ownership in the 90s. Those days paved the way to the successful live music venue in the 21st century. Anybody who is somebody in the music scene, either local or from overseas, has most likely played the Corner.
Highlights: Mick Jagger played an unnannounced show at the Corner in 1988. The video to U2’s Windows In The Sky was filmed here in 2006. The White Stripes wrote the riff to Seven Nations Army during a sound check for their Corner show in 2002. Since 2016 the Corner Award is presented to a musician chosen by a panel of experts – friends of the Corner.
Why it makes the list: I used to live in Richmond, so it was like my local venue (totally biased, I know). Surprisingly, I also saw my worst Melbourne gig here (the sound was really shit – sorry, Corner) but I choose to believe it was just a one-off occasion.
Acts I’ve seen here: Polish Club, Alex Lahey, Vulgargrad, Nothing But Thieves.
THE NORTH – CROXTON BAND ROOM IN THORNBURY
Address: 607 High Street, Thornbury, VIC 3071
Description: A live music venue (band room) with a 14-metre wide stage and a bar, part of the Croxton Park Hotel complex.
History: The hotel (pub) itself is from the 19th century (1844, wows!). The adjacent band room, aka “The Croc”, was built mid-20th century. It was the place to be for live music in the 70s and 80s. Then it became somewhat forgotten. Thankfully, due to the recent popularity of the neighbourhood (Thornbury, Croxton and Northcote), it is slowly reclaiming its former glory.
Highlights: All the big Australian acts played here at some stage: INXS, Men at Work, Midnight Oil and AC/DC.
Why it makes the list: I landed in Melbourne for the first time on 5 January 2017 in the morning. That same night I went to Croxton to see my first gig in Oz. I had no idea where I was going and what I was doing (jetlag) but it was an awesome introduction to the live music scene in Melbourne (and the Aussie drinking culture).
Acts I’ve seen here: Jamie T.
THE WEST – FESTIVAL HALL IN WEST MELBOURNE
Address: 300 Dudley St, West Melbourne, VIC 3003
Description: A medium-sized venue, suitable for music and sports events, with various seating and standing configurations. The maximum capacity for a standing gig is nearly 5,500.
History: It was built in 1915. Throughout the years it became infamous for riots started out by sports fans. Formerly known as “the House of Stoush”, it was used as the West Melbourne Stadium (“The Stadium”) for gymnastics, amateur boxing matches and wrestling competitions. It had most success as a live music venue in the 50s and 60s. In 1955 the building burnt down and a new one was erected a year later for the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. It was renamed Festival Hall in the early 60s. Owned until today by the Wren family. In 2018 city plans were revealed to demolish it to build a modern apartment complex which sparked discussions in the local community. Social media campaigns were initiated in order to preserve it. So far it is still a working venue booking bands and sporting events.
Highlights: Frank Sinatra and Rage Against The Machine played here, mongst many more famous acts. One of The Beatles’ 1964 shows was broadcast by Channel 9 from the hall. AC/DC and Bee Gees frequently took part in the local Battles of the Bands staged here. It was used as Seven Network’s studio for The Price Is Right TV competition. Even black tie dinners, art exhibitions and religious events have been held here.
Why it makes the list: In 2018 Peking Duk played a sick show at Festival Hall close to my Birthday and it was one of the best nights out I had with my girlfriends in years.
Acts I’ve seen here: Peking Duk, The Wombats
THE SOUTH – HOTEL ESPLANADE IN ST KILDA
Address: 11 The Esplanade, St Kilda, VIC 3182
Description: Known as “The Espy”, it is THE LONGEST RUNNING MUSIC VENUE IN AUSTRALIA (hear, hear!); landmark and an institution at the same time. It is a multi-purpose five-level seaside venue with 3 live music rooms, numerous bars and 2 restaurants.
History: It was built in 1878 as a residential hotel and changed to an entertainment venue in the 20s, when it played an important role in the Melbourne jazz scene. In the 70s the historic Gershwin room was turned into a full-on disco. 20 years later plans to build a residential/retail complex were drawn but were met with fierce opposition on the local community’s side. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century it underwent further unfortunate ownership changes and was shut down suddenly in 2015. Renovations were started but came to a halt. The only part of the venue used occasionally for live gigs during the closure was the Gershwin Room. Sand Hill Road, a well-known Melbourne hospitality company, resurrected the hotel by purchasing it in 2017. The revamped venue was reopened in November 2018.
Highlights: Alfred Felton, a generous Melbourne philanthropist, lived and died here. Mark Twain stayed at the hotel in the 19th century as well. RockWiz, an Aussie TV music quiz, was filmed in the Gershwin Room between 2005 and 2016.
Why it makes the list: SO MUCH HISTORY! It’s just not what you expect when you see it from the outside: there are soooooo many different spaces inside.
Acts I’ve seen here: Peking Duk, Swell event
DOWNTOWN – FORUM MELBOURNE, CBD
Address: 154 Flinders St, Melbourne, VIC 3000
Description: A multipurpose venue with a grand amphitheatre-style room with bars and a booth area downstairs, plus a smaller venue upstairs. It hosts live music events, film screenings and theatre productions. It combines different cultural influences, like Italian or Moorish. It has minaret towers on the outside.
History: The first structure on the present site was a private residence, established in 1837. After that it changed its purpose numerous times, from coal yards, to offices and a store. The so-called State Theatre was built in 1929 and it was designed as a “picture palace” with the intentions to be a “sister” venue to a Sydney theatre, owned by an entertainment company. It was primarily used as a cinema and theatre and was at that time the biggest venue of its kind in Australia. Throughout the years it has underwent several renovations that changed its original layout. In 1978 it was listed as a heritage building. From 1985 to 1995 it was owned by a Christian organisation that didn’t take proper care of it. At the turn of the millennium it was converted into a film and concert venue. The 2016 major renovation was undertaken and finished a year later, restoring the venue to its former glory.
Highlights: It is or used to be home to the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival and Melbourne Festival. Madonna and Ozzy Osborne performed here. It used to have a full size organ.
Why it makes the list: Even though it’s an indoor venue, it feels like you’re outdoors. The ceiling is adorned with stars and a special shade of blue, so it feels like you’re under a real sky. Pretty special!
Acts I’ve seen here: Banks, Alison Wonderland.
SPECIAL MENTION – BAKEHOUSE STUDIOS IN NORTH RICHMOND
Address: 27-29 Hoddle St, Richmond, VIC 3121
Description: Names a Melbourne Music Landmark, it is primarily a recording studio with various-size rooms, often used as a filming location and rehearsal place for bands. It also has a kitchen and an epic courtyard filled with plants and unique furniture found in the streets or purchased in op shops. With very affordable room rental prices, it offers a further 10%discount to students. The most famous room upstairs is known as “The Scrap Museum (or The Scrapo)” due to the collection of random things kept here. Apparently close to 400 musos practice here on a weekly basis. Every room has its own story told by the visual artist that designed it.
History: At the beginning the building was used as a furniture carrier by the first owners, an Anglo-Irish family. Mid-20th century it was taken over by a Jewish family of rag traders. It is currently owned by a Vietnamese consortium and its curators/managers, Helen Marcou and Quincy McLean, have been renting it since 1998. Previously, they had run a music studio in Fitzroy. Over the years numerous musicians have passed through its doors and heaps of movies and video clips have been shot here.
Highlights: You can run into some famous musos (like Nick Cave, Ed Sheeran, Dan Sultan or Gotye) just casually hanging out. Elvis Costello described the venue as “some of the best rooms in the world”. The Avalanches worked on their last album here.
Why it makes the list: In December 2017 I put together an event for Amnesty International – Victoria branch here. Helen and Quincy, and the whole staff were extremely supportive of the whole initiative and patient with me, a rooky in organising music events at that stage.
Acts I’ve seen here: Philly, Adrian Eagle
ONE TO WATCH – STAY GOLD IN BRUNSWICK
Address: 133 Sydney Rd, Brunswick, VIC 3056
Description: A fairly new live music venue/band room with bars, a lounge area and retro game arcade, adjacent to the Spitfire pub. It has indoor and outdoor seating.
History: The venue was previously known as “The Phoenix”. The current owners are the same group that puts on the Good Things festival. It launched as “Stay Gold” in October 2018.
Highlights: It’s only been opened for over half a year and some cool Aussie bands have already played here: DZ Deathrays, The Bennies or Mental As Anything.
Why it makes the list: A few weeks ago I did a trivia night at the venue and briefly spoke to its manager who assured me that the sound system is a killer. If things go right, it looks like there might be serious competition for Howler next door in the coming months. Fingers crossed! (Not that I don’t like Howler but the more good venues in Brunswick, the better for music fans).
Acts I’ve seen here: none yet (that’s why it’s the one to watch).
OUTSIDE OF MELBOURNE – RIVERSTAGE IN BRISBANE
Address: 59 Gardens Point Road, Brisbane City, QLD 4000
Description: A public open air venue in the form of amphitheatre, located by the Brisbane river. It is a part of the City Botanic Gardens with the capacity of nearly 10,000. Particularly suitable for summer events.
History: Opened in 1989 by the then Lord Mayor of Brisbane herself after a temporary amphitheatre was used for the Expo’88. The venue hosted Soundwave Festival twice, in 2007 and 2008. It has become one of Brisbane’s most famous event venues. This year it’s preparing to celebrate its 30th anniversary and is running an audience memory survey as part of it.
Highlights: Powderfinger, who were based in Brisbane, played their last show here in 2010. Some overseas acts performed here as well: Ed Sheeran, Florence and the Machine and The Chemical Brothers. Lord Mayor’s annual Christmas Carols concert is held here.
Why it makes the list: I love unique outdoor venues on the water, that’s all.
Acts I’ve seen here: Incubus, Ecca Vandal
And if the above list is not enough, I have something else for you. I’m obsessed with discovering unique venues that are not necessarily straight-up band rooms: temples, breweries, city landmarks, you name it. I use the hashtag #stagesoffstages on IG. Have a look what I’ve found in the world so far and feel free to hashtag and tag me in any of your own finds.
- Riverstage 30 Website
- Corner: own images
- Croxton Bandroom: own image + Beat Magazine
- Festival Hall: ABC News + What’s On Melbourne
- The Espy: own images
- Forum: own images
- Bakehouse: own images
- Stay Gold: Google + own image
- Riverstage: My City Life + own image