We talk to Manchester Music Programmer Sam Smith about the eclectic opening line up
There aren’t enough good music venues in Manchester.
Said no one ever.
Come on, we’re arguably the most famous music city in the UK (apologies to Liverpool) and our grassroots music scene(s) have always bubbled ferociously spitting out seminal band after seminal band. You don’t need me to list them. We’ve got venues of every shape, size and speciality and they’re absolutely brilliant and we are missing them an awful lot.
We've got a house band that we've been working on which is, I'd like to say, the best crop of local musicians in the Manchester area.
Covid aside though, Manchester is booming economically more than ever. Tall towers have bean-stalked all over the city centre over the past twelve months so much that if you’ve not been here during that time, parts of it will be unrecognisable when you return.
A side dish of that boom is that everyone else wants a piece of us. Evidenced by more and more businesses from “that London” opening branches up here with varying degrees of welcome committee.
It’s something that Sam Smith (no, not that one), music programmer at The Blues Kitchen, was cautious of when preparing to launch the first of the Columbo Group’s venues outside of London in the former (long-neglected) Walkabout site on Quay Street.
The Blues Kitchen and its sibling The Jazz Cafe are stalwarts of London’s music scene for their stupendous live music programmes and party atmosphere combined with smoky soul food menus and hard liquor - or BBQ, bourbon and blues as a press release might chirrup it. Opening in Manchester in May, what does this Londoner swaggering up North have to offer the greatest city on earth?
Er, quite a lot actually. The whole BBQ thing sounds nice and I'm looking forward to trying it, but it hadn’t hugely grabbed my attention amid the kaleidoscopic, ever-evolving food and drink scene of our city. When the first music listing announcement dropped into my inbox last week, however, I really sat up and took notice.
The word is eclectic, but that doesn’t really capture it. If you say there’s something for everyone it sounds like a boring people-pleaser. It isn’t. From cutting edge "ones to watch" like Goya Gumbani whose almost-stoned spoken word slurs anxious lyrics (“when the tides rise it’s time up”) over jazz piano, or Skittles and Five Gold Rings who can’t really get more Manc, jeering lyrics like: “I put my foot in it, I’ve got a big mouth, I never button it, I’m gluttonous like every other kid from the gutter is”, to genuine legends like Roy Ayers and jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham. Then there’s modern pop art in the shape of Demae, Harleighblu’s massive voice, a sprinkling of indie lad bands like Snuts, Grammy Winning eccentrics Fantastic Negrito, see his Tiny Desk Concert here and, well, have a look for yourself. If you don’t find something that piques your interest, you probably don’t really like music, you weirdo.
The Blues Kitchen house band and midweek gigs
Aside from the already bulging programme of ticketed events midweek, the party continues at weekends - entry is free of charge every Friday and Saturday. Upstairs, the house band will be playing a repertoire largely of 60s and 70s soul, R&B and blues - read: Motown, Stax and Sun Records played true to the era with the same original styles, scores and keys. Crucially, the whole band is made up of local musicians.
Sam fills us in: “Manchester is just the obvious musical city. It's such a strong foundation of musicians and bands that have come from there, and people that just love music and are really proud of it. It's really admirable. I don't think you ever have the conversation with Londoners about London's rich music history. You might hear about Brixton's music history, subparts of the city but you don't really hear about London's musical history in the same way that you hear Mancs and non-Mancs talking about Manchester musical history. That's not just the musicians, that's the venues and the local scene. It's been really nice to hear how enthusiastic everyone is about a new venue.
“From the offset, we were very aware that we didn't want to be the big London group coming up and being presumptuous about Manchester and the way things work. We’re working with a lot of local Manchester musicians. We've got loads of local artists booked from Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield as well. It's always a challenge entering a new city because there are different ways of working and you don't want to be seen as the outsider. We've got a house band that we've been working on which is, I'd like to say, the best crop of local musicians in the Manchester area.
“Although it is The Blues Kitchen, we've based quite a lot of the musical programming on The Jazz Cafe which is really well known for having a really strong community of musicians around it, not necessarily all from London, but the UK. Going up to Manchester, starting a new venue brings its difficulties because you don't have that community of musicians or audience there. It's key for us to be bringing in local musicians and local collectives. We're trying to work with local promoters as well. Manchester does have such a strong musical history and amazing venues in the city that we've always admired like Gorilla, Band on the Wall and all the smaller ones in the Northern Quarter like Matt & Phreds and Soup Kitchen. We're really excited to hopefully be considered amongst that group of amazing venues.”
BBQ, bourbon and blues?
The music programming is reminiscent of Band On The Wall, Sam agrees: “If you had to associate a venue in Manchester that was similar to our London venues, you'd definitely say Band on the Wall. Having eclectic genres is really important to us because we don't want to be pigeonholed into one style. For some venues, that is the case and that's great because they're known for that one thing but we really wanted to have everything from Soul and R&B, to blues and jazz, to hip hop, to reggae, to afrobeat, disco stuff - we want it to be all styles and all types of people coming into the Blues Kitchen and provide music for all the different communities in Manchester.”
There are strong vibes of the smokey jazz cafes of American movies, circular tables, glass of bourbon in hand, talent pouring from the stage, nefarious goings on in the basement, probably. The team have visited those bars in real life and taken notes. As well as in the concert hall upstairs, live music will also happen in the restaurant and bar downstairs.
“On a Tuesday night,” says Sam, “we'll actually have two bands playing in the venue - that's how serious we are about music.”
Which acts are music programmer Sam Smith most excited about?
“Roy Ayers is one of the standout ones. He's a soul and jazz legend. It's a real rarity to see someone with such a highly regarded name in a small space because we are a only 500 cap venue which is quite small really for his fanbase.
“I really love Secret Night Gang [main picture]; local, Manchester guys who just signed to Gilles Peterson's label. I'd really recommend going to their show because it's a beautiful sounding mix of soul, jazz and R&B. They've only got a few songs out at the moment on Spotify but if Gilles Peterson's endorsing them, then you know it's good.
“Ebi Soda are a really cool up and coming jazz band. Billy Cobham, an amazing jazz drummer. Kin Kai is someone I'm really interested to go and see personally. I really like him - another local Manchester one. We've got a couple of reggae shows on Sundays with Aswad and Horace Andy - who's coming from Jamaica for that show. That will be a really amazing vibe in there on a Sunday afternoon. We're gonna do slightly early shows on Sundays so it'll be a nice way to end the week. Athletic Progression is a really cool band that has just been signed to Touching Bass which is a really cool label. Demae is also on that show, check out her colours show on YouTube.
“Another one I should mention as well is Goya Gumbani who I think it's going to be absolutely huge. He's really unique and I think we've really caught him at the beginning of his ascent to stardom. I was very pleased to get that one.”
The return of live music to Manchester
It’s exciting, but tentatively so, to be thinking about being able to experience live music again. Most of us have struggled with its removal from our lives and can’t wait to get back to venues, but spare a thought for people like Sam whose livelihoods (along with those of live sound techs, road crew, lighting engineers and all the other unsung heroes of the music business) have been made temporarily redundant. Sam tells us it’s been “an absolute nightmare” but he’s really excited to be getting ready to open and seeing people experience the vibe of the music room.
“Especially for those 100-500 capacity p gigs, the room is a great live space. It's got low ceilings. It doesn't feel like an arena. Some gigs, you've got really high ceilings and loads of lights everywhere but I don't think it feels like a 500 cap venue. I think it's more of a similar vibe to say, Yes' Pink Room, it feels quite compact. I think it's going to be really special. I can't wait for the social distanced shows because there are some really amazing ones in there but that first full cap live show is going to be amazing and I'll be front row.”
Socially distanced shows start in May. Tickets for all upcoming events are on sale now.
The Blues Kitchen 13 Quay St, Manchester M3 3HN