Saturday, March 3, 2012

Austin Monthly: Manchester

I have a travel story on Manchester and its music in the current issue of Austin Monthly.

You can find it online here:

As sometimes happens, the story was substantially edited and abbreviated for publication. The pictures I'm posting here are images I originally shot to accompany the story, although they're not the images that were used.

 You can read a fuller version of the story - as written and submitted - below.

 This is Manchester Free Trade Hall, site of the infamous Bob Dylan 'Judas!' show in 1965. 

                                            Manchester. So Much To Answer For.

            For a Texas transplant to suggest within these pages that a city other than Austin lays claim to the title of ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ would clearly represent a breach of etiquette.  For diplomacy’s sake then, let me suggest only that Manchester, England possesses a music scene of greater heritage and vitality than any other city in… Britain? Europe?  Wherever. Take your pick.
            Manchester has always been a ferment of creativity. It is, after all, where the industrial revolution began in the early 19th Century. The world’s first railway station opened here in 1830, and it was at Manchester University that Ernest Rutherford figured out how to split the atom in 1919. Later, and arguably of at least equal social import, the city produced Joy Division, The Smiths and The Stone Roses – to say nothing of the world’s most famous football club, Manchester United.
            There are a number of organized tours through which to you might explore Manchester’s recent music past. The Joy Division tour includes a pilgrimage to the terraced house in Macclesfield where singer Ian Curtis committed suicide, while The Smiths tour - devoted to a band whose singer didn’t commit suicide, even if his lyrics sometimes gave the impression that it was only a matter of time - visits locales such as Salford Lads Club, scene of the iconic photograph on the gatefold cover of the band’s greatest album, ‘The Queen is Dead.’
             There is a more broad-ranging Manchester music tour too, though with a little research and legwork you might just as easily find your own way. Significant landmarks include The Free Trade Hall, where an audience member infamously called out ‘Judas!’ to Bob Dylan in response to the ‘electric’ set he played there during his 1966 tour. A decade later, at the more modestly named (and sized) “Lesser Free Trade Hall’ The Sex Pistols played a show that is frequently described as one of the most significant concerts in British music history. Only forty people were in the audience, but amongst the inspired were legendary impresario Tony Wilson, Morrissey and future members of Joy Division, The Fall and The Buzzcocks. The Free Trade Hall’s beautiful façade survives, but unfortunately a Radisson Hotel claimed the interior in 2004.
             Yet herein lies a paradox: despite a notable history, the most obvious characteristic of the Manchester music scene is its refusal to live off its own past.
             Today, Manchester is home to the largest student population in Europe, due in no small part to the vibrant promise of its youth culture. And while it’s true that the 21,000-seat Manchester Evening News Arena boasts the largest number of concert attendees, annually, of any indoor venue in the world (Madison Square Garden is second), and plays host to superstars such as Madonna and Rihanna, it’s equally true that the lifeblood of the city’s music scene continues to be the small venues that raise and nourish an astonishingly diverse range of acts.
            In the bohemian Northern Quarter, a reclamation project of bleak streets that has managed to avoid the beautifying pitfalls of gentrification, you’ll find the award-winning non-profit venue Band on the Wall proffering a steamy mix of contemporary jazz and blues. Five minutes away, at the eclectically billed Ruby Lounge, you might stumble upon Curt Eller,  ‘North Carolina’s Angriest Banjo Player.’ At The Night and Day Café , a moderately-sized storefront on Oldham Street, it might be the punk-tinged folk of Two Gallants.
            Manchester’s live music venues are matched in number only by its dance music clubs, but at The Deaf Institute, a hipster haven close to the university, you’ll find the city’s coolest combination of live shows and weekly themed-DJ nights (Now Wave, anyone? Spoti–Friday?). And yes, the venue really was once an institute for the deaf.
            From amplifier to turntable then, Manchester remains a city of 24-hour Party People… and the music plays forever on.

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