From East of Eden and Massive Attack to Portishead and Idles, Bristol has given the world so many influential artists. It’s also given the UK some of the most iconic small music venues.
Bristol was even given Purple Flag status, indicating formal recognition of the city’s cultural diversity, vibrancy, and appeal. With that, here are the best small music venues Bristol has to offer.
The Grove, East Mud Dock, Bristol, BS1 4RB
Thekla is a floating piece of Bristol history and one of the city’s most famous landmarks. The former cargo ship was brought to Bristol in 1983 and repurposed as a venue for music, comedy, cabaret, theatre and poetry by singer-songwriter Vivian Stanshall and his wife, novelist Ki-Longfellow-Stanshall.
During this time, it saw performances from legends Robert Plant, John Peel, Joe Strummer, Tangerine Dream and Jack Bruce. It changed hands throughout the ‘90s, a period that saw the rise of drum and bass as well as the Bristol sound of Massive Attack, Portishead, and Roni Size. As if couldn’t be any more Bristolian, Thekla even features a Banksy original on the hull.
The venue is imperative to Bristol’s cultural identity, both past and present. Thekla might have closed without the affection of its patrons, talent of its acts, and vision of its custodians. All of this comes together in its 400-capacity hull to create something Bristol can truly call its own.
Here’s a tour of the Thekla:
72 – 73 Old Market Street, Bristol, BS2 0EJ
Situated on the corner of Old Market Street and David Street just before the roundabout, Exchange is an unassuming 250-capacity venue, coffee shop and kitchen. It’s seen performances from Battles, Mura Masa, Kojey Radical, JPEGMAFIA and oddly enough, the actor Michael Cera. He stopped off on a rare European tour of his singer-songwriter side-hustle.
Given Exchange’s packed calendar – with multiple events held per day every day – it’s hard to imagine it once struggled to make ends meet. Last year, however, it was decided that the venue’s future was untenable without outside investment.
A radical solution was proposed: that shares of the company would be offered to the public and the venue would become community owned. The venue hit its maximum target of £300,000 in just over five days, with over 400 people buying shares.
The case of Exchange is a true reflection of what venues and their communities can accomplish in the face of potential closure, and hopefully sets a promising precedent for struggling venues nationwide.
12 Saint Thomas Street, Bristol, BS1 6JJ
The Fleece, which was fittingly a sheep trading market in the 1800s, has served Bristol a cross-section of the world’s finest bands and artists since 1982. Some to perform here include Radiohead, Oasis, Jeff Buckley, and Amy Winehouse.
After welcoming new management in 2010, the venue was refurbished into its current form and its capacity grew to 450 – making it one of Bristol’s largest independent venues.
Every music fan knows these places are where culture is born. Just a quick glance at the Facebook reviews of The Fleece demonstrates how beloved the place is. One fan said –
“One of Bristol’s greatest ever venues. If you wanna catch the next big thing then chances are they’ll be passing through The Fleece sometime soon. Excellent venue. I’ve had some incredible times in the last 27 years in this little gem of the Bristol music scene.”
Wapping Road, Bathurst Terrace, Bristol, BS1 6UA
The Louisiana is a prime example of a small music venue that’s grown from modest beginnings to find itself the backdrop to numerous historical moments in live music.
The venue has existed since 1996, after a fire at neighbouring venue The Fleece meant promoters had to find an alternative event space. Placebo and Super Furry Animals played here before it even had a stage and the Scissor Sisters went from a support act to a household name in the space of three appearances. Muse even took up a residency at The Louisiana for six months.
This humble, family-run, 140-capacity venue has the backstory and character that epitomises grassroots venues.
It’s now one of eight venues for the critically acclaimed and widely popular Dot-to-Dot Festival (as are several others in this article) and continues to attract local and international artists nearly every day of the week.
32 St Nicholas Street, Bristol, BS1 1TG
With closing times running into the early hours every day of the week, you’ll struggle to find a venue that goes harder than Mr Wolf’s.
Tucked away in Bristol’s Old City, this 350-capacity club and venue hosts stand-up comedy nights, burlesque performances and live graffiti demonstrations, as well as a constant stream of local bands and DJs during its 14 years of business.
Mr Wolf’s is a champion of upcoming artists, hosting weekly open mic night Gin Jam and even a hip-hop cypher known as Fruit Machine – both of which are free entry. Mr Wolf’s enthusiasm for Bristol’s music and live entertainment scene is palpable, with most acts costing as little as £3 for entry.
While some venues look further afield, Mr Wolf’s has settled into its niche – and it throws everything it has at it.
The Old Duke
45 King St, Bristol, BS1 4ER
There’s a terracotta and white-bricked pub situated on the corner of Queen Charlotte Street and King Street famous for its New Orleans brand of jazz and swing. This pub is The Old Duke, named after Duke Ellington. It’s been active since 1967, making it one of the longest-running venues in Bristol.
Today the venue specialises in the best selection of bepop, blues, modern jazz, swing and Dixieland in the South West. You can sample them yourself every night of the week – and twice on Sundays.
The venue’s capacity of 80, familiar faces, and strong local talent ensures its atmosphere is warm and inclusive. You need look no further than The Old Duke if you want a small music venue that nurtures a true sense of community.
Always in high spirits, it comes as close to Bourbon Street as any jazz club outside New Orleans could hope to.