When MP Andy Burnham announced his bid to become Labour’s Manchester mayoral candidate, his opinion on the city’s music scene was curiously downbeat. “The Manchester of my youth was the most vibrant place when it came to music. We’ve maybe lost a little bit of that,” he told the Guardian.
It is a view that many share – not just out-of-touch fortysomething politicians. From the film 24 Hour Party People to the recent Stone Roses’ stadium gigs in the city, it can feel, certainly from a distance, that Manchester is now permanently mired in Madchester nostalgia.
It does not help that few of the stories emanating from modern Manchester are of wild sub-cultural creativity. Instead, nationally, the city is perceived through regeneration projects such as Spinningfields – a kind of toy-town Canary Wharf – or the race among the city’s restaurants to bag a Michelin star – an example of the kind of establishment validation Manchester once scorned.
Yet, beneath all that glitter, independent, left-field Manchester is thriving. The underground club scene is as vibrant as it has been in 20 years and, musically, there is a huge diversity of interesting work being made here – from the internationally renowned techno label Modern Love or Manc grime MC Bugzy Malone to Liz Preston’s gorgeous looped-cello folk. The same is true in other fields. As well as headline-grabbing arts developments such as HOME and the new Whitworth Art Gallery, several small, artist-run galleries and studio-event spaces are giving the arts scene new life. The city’s railway arches house an extraordinary concentration of innovative breweries and, even among the city centre’s restaurants (where, too often, money talks and creativity walks), a hardcore of indies continues to defy the odds and serve incredible food.
In short, Manchester’s stubborn DIY spirit is undimmed. This is still a creative city. Here is a selection of that activity.
Manchester’s once “alternative” Northern Quarter is increasingly besieged by hen dos and identikit bars, but Soup Kitchen remains defiantly left-field. Upstairs in the bar, you might find anyone from electro-punks Trash-O-Rama to Manchester techno outliers Space Afrika, DJing into the small hours. Downstairs, in the grimy basement, there are gigs early doors (anything from the latest psych weirdos to alt pop star Jessy Lanza), before the club nights kick in. Outside of dancehall and grime party, Swing Ting, expect a rolling programme of the sharpest names in US/European house and techno. “Speakers hanging from chains, walls blasted with sweat, that small, amazing dance floor. It’s my favourite city-centre venue,” says Thomas Ragsdale from the band Worriedaboutsatan (see playlist below, and playing The Castle on 9 August).
• 31-33 Spear Street, soup-kitchen.co.uk
Like Antwerp Mansion (a gloriously ramshackle Victorian villa in Rusholme, antwerpmansion.com) and Mantra in Ancoats (mantramcr.co.uk), Hidden is, almost literally, hidden on the edge of the city centre. A rough-edged, industrial space in an off-grid location, it attracts a self-selecting group of dedicated clubbers to nights that might include a showcase by sprawling Manc bass collective Levelz, or slots from Berlin-based techno titans such as Levon Vincent. “Purpose-built clubs seem so sterile now, whereas on the outskirts you can find these raw spaces full of like-minded souls. That has struck a chord,” says Homoelectric DJ and promoter Jamie Bull.
• 17 Mary Street, hidden.club
Night & Day Café
It may look like a 1990s cafe-bar but, after dark, Night & Day is – along with the Ruby Lounge – one of the few city-centre venues still pushing new local bands. It’s a stalwart indie venue but an important one, says Blossoms’ bassist Chaz Salt. “It has served as a live stronghold for a hatful of great bands over the past 25 years. We love the fact that it’s escaped closure and that, strangely, it used to be a chippy.”
• 26 Oldham Street, nightnday.org
On the city centre’s border with Salford, the Mill is both an important complex of creative studios and gallery space. “It’s the mothership of Salford’s burgeoning grassroots arts ecology,” says Buy Art Fair’s Thom Hetherington, and a late-night-into-next-day rave space, where things get seriously strange, both on- and off-stage. “I’ve had brilliant nights here,” says Ragsdale, who is also half of electronic duo Worriedaboutsatan. “It’s incredibly welcoming and I love how, one week, you can see intense experimental hip-hop like Dälek and the next hazy dub techno.”
• James Street, islingtonmill.com
Manchester playlist by Worriedaboutsatan
Blackjack Brewery’s Smithfield is a resolutely old-school boozer – bar skittles, dart board, pork pies – with an A1 craft beer selection. “It’s homely and DIY but the beer’s progressive. It’s a model for the contemporary pub,” says Runaway Brewery owner Mark Welsby. “If you’re unlucky, you might find one of our brewers banging out Toto’s Africa on the piano.”
• Pint from £3.20, 37 Swan Street, @TheSmithfieldNQ
This basement bar is, arguably, the place to get a taste of what is happening on Manchester’s beer scene. All of its beers (five cask, four keg) come from within a radius of 25 miles of St Anne’s Square, with local heroes such as Squawk, First Chop, Track and Beer Nouveau well-represented. “The owners are passionate, so expect cask beer in tip-top condition,” says Welsby.
• Pint from £3.20, 65 Bridge Street, brinkmcr.co.uk
True, big, mainstream venues such as Mr Coopers at the Midland Hotel and Hawksmoor serve some of Manchester’s most accomplished cocktails but, happily, that keeps the indies on their toes. “Just having tattoos and attitude won’t cut it in a city where there are so many banging places,” says Tom Sneesby from booze expert the Liquorists. He rates Tariff & Dale (tariffanddale.com) and the fine libations at nearby Cottonopolis.
• Cocktails from £8, 16 Newton Street, cottonopolis-nq.com
A gig venue, a bar and a diner, Gorilla’s mezzanine Gin Parlour is also a draw in its own right. Expect drinks served with elaborate Spanish-style panache (say, G&Ts garnished with water melon and basil) and first-rate cocktails, such as its house buttered-gin flip. “Try the Manchester Gin made with foraged dandelion and burdock,” says Sneesby, who also co-owns Prestwich’s Grape to Grain.
• G&T from £5.50, 54–56 Whitworth Street, thisisgorilla.com
This pizzeria comes correct. Its dough is proved for 24 hours, dressed with fine ingredients (San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce, wild broccoli and lardo on its white pizzas), and blast-cooked for 60 seconds in an imported clay oven. That process produces ethereally light bases persuasively blistered with char. Decent spritz cocktails and beers from Manchester’s excellent Cloudwater seal the deal. Expect to queue at peak times.
• Pizza from £4.80, 9 Cotton Street, 07931 162059, rudyspizza.co.uk
Calm, precise and executed with feeling: that could describe both Yuzu’s Japanese food and the cool bebop jazz soundtrack that accompanies it. The flavours are as intense as they are fresh in Yuzu’s sashimi, tempura and noodle bowls and its legendary “kara-age” fried chicken. “The sashimi’s beautifully prepared but the quality of the cooked rice, or gohan, sets Yuzu apart. It’s a key ingredient that others often overlook,” says food blogger Hungry Hoss.
• Mains from £9.50, 39 Faulkner Street, 0161 236 4159, yuzumanchester.co.uk
El Gato Negro
Simon Shaw’s new-ish El Gato Negro is that rare top-end Manchester restaurant that is still an owner-operated indie. Inspired by modern Barcelona tapas joints, the food is vibrant and it is a sassy, stylish space (complete with ground-floor jamón and gin bar). Try the Josper-grilled onglet with its soft, slow-cooked tangle of potatoes and peppers or the lemon baby chicken with romesco sauce.
• Dishes from £5, 52 King Street, 0161 694 8585, elgatonegrotapas.com
Bright, friendly and super-basic, this supermarket cafe serves (probably) the best Thai food in Manchester. Go steady with those homemade chilli dipping sauces. They take no prisoners. Try the kao moo grob (crispy pork belly with jasmine rice) or the Isaan-style som tam papaya salad with baby salted crabs. “It’s some of the best Thai I’ve eaten outside of Thailand,” says Hungry Hoss.
• Meals from £6.95, 48a George Street, 0161 237 1555, @SiamSmilesCafe
Paper & PS Mirabel
Open Saturdays-only, these two consistently fascinating spaces are hidden within Mirabel Studios. Paper is a minuscule commercial gallery that focuses on, yes, paper. “That’s the unifying medium but it’s endlessly reimagined through painting, drawing or sculpture,” says Hetherington. PS Mirabel is an artist-run studio/exhibition space whose themed shows, inspired by anything from “concrete” to the industrial north, are usually witty, warped good fun.
• 14-20 Mirabel Street, paper-gallery.co.uk; psmirabel.co.uk
Like ad hoc art space the Penthouse (thepenthousenq.com) or “creative wellness centre” Wonder Inn (wonderinn.co.uk), 3MT is the best of the Northern Quarter – a DIY, independent 70-seat theatre and hothouse for new drama, poetry and comedy. For more grassroots theatre, check what is happening upstairs at the King’s Arms (kingsarmssalford.com), Paul Heaton’s pub-cum-arts-hub.
• 35-39 Oldham Street, threeminutetheatre.co.uk
The International Anthony Burgess Foundation
Burgess fans will enjoy the exhibits, but TIABF also hosts a broad programme of talks, book launches, art events and intimate gigs (such as an evening with piano maverick Hauschka). “It’s a fitting tribute to one of the city’s favourite literary sons,” says Hetherington.
• 3 Cambridge Street, anthonyburgess.org
A stark, angular space showing spiky modern art, Castlefield nurtures northern artists, while maintaining a global outlook. This month, Diagonal Noise, an exhibition of existing and site-specific, multi-disciplinary work from several Belgian artists, will, as part of the gallery’s Launch Pad series, give way to the first solo show by West Yorkshire-based Amelia Crouch.
• 2 Hewitt Street, castlefieldgallery.co.uk
Hope Mill Theatre
Slowly, inner-city Ancoats warehouses are being colonised by the art crowd. Hope Mill is home to 120 artist-makers (look out for Awol Studios’ open-day events), as well as pioneering commercial gallery Comme Ça and the new fringe Hope Mill Theatre. “Hope Mill has previously hosted Art Battle Manchester, too,” says Hetherington. “That’s a brilliantly energetic live, competitive painting event.”
• 13 Pollard Street, hopemilltheatre.co.uk