Last weekend Newcastle and Gateshead were graced with the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival. I was one of the lucky swines who got tickets to the Saturday night event at The Sage, after sitting with my finger hovering over the mouse, watching the countdown to 10am when the tickets went on sale. Fortunately, as it turns out, I am lightning-fast, as they sold out within minutes.
Radio 6 Music Festival at The Sage
I grew up with the Newcastle music scene and, like all teenage passions, there’s a fair amount of cringing looking that far back – the heavy obsession with PJ Harvey, the fact that I was enamoured by any brooding guitarist and the phase where I thought a bowler hat was a good idea. It wasn’t. But it was here in our Geordie homeland that I first discovered the powerful and exhilarating experience of live music.
Newcastle’s music scene is often left in the shadows of Manchester, Liverpool and London - and it’s not just nostalgia and Geordie loyalty talking here – but Newcastle’s music scene is bursting with talent; endless bands, artists, quirky venues and boundless energy. So I was over the moon to hear that the BBC were acknowledging this city’s fine music credentials and were bringing the Radio 6 Music Festival to us. Over three days of live music and conversation, more than 50 bands and artists played across several venues - from the big, famous and commercial venues to the small, underground numbers.
The Concourse Stage
I headed to The Sage on Saturday night with our new digital designer, the lovely Laura – I’ll write words, she’ll take photos, we thought - but the BBC run a tight ship and wouldn’t let Laura bring her camera in as it was far too professional (that’s us). Therefore, we had to improvise with our camera phones - so forgive the amateur phone photos (nothing to do with the abundance of local beer consumed). We’re proud of The Sage, and rightly so. This iconic building, which sits next to The Baltic, has changed the landscape of the quayside to include cosmopolitan culture alongside its upmarket nightlife.
Too cool for school
The Sage had been transformed with strings of fairy lights, trees with hanging vinyl records and an abundance of dry ice. First stop - in true Tyneside fashion - were our Geordie chums, Maximo Park, who catapulted onto the music scene and captured the hearts of every Geordie bairn with the lyrics ‘standing at the monument just waiting…’, as we all did on our Saturday jaunts around town. I could comment on lead singer, Paul Smith’s energy levels, which are always sky high as he throws himself around the stage in his trademark bold shirt and trilby hat, but they seemed miniscule compared to Laura’s… Never have I seen such a wild fan! I had to reign her in to stop her falling off the balcony when they played Apply Some Pressure.
Laura nearly landed on Maximo Park
Kate Tempest was unreal. I’m a new and passionate convert to Miss Tempest’s spoken word and music. Despite being a word-lover, I thought that I wasn’t particularly into poetry, that it bordered on pretentious and flowery... until last year, when someone introduced me to Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients, where she connects the stories of Greek mythology to modern life, and it completely blew me away. Naturally, her music was punchy and lyrical and played with rhythm and rhyme, but it was her earnest quest for finding good that had people crying on the front row. That’s what Kate Tempest does – she tells raw, honest, powerful and compelling stories that empower people to speak up and challenge modern life.
Jungle and Kate Tempest
We also went to see The Fall, the post-punk band that started in Manchester in the 1970s, where lead singer (though ‘singer’ is debatable), Mark E. Smith, is the only original member: ‘If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall’. Apparently, the duration of other band members' stay is how long they can tolerate Mark E. Smith before scarpering, and though he may be legendary, he spent most of the time ignoring the audience, facing the back of the stage and wailing. Villagers played in the main foyer, with their whimsical, string-led, folk gorgeousness, Jungle sent Laura into a crazed fan again and we were torn for the headline act between Hot Chip, The Cribs and Gruff Rhys. We went for the latter and danced outrageously on the front row (beer had kicked in) to try and get on camera, but no luck.
The Boiler Shop
Beered up, we got stuck into the Radio 6 Music Street Food Market, which had a host of options that can usually be found at Newcastle’s legendary Boiler Shop Steamer, where we feasted on food from Piggie Smalls Hotdog Co. However, it wasn’t just the market on Performance Square outside the stage - the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival went and shacked up at The Boiler Shop Steamer itself, with an impressive line-up of DJs - Gilles Peterson, Mary Ann Hobbs, Four Tet and Jamie XX - until 2am.
The Boiler Shop Steamer
For out-of-towners, if you’re visiting Newcastle, The Boiler Shop Steamer is not to be missed. It’s held on the first Friday and Saturday of each month in the impressive surroundings of The Boiler Shop (clue’s in the name, eh?!), the birthplace of Stephenson’s Rocket. It is total hipster central and craft beer mad, but in glorious fashion; a pure celebration of food, drink, music and art, where eclectic bands
play whilst you try to work your way through the plethora of street food stalls. Some highlights are The Hip Hop Chip Shop, Ouseburn Coffee Company, The Fat Hippo, Papa Ganoush and the legendary Wylam Brewery.
The Ouseburn Valley
Basically, the Ouseburn valley is cool. Set on a picturesque urbanised valley on two sides of the River Ouse, this unsuspecting valley is a hub of alternative, indie-folky venues and artists’ studios and is known for its live music and real ale. It comes to life in the summer, with the central garden spaces filling up with Newcastle’s hippest lazing on the grass with beer and cider and a ridiculously trendy collection of sunglasses. Over the weekend of the Radio 6 Music Festival, The Cluny, The Cumberland Arms and The Star and Shadow hosted music, conversation, spoken word, comedy and film.
Good food and good music
The Cluny is small but has prestige. It’s owned by gig boozer The Head of Steam, next to central station (I once saw The Arctic Monkeys here for three quid when they were up and coming, I’ll have you know). The Cluny’s bands always seem too famous for such a small capacity, but that’s its charm and attraction and it has a reputation for awesome food as well.
The Cumberland Arms is a proper old-fashioned boozer - wood panelling, roaring fire and book-lined shelves - and its isolated position overlooking the valley gives spectacular views from the beer garden terrace. It’s a traditional folk venue and several times I’ve found myself sitting there on a weekday night and someone will start up at the old piano in the front room and a group of old, bearded chaps will whip out guitars, harmonicas and sing in a spontaneous jam. You don’t come by many pubs like this anymore, but when you do, they’re gold.
Much like the Newcastle music scene itself - its regional stereotype may be more hardcore clubs than unassuming music venues, but I think of this city as the inconspicuous underdog; you only need to scratch the surface to find yourself lost in a multitude of cool bohemian venues, nurturing up-and-coming musical talent. And you never know, you might see the next big thing for three quid at your local pub.