Live in Edinburgh

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Henry's Cellar Bar

Henry's Cellar Bar. Photo:Stuart Barrett

They say that music needs space to breathe, but over the course of an evening Anna Docherty finds that it is in Edinburgh’s cramped and crammed little venues that the music really resonates. She takes us a on tour of the best live music venues that Edinburgh has to offer.

Henry's Cellar Bar

My first stop is Henry’s, a tiny cellar bar with a jam-packed musical schedule. As I amble down the spiralling stone staircase, I can hear a hearty racket coming from inside. In typical Henry’s style, the band onstage are frenetically charged and bash their way through the set. The early evening timeslot often has this rickety, practice session vibe and the doorman mock-seriously informs me that most of their acts seem to be ‘frantically exploring the world of sound’. There is a light-hearted feel, with musicians, punters and staff swapping banter under layers of guitar, drum and electro beats. The emphasis is on new bands and local talent, but stylistically you can never quite second guess this charming little venue.

Best for:
Discovering a band in their infancy
Check out:
Special weekend club nights
8-16a Morrison Street (D5), 0131 228 9393.
Music: 8pm-1am (3am weekends), www.henrysvenue.com, gig prices vary.

Bannerman's

Bannerman’s is a bit of a daddy when it comes to the Edinburgh live music scene. It boasts a large bar area leading through to an enclosed cave-like gig space that is dank and atmospheric with sloping stone walls pasted with old gig posters. Tonight a lone guitarist sings his heart out like a lost choirboy. There is a lovely relaxed atmosphere, making this the kind of place you could spend the evening. But if that all makes it sound a little straightforward, Bannerman’s mixes it up with their ‘wee stage’ – a free space for new bands to showcase their material. So it’s possible to hear something jagged, unpolished and a little ramshackle, just to keep you on your toes.

Best for:
Actually getting a seat in the bar
Helpful hint:
Keep an eye out for ‘big name’ acts
Niddry Street (F4), 0131 556 3254.
Music: 8pm-1am, www.bannermansgigs.co.uk, gig prices vary.

The Jazz Bar

My first indication that adding jazz to tonight’s mix could prove dangerous is when the lady on the door advises me to look out for the ‘porn faces’ from the live act. Forget the idea of jazz as elevator music, this underground bar offers a full on blood, sweat and tears style of jazz. The Hammond organ player gurns and grins as he thumps at the keys and tinkles his way towards a musical nervous breakdown. This is the sleekest venue by far, with twinkling red lantern lights on each table and a shiny black marble bar. It’s all very sensual and adds a touch of class to my evening, and with two live acts every night, this is the perfect place to find your jazz feet while relaxing with a long drink and a sultry expression.

Top Choice:
Monday’s 17-piece big band
Helpful Hint:
Order a Pink Russian cocktail (only £3)
1 Chambers Street (F5), 0131 220
4298. Music: 8pm-1am (and Saturday afternoons), www.thejazzbar.co.uk, free entry after 11pm.

Whistlebinkies

For the third time tonight I find my legs taking me below ground level, into a dark pit of sound, where every beat, twang and thud vibrates in the confined bunker-like space. The music seems vital; it hangs in the air. At Whistlebinkies you’ll find a warm, lively atmosphere, helped along by the well-stocked bar that snakes the length of the venue. It can be a little testosterone-fuelled and heckling seems de rigueur, but the bands are usually vibrant and cocky enough to take it in their stride. This is for those who like their music served with passion, energy and droplets of sweat.

Best For:
Noisy indie-rock
Helpful Hint:
Don’t ask for a cocktail list
4-6 South Bridge (F4), 0131 557 5114.
Music: 8pm–3am, www.whistlebinkies.com, free entry.

The Royal Oak

This is without doubt the wild card of the bunch. Unlike the other venues, with their authentic gloominess, The Royal Oak glows like Christ-mas – full of rosy cheeks, healthy banter and rousing folk music. It’s a bit of a free-for-all and the inviting atmosphere seems to extend to canines, as there is an excitable dog panting at my feet. Shuffling around inside is an old man who tells me he’s been coming here for thirty years, proudly adding ‘that’s longer than Willie over there’. It seems the perfect end to any night and I don’t want to leave, which is good, because the aforementioned old man is blocking the doorway, posing for photographs with tourists. I am trapped, but happily so.

Best For:
Impromptu fiddle playing
Check Out:
The impressive whisky selection
Infirmary Street (F5), 0131 557
2976. Music 9pm–1am and Sat & Sun afternoon, www.royal-oak-folk.com, free entry.

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