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Modern Art Oxford

Oxford’s live music scene

Oxford has – as many people can attest – been a hub for musical endeavors of various sizes and sounds for a considerable amount of time
The Bullingdon

"More and more DIY collectives are springing up in Oxford"

By Jack Telford


Whatever the music genre – indie rock, house, techno, metal, hip-hop – in Oxford there has been a fervent audience and a space in which to house these shows. This is, in part, down to the city’s wealth of live music arenas which manage to encompass larger, more acclaimed groups in venues such as the New Theatre, the Bullingdon and the O2 Academy on Cowley Road. However, what really drives the live music scene within Oxford is hidden a little deeper, in the smaller rooms of pubs and bars strewn across the city.

Catweazle Club


One of the most important venues for the promotion of low-key, DIY shows is The Library. Buried in the depths of Cowley Road, the underground room here can hold less than 100 people but has played host to some of the most raucous and intense performances within the city. Its dark, almost claustrophobic atmosphere makes it a perfect space to house music on the heavier end of the spectrum, with the fuzzy lo-fi of Rainbow Reservoir and voracious punk of Kancho going down a treat during recent shows. The inclusiveness of the Library’s policies on shows also make it a vital place for young and new artists who are just starting out. Having a venue which is affordable to hire, easy to fill and in a good location is a rarity, and it is so refreshing to see a venue which is more determining on fostering an eclectic new generation of bands, singers and songwriters than on making a profit.

In a similar way, Modern Art Oxford (MAO) has opened up its basement room to promoters in recent years, allowing for an influx of bands from across the country and creating another venue that bands feel privileged to play in. There is an emphasis at MAO to create shows that blend eclectic line ups with typically simple but strong aesthetics with many bands making the most out of the in-house projector for their trippy, psychedelic visuals. MAO also boasts the interesting idea of selling the work of local artists at some of their musical shows – this kind of crossover only serves to strengthen creative ties within the Oxford community. The decent variety of beers (Asahi gets an honorable mention) and food that are on offer at MAO only makes it all the more appealing to the average gig-goer. The only real downside for Modern Art Oxford is that shows can be few and far between, yet perhaps this makes the moment when they do come round at MAO an occasion to be cherished.

The promoters that put on a large portion of shows – such as Idiot King, Smash Disco and Divine Schism – all have a strong emphasis on curating lineups of talented musicians who share a similar DIY ethos – recording, releasing, making merchandise, promoting, and creating artwork themselves. It is these kinds of communities that have started to become the bedrock of the music scene in Britain as a whole, with similar movements coming to the fore in Bristol, Leeds and Brighton – showing that London is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to making musical waves, as has previously been the case. Now that more and more DIY collectives are springing up in Oxford, the city’s creative potential is being harnessed in a better way than ever with a strong focus on achieving an inclusive and self-sustaining musical environment.

Another night which cannot be forgotten when it comes to Oxford’s music scene is the Catweazle Club, which takes place every Thursday at the East Oxford Community Centre. The brainchild of musical veteran Matt Sage, the ‘ultimate open mic’ has been a constant event in Oxford for over twenty years with each week bringing a fresh and exciting experience. Acoustic music blends with reggae, folk, and poetry as artists collaborate and jam in an atmosphere that is deeply respectful of all performers – some of which have been local favourites Stornoway who have been known to test-run new material there. The Catweazle Club is another prime example of the community vibe that Oxford has managed to sustain and allow for an open, collaborative environment which is mutually beneficial to the city and the performer.

With such strong foundations within the Oxford live scene, it is no surprise that many bands kick on and become features on the national circuit. Oxford native Cameron A. G., who has crafted a number of dreamy Lennon-esque ballads on his recently released ‘Way Back Home’ EP, gaining some substantial airplay on Radio 1 with the beautiful ‘Lost Direction’. Having previously drummed in the punky Warhen and The Quarter Finals back in the early noughties, Cameron’s new introspective, delicate direction has turned more heads and he looks likely to become even more popular in the next few months after sets at both Common People and Latitude Festival.

Esther Joy Lane is another musician that is finally getting her dues paid. The singer-songwriter only played her first show in Oxford just over a year ago, and yet still ended up on the bill for Glastonbury 2016. Her distinctive style of electronic pop is evocative of Clare Boucher’s Grimes, yet there is a familiarity on tracks like ‘Quest For Her Master’ that reminds of Jessie Ware with a darker edge. Esther Joy Lane has also championed other artists and scenes in Oxford – the likes of Lucy Leave, NEVERLND and folk collective Irregular Folks have all been mentioned or supported by her in recent months, reciprocating the respect she receives straight back into the circuit.

One final mention goes to indie rocker Willie J. Healey, who has been perhaps the city’s most notable export in the past few years. His surf-styled brand of rock should seem strange from someone growing up in a place as landlocked as Oxford but for Healey, it feels effortless. His low baritone is unmistakable above simple beats and hazy melodies – it is a simple mixture but one that is undeniably effective and strikes a chord for most. Recent tracks ‘Ray’ and ‘Subterraneans’ wander towards the territory of moody Londoner Archy Marshall (King Krule) but with tracks like ‘Dude Like Him’ are light, poppy and most importantly, catchy. His recent tour with Beach Baby, along with his NME Awards show with the Magic Gang has brought him to the attention of the farthest reaches of the country, so hopefully he can capitalize on this kind of exposure in his next release, which will be patiently waited on by the people of Oxford.

There are, of course, so many more bands and musicians that could be mentioned here – such is the wealth of talent in our area. Some will enter into the higher rungs of the British music scene and some obviously will not, yet the primary aim when starting any artistic endeavor is to create something that is worthwhile and that people will enjoy. In Oxford, this ethos still seems to be at heart of everything that the city’s scene does with mutual support and respect flowing out of every venue, promoter, band or artist. As long as this continues, the Oxford scene is in safe hands indeed.


- Jack Telford


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