Oxford’s O2 Academy has housed some amazing live acts over the past couple of years, with the rest of 2014 looking equally as impressive and promising – the line-up includes American duo We Are Scientists, Tame Impala, the X-Factor’s Matt Cardle, and Katy B. Part of the charm of O2 venues is that they appeal to a wide variety of tastes, and are able to easily accommodate these.
The capacity of the building is around 1,400, which easily makes it the largest and one of the more easily accessible live music venues in Oxford. Every gig that I’ve seen at the O2 Academy has been comfortably busy, with a lack of rowdy drunks. It is clear that those in attendance are there for the music rather than the alcohol, and this gives the whole experience a much better atmosphere – singing at the top of your voice to your favourite song is made all the more special when there are hundreds of other people singing alongside you.
One of the O2’s strengths lies in its ability to showcase professional commercial artists, and to provide a stage to match. Here, the advantages of having a properly equipped music venue come into play – the lights are always incredible, with no two shows having the same bog-standard display. Smoke machines give the entire venue a great atmosphere, as well as creating a mysterious and ethereal vibe which really exalts the live music. The main downside to the O2? The extraordinarily high prices of any beverage, not ideal for a student budget.
Kate Bradley – Oxford High Street
Oxford has some great live music venues – Cellar, Jericho Tavern, the Wheatsheaf, the O2 Academy – but the cheapest, most enjoyable venue to see live music is the city centre. At weekends in summer, a huge range of musicians grace the streets of Oxford, and every ten yards there’s a new sound to enjoy – singer-songwriters strumming their guitars, MCs rapping over processed beats, classically-trained pianists and jazz musicians, and my favourite, the trio that plays medieval Eastern European music. The more uncharitable amongst you might be angered by these musicians’ imposition on the aural texture of your day, but it always warms my heart to hear someone putting their talents on show, effectively for free, in the hope that someone will drop them a pound in return.
Busking can be quite a lucrative trade, and it’s no wonder that so many people are attracted to the streets on bright, sunny days to play to the crowds of shoppers and tourists. I’m most impressed, though, by the guitarist who plays soulful acoustic hits until 11 or 12 at night outside Boots – when I’m walking to Tesco or Cellar at 11.30pm, the world feels just a little less hostile thanks to ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’.
Nobody’s saying that High Street has the best acoustics, or that it’s always pleasant to have a soundtrack while you’re trying to dodge past strangers who are walking interminably slowly, but there’s nowhere else in Oxford you could find such a variety of live music for free.
Don’t be fooled by appearances. Oxford’s best classical music venue is in fact located a minute’s walk away from the Sheldonian theatre in the relatively small and unostentatious Holywell Music Room. Yes, the Sheldonian may have it all when it comes to orchestral music and drawing in the big artists but at the price of unadventurous programming and an impersonal atmosphere. The Holywell on the other hand is open to anything from student ensembles to the latest experimental music through to nationally renowned chamber ensembles (the annual chamber music festival is unmissable) so you really never quite know what you’re going to get.
The Holywell, in its miniature stature, also exudes intimacy on every level, from the proximity to the performers to the living room lamps used to illuminate the stage. It is this that makes performances here truly special, they become personal and human.
I am yet to watch a performance at the Sheldonian that matches the unique expressiveness and atmosphere of the Holywell Music Room.