One of my fondest memories of Canberra is wandering into The Phoenix during the Canberra Comedy Festival season in the middle of a comedic, erotic poetry slam. Afterwards, a local band played. I don’t remember which one anymore, but I remember that night was when I decided to give Canberra a chance.
Sadly, The Phoenix closed last year, joining the graveyard of iconic Canberra venues to be slowly squeezed out of business, catch on fire, and everything in between.
Still, there’s plenty to be optimistic about in 2020, and plenty of places to get some live music in your ears. This is where Canberra’s live music landscape currently stands.
In keeping with Canberra’s love of slightly hidden places (see Molly, Highball), sideway can be hard to find if you haven’t been there before. It’s a single open door on East Row, with a staircase leading up to the venue.
It’s really just an upstairs room with a bar when it comes down to it, but it has fostered a really nice vibe, and is a fun, low-key place to enjoy a drink and catch up with local bands. It’s been a sleeper success and will be celebrating its first birthday soon. Find that doorway and celebrate too.
As a longtime Belconnen resident, I do have a soft spot for the Basement. Most of the live music in Canberra takes place in Civic, so I’m going to rep Belco and tell you The Basement is worth heading out north for.
The Basement has everything you need: pool tables, a no nonsense bar, lots of guitars and a relaxed, slightly grungy atmosphere. It’s known for hosting heavier gigs – metal, hardcore, punk – but does a bit of everything. There are two stages – one in the main bar area and then a smaller stage in its own room. The small stage hasn’t always brought the best sound in my experience but The Basement is serious about putting on a good variety of live music.
Transit changed ownership a while back and it took a while to find its feet again. For quite a while it didn’t seem like the owners knew quite what they wanted Transit Bar to be. But the place has solid bones and tons of iconic bands have played there. There’s pretty good pizza, a decent beer selection and some great music – and they’re programming a lot of it in the coming months. I’m excited to see how they go in 2020.
The National Live Music Awards’ 2019 winner of the best venue in the ACT, Smith’s is a delight. Outside, there are couches and tables and books and a piano. Inside, it’s warm and cosy and hosts a huge range of events – everything from spoken word to open mics to drag shows.
Smith’s is an institution, and you can drop in on any given night and something fun will be on. Or you can just relax on one of the absurdly comfortable sofas and grab a drink and a vegan treat – it’s up to you.
I love a good uni bar and UC Live delivers. With the bigger UC Refectory upstairs and the smaller UC Hub downstairs, you’re set for a huge range of gigs – everyone from Peking Duk to Mallrat has played upstairs, while bands like Press Club and Julia Jacklin have performed downstairs. I prefer the intimacy of the Hub, personally, but UC Live schedules excellent shows for both venues.
Just about every band in Canberra has played at The Polish Club at some point and why wouldn’t they? The band room has a real community hall feel (in the best way) and the restaurant boasts some of the best Polish dumplings in Canberra.
If you want to play some board games, watch a gig, and then get some pierogi, the Polo is the place for you.
Sadly ANU Bar closed a couple of years ago, and its live venue replacement MOLO Live was fairly short-lived. That said, Badger & Co. is keeping live music alive at ANU. There’s definitely room for a medium-sized venue with a strong identity in Canberra. Here’s hoping it lasts longer than MOLO Live.
And also …
This is by no means a complete list of venues in Canberra. There’s also The Front, Canberra Theatre Centre, Ainslie Arts Centre and more.
Did we leave your favourite venue off this list? Let us know.