6 April 2020

Remembering iconic underground music venues from Canberra's past

| Hayden Fritzlaff
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Guitarist airborne while performing onstage.

Magpies City Underground hosted local bands as well as international touring acts. Photo: Supplied.

Remember the days when people would congregate together in groups to observe live music performances? These events were often referred to as ‘gigs’ and took place in specially equipped spaces known as ‘venues’.

Distant memories aside, something that has become abundantly clear since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis is just how precious music venues are to the communities they host.

Even before 2020, music venues would typically operate on tight margins, and seeing a beloved music space fall victim to financial strain, property development, noise complaints, licensing issues, or just plain bad luck was sadly all too common an occurrence. It’s high time we talked about some of the legendary venues whose doors had to shut for good in recent years.

Magpies City Underground

It doesn’t get more ‘underground’ than actually being underground. Magpies was a nursery for Canberra’s punk bands in the mid-2010s. It was a place where newcomers would brush shoulders with touring international heavyweights.

Magpies sported two stages and the best sound in town. It was also ideally located, hiding beneath the floor of Gus’ in Garema Place. The cavernous space has been vacant for several years now, leaving a Magpies-shaped hole in the city’s punk scene.

Who played there: AJJ (formerly Andrew Jackson Jihad), Azim Zain and His Lovely Bones, The Smith Street Band.
What it was like: Watching your friends play to a warm, nurturing audience and then trying not to make eye contact with the pokie players on your way out.

La De Da

Perched high above Lake Ginninderra was La De Da. The upstairs bar took on many forms during the year, playing host to intimate jazz nights, multilevel music festivals, internationally acclaimed DJs and beatmakers, and many a Groovin The Moo afterparty.

La De Da was a shining beacon of creativity in the Belconnen Town Centre, operating on the simple principle of letting creative people do their thing. You were just as likely to encounter an experimental event format inside its art-adorned walls as you were a bustling party that spilled into the carpark.

Who played there: TOKiMONSTA, Teebs, 30/70.
What it was like: Watching some of the world’s best beatmakers and momentarily forgetting you weren’t in LA.

Mural from LoBrow Gallery and Bar in Garema Place.

LoBrow Gallery & Bar could be found up a narrow staircase in Garema Place. Photo: Supplied.

LoBrow Gallery & Bar

Another venue that found a home in a vacant room in Garema Place, LoBrow was all about showing off what Canberra’s artists were capable of. The bar was adjacent to Sancho’s Dirty Laundry and the gallery space was continually filled with work from local artists.

It all came together in a cross-disciplinary melting pot of creativity that became the go-to spot for single launches and parties. Later on in its lifespan, it brought a tear to the eye to walk in and see photographs of local songwriters adorning the walls.

Who played there: RAAVE Tapes, Hoodlum Shouts, Drawing North.
What it was like: Climbing up the stairs next to Beach Burrito Company for the first time, not knowing what to expect and being greeted by fairy lights criss-crossing the room and local art on every wall.

Jim Dusty (left) withi banjo and Azim Zain (right) with guitar performing a gig to a crowd.

Jim Dusty and Azim Zain from Azim Zain and His Lovely Bones do a duet at a Mulgara gig. Photo: Dave McCarthy.

Macleay Farm

Tucked away in an inner-north suburban street, the carport of this unassuming house was like a warm, cozy blanket for Canberra’s music scene. DIY collective Mulgara would run regular house shows here, providing a safe and nurturing environment for the city’s musicians and music-lovers to thrive.

Whether you were there for a Sunday afternoon acoustic set, or a mid-winter Saturday night gig with mulled wine in hand, you could expect to catch your favourite local bands alongside acts from interstate who were following the house show trail up and down the east coast.

Who played there: Ben Stewart (Slowly Slowly), Rachel Maria Cox, Carb on Carb.
What it was like: Screaming your lungs out to Anticharisma by Azim Zain and His Lovely Bones and warming yourself by the fire in between sets.

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robotcitizen6:24 pm 22 May 20

From another perspective I want to give recognition to the management and staff of both Magpies Civic (Aaron & Tim 2013-2015) and Lobrow (Sancho and Vinnie** 2016-2017) for being awesome, supportive, helpful, fun and great people to get along with. They made it fun and easy to run events there. It’s sad that both venues weren’t able to continue; a big loss to Canberra. In context the staff at some of the venues I’ve hosted events seemed like they didn’t like their jobs.

** Memory tricks me but I think it was Vinnie could have been Vince and he was like the best barman I’ve come across: radiant good vibes and a joy to work with.

Thanks for the praise. Was a pleasure bring big and small bands to the masses sometimes 4-5 die hard fans. Many fond memories and so many amazing people and bands. Honoured to have been a part of the scene as short lived as it was.

robotcitizen5:24 pm 22 May 20

Has motivated this list below of imho the most iconic ‘underground’ Canberra music venues I recall, that featured ‘alternative music’ including live music.

The Civic & Woden Youth Centres: these played a vital role in the late 80s and early 90s; from memory it seemed there were gigs at them every weekend; mostly punk n metal; local, national and even international artists played there.

The ANU bar & refectory for decades up until 2017; throughout the 90s they hosted 100s of international, national and local alternative music artists; gigs every weekend and often during the week. From hazy memory there was usually a big alt-music act (national or int’l) at least once per month, for many years in the 90s.

The Terrace bar: in the 80s and early 90s.

The Terminus bar: in the early 90s.

The Base (Manuka): early 90s was the place for electronic dance music.

The Asylum: 91-96.

The Phoenix bar: since 1993.

The Gypsy bar: late 90s to early 00s; first in the space left by the Terminus, then later where Fernwood gym has been.

Heaven nightclub: mid-90s to early-00s.

The University of Canberra refectory (Belco): late 90s and 10s.

Toast: early-mid 00s.

Rockape (Dickson): early 00s.

The Church/Akuna/Transit bars (same space): early 00s to 2020.

The Green Room (Woden): in the mid-00s.

The Holy Grail: early-late 00s.

The Basement (Belco): since about 2006ish.

Bar 32: in the mid-late 00s.

Magpies City: in the mid-10s.

LowBrow: ~2015-17.

All in Civic ‘cept where noted.

Ah, good times! 🙂

Jimmy J LaRue1:33 pm 04 Sep 21

Better list!

Who remembers the Shanty under what was Lovett Tower in Woden?

Peter Graves9:44 pm 01 Aug 21

Now there’s a name. You almost had to be working in Woden. It was downstairs at the side of the Tower facing the Square. Now long since been filled in, so no-one would remember its site. I’d suggest.

The Asylum – The Prodigy c.1994

Article seems to miss the most iconic Canberra music venues. Terrace bar, Gypsy, Zorros, Terminus, ANU refectory etc.

robotcitizen5:18 pm 22 May 20

As well as the Phoenix 1993-2020, Heaven 1994-2001 and Toast 2001-2007 … among others … I figure from the venues that were covered that the author perhaps emerged to the scene in the mid-2010s.

The Green Room at the Henry Grattan Tavern, Phillip.

Now that was a while ago, and anyone remembering it might be letting their age slip out by showing they attended.

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