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Charlotte Street Blues
By Mark Harrison
In recent months, it’s become possible to talk (and indeed read) about 'London’s burgeoning blues scene.' This welcome development has been mostly to do with the arrival of new blues-dedicated venues. Back in June, we covered the opening of Charlotte Street Blues, a large and brand-spanking-new purpose-built blues venue smack in the centre of town. This place is obviously big news for any blues enthusiast and its existence is a major boon for the London blues scene.
Personally, I’ve been there frequently, to see gigs and to play at the Wednesday jam and the Blues in London Sunday Sessions. I really like the place, and my impression is that the consensus is one of enthusiastic approval. The booking policy covers a range of top-notch artists you don’t get much chance to see (these include so far Otis Taylor, Alvin Youngblood Hart and John Mayall), the UK’s top pros (such as Ian Siegal, Matt Schofield) and a large number of London-based bands and artists taken from the large talent pool there is here in the capital. Any week, and sometimes several times a week, you can see somebody really good there.
The venue itself is extremely pleasant – smart but not too slick. The atmosphere’s excellent – the place is the right side of the cool line but a poseur-free zone. It’s all pretty upbeat and the age range of the clientele is very wide. It’s a good place to drop into on the off chance as well as to go to for particular events. It’s all pretty relaxed and if you like blues at all, or are just finding out that there is such a thing as the 'blues scene' and fancy checking it out, you’re likely to be impressed by the place.
I asked Sophia Natso, Artistic Director at Charlotte Street Blues for a progress report.
MH: So, how's it been going since you opened up in June? Have things gone as you’d planned or expected?
Sophia: Since June it's been a success. Every week the place is getting more customers. It really works for us by word of mouth. People are coming to experience the atmosphere and tell their friends. It's the best marketing in the world.
MH: Going back, what was the thinking behind the venture and who's behind it?
Sophia: The thinking behind the venture came from Chris Maxwell, the manager. He's a Blues lover and had the idea for opening a Blues bar for the young generation to experience the music.
MH: What about the people who've been coming through the doors, who is the venue attracting?
Sophia: The venue attracts a very wide mixture of people and this is great - from the young generation coming to see Ash Grunwald playing to the more mature crowd coming to see John Mayall.
MH: What sort of feedback have you been getting?
Sophia: We are getting great feed back from the artists and the customers. Everybody seems to enjoy the place.
MH: How would you assess the market for blues in London?
Sophia: Like I said before the best way to assess the market for Blues is to create a great atmosphere where people want to hang out with moderate drink prices and good food and excellent music.
MH: Has anything surprised you since you opened the venue?
Sophia: Yes, like sometimes you can't rely on big names to fill the place and then you put on somebody like Son Of Dave and the place gets packed out.
MH: What’s been the best aspect so far?
Sophia: The best aspect has been seeing the place being alive and vibrant with a mixed crowd enjoying themselves and dancing to the music.
MH: And what’s been the most difficult aspect?
Sophia: The most difficult aspect is that you never know what is going to happen, like a band cancelling at the last minute. But it's a great challenge.
MH: Has the recession had an impact, do you think?
Sophia: Yes of course because people are more careful in the way they spend their money, but at the same time during difficult times people want to be entertained, and we provide very good entertainment at an affordable price. There's no better way to forget your worries than to sip a glass of Bourbon, listen to good music and have a dance.
MH: How would you assess the blues scene in London in relation to the rest of the live music scene?
Sophia: The Blues scene in London is vibrant at the moment, with a lot of creative artists and musicians. You can see at the Jam session run by Sam Hare the number of musicians that come to play.
MH: What do you think of the calibre of blues musicians in London?
Sophia: I think there are really good Blues musicians, such as Matt Schofield, Ian Siegal, Vunerable Things, Barker Band, Son Of Blues and Stephen Finn, to name just a few. London and the UK are a place where a lot of talent goes unnoticed because they have nowhere to play, but now with us they have a place where they can perform on a good stage with good sound.
MH: How do you see things going for the venue in the coming months and years?
Sophia: I think that we're going to do well because of the concept that people can come to the venue for different purposes - listening to live music, dancing, or going to the basement to play a game of pool or just hanging around the Bourbon bar.
A glance down Charlotte Street itself, hitherto some kind of hub of the media and advertising worlds, reveals that’s what’s burgeoning in other parts of the street is the recession, with a noticeable number of ‘Office Space To Let’ signs. It’s pretty brave to start any new enterprise in the teeth of a recession, but maybe this phase of the economic cycle is good for the blues. Certainly, Charlotte Street Blues deserves to prosper, and the signs are that it will.