Independent Venue Week

Chris Jones and musical friends, including Across the Line presenter Rigsy, reveal their favourite Northern Irish haunts

NB: The below article's dates have been amended for Independent Venue Week 2018.

Independent Venue Week, which this year runs from January 28 to February 4, is, according to the blurb, a 'seven-day celebration of small music venues around the UK and a nod to the people that run them, week in, week out'. 

To mark the occasion, we decided to shine a light on the best independent venues in Northern Ireland. These are the places that give over their stages to bright – and sometimes very raw – new talent, performance veterans and touring acts, and, despite their often cramped surroundings, stand tall as creative and social hubs in their communities. With a little help from musicians and music nuts from around Northern Ireland, here are eight of the best.

The Menagerie, Belfast

There are no two ways about it, from the outside The Menagerie on University Street looks like an absolute dive – though the impressive graffiti adorning the façade does help its appearance – but that's just how the regulars like it. The Menagerie is where Belfast's music nerds hang out, and it plays host to an impressive range of gig and club nights, from folk to indie rock to all kinds of underground dance music. When the place is full and local DJs like Jamie Nelson and Kaidi Tatham – or touring stars like Nicky Siano, Tim Sweeney or Pariah – are on form, the atmosphere is nothing short of febrile. In Belfast, or elsewhere, there's nowhere quite like it. Chris Jones

Sunflower Bar, Belfast

For many years in its former guise, the Sunflower on Union Street was the kind of pub you would sell your granny to avoid, complete with a cage keeping undesirables out – or more probably in. In December 2012, however, it reopened under new management, with a complete refurbishment, a paint job for the cage (happily retained after a battle with the Roads Service), and a focus on quality beer, music and comedy. Downstairs is a cosy, no frills pub with some nicely understated local interest décor, including an old bus stop at the bar. But upstairs is the jewel – a live room full of warmth and character where you will find the best that Northern Ireland's folk and singer-songwriter scenes have to offer, as well as local and touring comedians of the highest order. Chris Jones

Sandino's, Derry

This characterful venue on Water Street, named after Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino, is an Aladdin's Cave of leftist memorabilia, almost to the point of parody – Che Guevara's face is everywhere, they sell Palestinian olive oil from behind the bar, and their Saturday night shindig is called Club Havana. The lounge bar is a great, homely spot for a few pints and a chat, with choice background music into the bargain. But the 'back bar' (as the locals refer to it, which is actually upstairs) is the reason for its status at the heart of Derry's music scene, with regular club nights and gigs featuring bands of various genres, from near and far. Chris Jones

Atlantic Lounge, Portrush

For as long as I can remember, the Atlantic Lounge on Main Street – or Retro Bar, as it was previously known – always managed to hold shows, be they gigs with bands, or club nights with DJs. The feeling you get when walking into the Atlantic Lounge is unique – there's a sense of warmth, from the fire in the corner and the hospitality from staff. Every year, the Portrush Brawl is held there, a pilgrimage of sorts for locals. It’s always organized by local rap-rock crew, Team Fresh, and all proceeds go towards charity. The feeling at one of these shows is indescribable. The atmosphere is electric, with people home for the Christmas period, and going to the Brawl is part of the festive tradition. Every show I’ve ever played in the Atlantic Lounge has always been a memorable one, and has made the venue one of, if not my favourite venue outside of Belfast. Wilson Davidson, Pigs As People

Diamond Rock Club, Ahoghill

Bizarrely, Ahoghill – a tiny village in County Antrim, with a population that would barely fill a third of the Odyssey Arena – is a hot spot for proper rock n’ roll. For well over ten years, local bands with a penchant for riffage and volume have taken to the stage at the Diamond on Galgorm Road, a traditional, old-skool public house in the village square. Established bands like Trucker Diablo and The Screaming Eagles call it a second home, while The Answer, a band who have played stadiums around the world supporting AC/DC, often scale down and squeeze into a bar on the outskirts of Ballymena. Rigsy, BBC Northern Ireland

Bogan's, Omagh

Next Door at Bogan's Bar opened two years ago. The venue on Market Street plays host to local musicians, touring acts as well as the new brood of axemen and women. It's an intimate room but can stretch to a capacity of 150, and it’s by far the best venue to hire or go and see live music in Omagh. Phil Taggart, BBC Radio 1

Dicey Reilly's, Strabane

Once the most bombed town in Europe, and still one of its most economically deprived, Strabane somehow manages to have an abundance of passionate, ardent music fans supporting local music. You'll find them thronging the dance floor-cum-stage of Dicey Reilly's on Market Street, a cosy bastion of culture looking onto a drab small town car park. Dicey's is a firm favourite to A Plastic Rose, and the first place we ever heard our lyrics echoing back from the sweaty mass. Ian McHugh, A Plastic Rose

Anchor Bar, Newcastle

The Anchor on Newcastle's Bryansford Road is so versatile; it works as an intimate, candlelit chill-out space for smaller, acoustic gigs or it can be a flat-out, hard rockin’ sweatbox for the louder and heavier end of the gigging spectrum. They even let us play on stage behind chicken wire a la The Blues Brothers! There has always been a really open-minded philosophy about live music at the Anchor too – pretty much anything goes, from electronica, hip hop or reggae, through to nurturing the best in up-and-coming local guitar bands or comedians in their semi-regular LOL comedy night. It’s almost a rite of passage for any new band, DJ or artist from the area to perform there, and the audiences are always up for it. They're some of the best and most loyal in County Down, who just love supporting and hearing new music, whatever the genre. Allan McGreevy, The Rupture Dogs

Visit the Independent Venue Week website for information on events taking place in Northern Ireland.