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a city by city guide to the best indie clubs, bars, record shops and local bands

Edinburgh, Scotland

by Amy Baggott

Edinburgh, quite easily the prettiest city in Scotland, is a place where you can explore castles, climb up (extinct) volcanoes, see big, pointy, gothic monuments to Walter Scott and stalk J.K. Rowling. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also plenty to do for the thinking indiekid about town. Oft ignored in the shadow of the mighty Glasgow indie scene, Edinburgh has a smaller, but equally notable stack of indie credentials of its own. With an illustrious history that boasts bands as diverse as Idlewild and the Shop Assistants, and record labels such as 53rd&3rd and SL Records based in the city, we have a music scene that is equally exciting, if only a fraction of the size of that of our west coast rivals. I really couldn’t be much more in love with a place. Let me give you a brief guide to my favourite bits of it.


Clubs

The Egg
The Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art, Lauriston Place. Every Saturday night, 11pm-3am. £1 before 11:30pm, £3 after.
The most established indie night in town, the Egg draws a mixed crowd with its indie, punk and northern soul ethic. The music policy can be a bit rigid, with the DJs preferring classics to newer tunes, but the atmosphere is always good. In the aptly named Wee Red Bar, it can get a bit crowded on the dance floor, resulting in a huge sweatfest, not aided by the over-enthusiastic deployment of smoke machines approximately every thirty seconds or so. If you don’t mind dancing in a simulated swamp though, you will have a great time. The drinks aren’t too badly priced with it being in a student union, but the downside to the location is the slightly power-mad bouncers who can randomly pick on people without student ID and refuse entry to lovely, sober(ish) nice folk. Photo ID is therefore a good idea, as is buddying up with a student for the evening. A night at the Egg is always good fun though, whether you are laughing at the hipsters with silly haircuts and pointy shoes or just dancing your socks off to Belle & Sebastian.

Unpop
The Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art, Lauriston Place. One Friday night every three months. 11pm-3am. Entry £4.
Unpop is a relatively new night, established in 2009. Inspired by indiepop nights in other cities such as Offbeat in Sheffield and National Pop League in Glasgow, this night favours the twee, the jangly and the C86 on its playlist and aims to provide the city with a riotous indiepop dance party with added free cake, mixtapes and badges for the first fifty people through the doors every time. The DJs are a friendly bunch who will strive to play your requests for you and the crowd on the dancefloor generally seem to be some of the loveliest people in town gathered together all in one place. Although it’s early days for unpop, the first few nights have gone down very well indeed and we hope this night will go from strength to strength.
(http://unpopedinburgh.blogspot.com)

Ice Cream Spiritual
Various venues, approximately once a month during university term time. £4 or £3 for Indie Soc Members.
Continuing a tradition going back 7 years now, the University of Edinburgh Indie Soc put on a clubnight on a monthly basis during term time, usually with a few bands on the bill before the indiepop disco begins. Although the nature of a night run by a student society means the content of the playlist can be variable, the quality of these nights has been stunningly high and you are still more likely to hear Talulah Gosh or Camera Obscura on the dancefloor at Ice Cream Spiritual than The Klaxons or The Arctic Monkeys or indeed whoever the latest cover stars of the NME happen to be that month.

Bringing Up Baby
Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art, Lauriston Place. £4 entry.
This is a new night due to launch in Autumn 2010. The playlist looks very promising though, described as C86, 60s girl groups, indiepop and art punk. We have high hopes for this night!
(www.bringingupbabyedinburgh.blogspot.com)


Venues

Edinburgh doesn’t have a huge number of venues for big touring bands to come to play in any more, The HMV Picturehouse, The Corn Exchange and The Queens Hall being the main three. A step down from these in size, bands might play The Liquid Rooms, Electric Circus or Cabaret Voltaire. The Liquid Rooms is rather soulless and Cabaret Voltaire run a strict 10pm curfew on their shows, which has sadly prematurely curtailed many a great performance there. Henry’s Cellar Bar (www.myspace.com/henrysvenue) is a somewhat tiny venue underneath a Chinese Restaurant, but despite the all-permeating odour of Chinese food, there have been many interesting and well run gigs put on here over the past few years and it is worth keeping an eye on their listings.

Increasingly in recent years though, independent promoters such as Tracer Trails (www.myspace.com/tracertrails) and The Bowery (www.myspace.com/theboweryuk) have looked to create venues in alternative places around the city for bands to play in. Some of the best shows I have seen in recent years have been in old church halls around town, notably Old St. Paul’s on Jeffrey Street, Bristo Adventist Church Hall above the Forest Café, the Roxy on Roxburgh Place and Pilrig St. Paul’s on Pilrig Street. If you’re in town, it’s worth investigating what these promoters are doing because their shows in these beautiful spaces have consistently been some of the most intriguing and wonderful in town.


Bars

Brass Monkey
14 Drummond St, EH8 9TU. Mon-Sat 11am-1am, Sun 12pm-12am
This cosy little pub has a back room that is a miniature cinema where the seating is in the form of a giant bed. They have a decent selection of DVDs and will usually screen a requested movie for you and your friends if you ask nicely. The giant bed makes it the comfiest pub in town too. It has a pool room, fireplace, relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff. Drinks prices are middling to fair.

The Royal Oak
1 Infirmary St, EH1 1LT. The bars are open until 2:00am, or until 4:00am during the festival.
The Royal Oak is a traditional pub, complete with real ales, roaring fire and weather-beaten old folk musicians providing the entertainment. (They aren’t always weather-beaten and old actually; Aberfeldy had a residency here before signing to Rough Trade). Still, if the prospect of a grizzled, bearded old man with nought but a fiddle and his dog makes you want to run away and hide, I’d steer clear of this pub. However, if you appreciate a fine ale, a relaxed atmosphere and what is often actually some rather beautiful folk music, you will enjoy the Royal Oak.
(www.royal-oak-folk.com/index.html)

City Café
19 Blair Street, EH1 1QR. Mon-Sun 11am-1pm
This is a vaguely trendy, but very likeable American diner style place, serving yummy burgers, nachos, all-day breakfasts and hot chocolate as well as serving drinks. The drinks prices are a bit steeper here, but it’s a nice place to hang out, play some pool and occasionally hear some good music, though the quality of the music policy varies considerably and unpredictably. You may even occasionally spot the odd hipster or scenester here, but try not to let that put you off.

Roseleaf
23/24 Sandport Place Edinburgh EH6 6EW. 10am – 1am 7 days a week.
Although out of the centre, this bar near the shore is well worth a visit as it has oodles of charm, reasonable prices and yummy food. The specialty here is the “Pot-tail” menu whereby you can select a cocktail which will come served in a fancy china teapot for you and your friends to sip decadently from china teacups. If that sounds a little bit naff, it soon seems like the world’s most brilliant concept ever after you have had a few teacups of Peely Wally Scotsman or Port-A-Belly Donkey from a teapot shaped like a cottage. Besides which, there are a good range of ales, wines, teas and juices to choose from if the whole Pot-tail thing isn’t for you.
(http://roseleaf.co.uk)


Record Shops

Avalanche
63 Cockburn Street
If you’re interested in record shopping in Edinburgh, your first port of call has got to be Avalanche. They specialise in independent indie and usually at the lowest prices in town as well. Where there used to be several branches across town, there is now sadly only one remaining on Cockburn Street, although there are plans to relocate this store to the Grassmarket in the near future. The second hand section can be an absolute treasure trove and the section titled “Scottish Indie” is obviously well stocked. Watch out for great in-store free gigs from an eclectic selection of artists as well.
(www.avalancherecords.co.uk)

Vinyl Villains
5 Elm Row, Leith.
Vinyl Villains has a pleasingly random selection of mainly second hand records of all genres, as well as cassette tapes and soundtracks. It’s nowhere near as specialist as Avalanche, but time spent patiently flicking through the records here could unearth a rare find every once in a while. Funky kitsch carrier bags too, for those of you geeky enough to care about such things.
(www.vinylvillainsrecords.co.uk)

Ripping Records
South Bridge, EH1 1HN
OK, this isn’t really so much a record shop as a place where you buy tickets for gigs, but as such, it is an essential place to make friends with the staff of. The Avalanches are really the main record emporia of the city. Once you’ve exhausted them, there isn’t much else to see beyond a couple of Fopps, HMVs and a Virgin Megastore.

Backtracks
17 Brougham Street, Tollcross, EH3 9JS
Second hand vinyl and CDs at this Tollcross store.
(www.backtracksmusic.co.uk)

Elvis Shakespeare
347 Leith Walk, EH6 8SD.
Specialists in punk, alternative, indie and dance music from the 1980s onwards, this record and book shop is also worth a visit for anyone with an interest in rare vinyl.
(www.elvisshakespeare.com)

VoxBox Music
21 St Stephen Street, Stockbridge, Edinburgh EH3 5AN
Brand new Edinburgh record shop. They say: "We buy, sell and trade records, CDs, DVDs, books and music related memorabilia. Mainly pre-owned vinyl but are branching out to selling records by local bands too." Worth a look. (IW)
(www.voxboxmusic.co.uk)


Local Bands

Ballboy
Ah! I could wax lyrical about the joys of Ballboy. Based around the singing-songwriting talent of Gordon McIntyre, the songs are all Wedding Present-esque guitars and poppy keyboards, held together with lyrics that are alternately witty and tender, biting and heart-breaking. Songs about everything from cycling to sniffing glue, kissing to arseholes, basically. Beloved of the late John Peel and beloved of anyone with ears - how could you not like them?
(www.ballboy.org/)

Withered Hand
One of the finest bands to emerge from Edinburgh in recent years, Withered Hand is the musical project of Dan Willson, who sometimes performs his songs solo, sometimes accompanied by up to some six or seven other people. His mournful and bittersweet songs are full of spiritual yearning, existential angst, loneliness, depression, religious guilt and vulnerability, yet somehow he manages to tenderly draw out the beauty from the bleakness of his themes, examining them with humour and self-knowledge and above all love. His songs sometimes feel like secular hymns and to listen to him play can almost feel like a religious experience, leaving you feeling your eyes have been lifted up to see something higher and more beautiful than the everyday world he sings about.
(http://witheredhand.com/)

Eagleowl
Eagleowl are a lo-fi post-folk three-piece (sometimes four-piece) who make beautiful, sad, soaring music reminiscent of Low, Sigur Ros or Hood, full of cello and delicate harmonies. Everyone should own their records and if you ever get chance to see them play live, you should absolutely not pass it up. Utterly beguiling stuff.
(www.myspace.com/eagleowlattack)


Miscellaneous

 

Edinburgh Popfest
Held over three days at three seperate venues - the Wee Red Bar, The GRV, and The Lot - the Edinburgh Popfest promises a bonanza of indiepop delights. The inaugural event, happening in October 2010, features Ballboy, Darren Hayman, Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, Bearsuit, Withered Hand, The Just Joans, The Bobby McGees, Eagleowl, Internet Forever, Pocketbooks, and Bobby Baby, to name just a few, plus DJs after the shows.
(www.edinburghpopfest.co.uk)

There’s so much other fun stuff to do in the city, I just thought I’d give mention to a few things, not least of all, places to eat. Afternoon tea at Eteaket on Frederick Street comes highly recommended, the Elephant House on George IV Bridge is a nice café for an inexpensive lunch and Monster Mash on Forrest Road is a fun retro diner specialising in gourmet bangers and mash. For the veggies, there’s Suzie’s Diner on West Nicolson Street or the Forest Café is a volunteer-run venture where you can get some pretty good falafel, if you are prepared to wait sometimes an inordinately long time for it. Mother India Café on Infirmary Street is great for tasty curry or, if you can put up with the pigeons, The Mosque does super cheap curry in its courtyard on a daily basis as well.

Edinburgh is really full of amazing restaurants though and if you can afford to go somewhere pricier, there are plenty of options. Some of the best French restaurants are probably Café St. Honoré on Thistle Street Lane, Pierre Victoire on Eyre Place, L’Escargot Bleu on Broughton Street or Petit Paris on the Grassmarket. Locanda di Gusti is an award-winning Italian place on East London Street, Iggs is a good Spanish restaurant on Jeffrey Street or if you fancy Thai food, then Dusit on Thistle Street is pretty good too. There are plenty of great places to eat to be found along Victoria Street and Hanover Street and down by the shore in Leith as well though, so you are really spoilt for choice here.

Besides the obvious Castle, Palace and sightseeing bus tours, you can also visit some of the city’s many museums and art galleries, see the Camera Obscura on the Royal Mile, or even take a “Trainspotting” literary tour of Leith, tracing the steps of the characters from Irvine Welsh’s famous novel. On the edge of the city you can visit Cramond Island, accessible by a causeway at low tide, or you can go for a walk in the Pentland Hills. On sunny days, you can’t beat the Meadows for a picnic and a game of Frisbee, or there’s always the Botanical Gardens too. Basically, though, you’re best just to go for a stroll around this beautiful city, get a bit lost along all the closes and wynds and see what you discover. You really can’t go too far wrong.

Additional review by Ian Watson

Main Edinburgh photo and Botanics photo © Urban75

If you'd like to recommend a club, bar, record shop, band or any indie delight for inclusion in the Indie Travel Guide, please email us. If we've included a link to your band/shop etc, it would be lovely if you could link back to us. Thank you!

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