venue reviews

The Arts Café, 28 Commercial Street, E1

Aaah The Arts Café, it’s a café and it’s kinda arty. The end. Cheers.
Oh, more detail? Okay, we’re talking teeny tiny venue. There’s a capacity of 100, but they’d better be skinny-ass punters, ‘cos if you’ve got 100 hulking great apemen in here it’s going to be a squeeze. Make that a sweaty squeeze, too, ‘cos we’re not allowed to open any windows in case some scratchy old rock ‘n’ roll leaks out and pollutes the sweet, innocent East End streets outside or upsets the folks in the meeting hall opposite. Kitten knows a bloke what attends Alcoholics Anonymous in that meeting hall and one time he had to come over to the Arts Café to tell them to TURN IT DOWN! ‘cos the poor recovering alcoholics couldnae hear themselves squeak. In the summer the Arts Café heat can drive you insane. In the winter they crank up the radiators to make sure you’re still sweating, even though you’re stuffed into your big coat and squished up against 99 other people bulked out by their winter-woolies.

Hmm, I’m not making this place sound too appetising am I? But it is; dusty wooden floor, tiled bar that everyone clamours round, floor to ceiling leaded windows along one wall so in the summer you can stand outside and peer in at the bands through the glass. If you get here early, you can slump on one of the red velvety banquette thingies lining the edges of the room. And then not be able to see through a sea of bodies when the place fills up. You can stand outside gossiping in the courtyard whilst a boring band is on and pretend you’re at an indie garden party or hang about on the stairs reminiscing over the olde Sausage Machine gig posters lining the walls. ‘Ooh look The Love Blobs, remember them? Blimey Bark Psychosis, I went to that one’, etc. Or why not ‘admire’ the latest crop of artworks adorning the walls? This is especially good when local schoolkids have provided the visuals, and allows your eyes to wander past the drummer to the back wall during a dull song (what is that pink and green scribble, some kind of exotic bird??)

Still not convinced? Well get a pizza down yer neck. This place does amazing home-made pizzas (until 9.30pm) which you can scoff while watching the ‘sound’ check, or balance on a plate awkwardly whilst jiggling about to The Loves or whoever. Then wash it all down with normally priced (ie. not £3.05 for a can) pints.

Ooh, look the band’s going on. Hmm, the drummer’s that bloke you just elbowed out the way to get to the bar. The ‘stage’ is removable for all your non-stage needs and about a foot high. This, of course, means that the boundaries between performer and audience often become very blurred, which all adds to the fun, as the mic stand falls off the edge for the fifteenth time and you try to shove it back onstage without trapping the singer’s teeny toes. Can’t breathe ‘cos you’re squidged behind eight rows of people with the bar digging into your back? Try perching on the steps to the right of the stage. You’ll get a great view of the bass player’s left earhole and be able to grin across the stage at your mate shuffling about at the front. Or, if you’re the mad bloke at The Pattern gig here a couple of years ago (where twice the number of people allowed managed to squeeze in, how is this physically possible?) why not clamber perilously up onto the storage space above the back door and crouch there like a demented monkey?

Right, halfway through the set, time for the staff to remember to turn off the blazing bar lights and allow a bit of atmosphere in, complete with the Arts Café’s own whirly (it’s so psychedelic) projected patterny light. Time drifts, you could spend all night in here, but, urk! it’s nearly midnight, time to peg it up to Liverpool Street for your tube/train/fight with pushy gits to get on the bus…

…And now, sob, all this that we love is changing. In their mighty wisdom, the Toynbee Hall geezers in charge of the Arts Café are having it re’furbished’. No more squeezy, sweaty, pizza-flavoured gigs for ages, possibly forever. That’s progress for you.


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