Arriving in Cardiff fresh and slightly chubby-faced in late September 2001, I couldn’t have predicted I’d still be here, more than 10 years later. Through a combination of Cardiff’s unique charms and my heroic lack of geographical ambition, I lived in such far-flung nether-regions as Cathays, Roath, Canton … and Roath.
Like a lot of people, my first three years in Cardiff were spent slowly – oh so painfully slowly – refining my interests from ‘drinking heavily in terrible bars during the week’ to ‘drinking heavily in more interesting bars at the weekend’. But one of the ways that I can track my time in Cardiff is through the music venues and events that have come and gone while I’ve lived in the city.
I arrived in Cardiff at the tail end of Cool Cymru – when the Manic Street Preachers (post-Richie) and the Super Furry Animals were some of the biggest indie names around. The Millennium Stadium had just been built, Tiger Bay had been refurbished within an inch of its life, and Charlotte Church was still young enough to have not realised opera was for losers.
Coming from a small-ish town in the South West (Yeovil), the prospect of live music most nights of the week was something to get excited about, and the Barfly (now replaced by the weirdly named Bogiez) more than provided. Tiny gigs by bands who would later go on to much greater things – The Libertines, The Futureheads, and, err … Grand Drive – stick in my mind.
The Toucan – a Cardiff institution with a habit of closing and re-opening down the road several times a year – was on St Mary’s Street when I first started to frequent it, providing a reason to venture into Hell’s Hen Party. Even with its weird giant pillars blocking views of the stage from almost all positions other than right-down-the-front, some formative musical moments occurred in that place. All the big names of the (then) burgeoning UK hip hop passed through – Jehst, Braintax, Mystro, Rodney P … and when the Toucan moved to Splott (and then eventually back into town before closing for good) it was never quite the same.
Down in the Bay, initial enthusiasm about its face-lift had faded to a general acceptance that studio flats, executive hotel rooms and ‘world’ cuisine were probably not going to be producing the sort of cutting-edge culture that Cardiff was craving. The Point – a beautiful renovated church – was hosting some incredible gigs for a few short years (Four Tet, Cinematic Orchestra and Deerhoof stand out). And the Coal Exchange was always there for bigger bands – with a set by Mogwai remaining the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. But both these venues went the way of the Dodo, occasionally re-opening in name, if not in spirit.
The closure of key musical venues in Cardiff is a constant throughout during the decade I’ve lived here. Its always sad to see the passion of promoters dashed on the rocks of reality – but unfortunately, although Cardiff has some great musical culture, it doesn’t have the strength in numbers to support much in the way of an ‘alternative’ scene. We can basically only handle one or two successful venues at a time – and the only place that has ridden this bumpy road successfully for the entire time I’ve been here is Clwb Ifor Bach.
My first forays into Clwb were for Friday night mind-manglers – with Hustler running tings on a decidedly student-ey hip hop tip. I saw my first ever dubstep set in Clwb – way back when Digital Mystikz were just emerging out of Plastic People in London, and long, long before dubstep was providing the soundtrack for everything from shit mobile phone adverts to shit mobile internet adverts.
The family of venues that began with Moloko (home of the much-loved drum’n’bass Thursday nighter that launched High Contrast’s career) and now includes Buffalo and 10ft Tall has proven another resilient strain of Cardiff’s nightlife. Buffalo is still the closest thing Cardiff has to a trendy East London hangout, and although Cardiff Arts Institute looked like a strong contender for that crown for a few happy years, it too became a victim of the Cardiff curse: shitloads of interest and enthusiasm, but not enough punters through the doors.
That pretty much brings us up to date, and I’m about to hotfoot it over the bridge to Bristol after nearly 11 years in Cardiff’s familiar folds. Bristol’s a bigger city – it doesn’t suffer from the Cardiff curse. But what are the odds of running into half a dozen people you know on a random night out in Bristol? Cardiff’s nightlife might be a slightly haphazard affair, but there’s something reassuring about seeing the same faces in the same places wherever you go.
Don’t be a stranger Caerdydd …
Adam Corner is a male human who lived in Cardiff until 2012. He loves music, food and fine wines (e.g. Buckfast). He does research on the psychology of communicating climate change at Cardiff University and writes about this kind of thing for the Guardian. Nose into his life on twitter @AJCorner.
Adam was photographed at Catapult Records in the Duke Street Arcade by Doug Nicholls
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