Cornered by Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and – distantly – Birmingham, Sheffield doesn’t leap out from the map with the bravado or historical significance of those surrounding cities. The Full Monty aside, it’s hardly a place buoyant in the media, instead, it’s left to its own devices. That’s why Steel City leapt out at me.
Arriving on a Friday lunch time to an empty Meadowhall Interchange, despite being the transport hub for an English city, it screams ghost town more than welcoming you to a thriving edifice. I like that. Lacking the cold, impersonal hustle and bustle of London there’s something oddly welcoming about its sheer emptiness. Sheffield is a calm, placid place.
Such tranquillity has its downsides; as far as the music industry is concerned it’s all the better to be left to its own devices. For promoters – American especially – having your band play twice in a 40 mile radius, a distance many Americans so haplessly travel for something as dull and primitive as the morning paper and some full-fat milk, seems absurd. To promoters, Sheffield simply isn’t a priority; sitting in a wilderness outside their periphery.
In my three days here it becomes painfully clear that lack of demand for established acts isn’t to blame for their absence. Traversing this once industrially important city – hence its nickname, Steel City – I see more band shirts, beards and ‘alternative’ looking people than I could possibly have envisaged. The Devonshire quarter especially oozes a rock-friendly atmosphere. Housing a dollop of hugely popular vintage and alternative shops selling band shirts, Dr. Martins and the usual array of gothic memorabilia alongside a tattoo parlour, it has a resonantly Camden-esque vibe. A graffiti caricature of Mick Jagger even adorns the parlour wall. A skate park nestles amongst a cluster birch trees – another happening for the alternative scene.
Photo: Mick Knapton
The Frog And Parrot is well worth a visit. With quirky mismatched tables and chairs, Iggy Pop, The Doors and Led Zeppelin on the jukebox, they regularly host live bands from spangly indie to hardcore metal. For a heavier, more pleasingly gritty affair though, there is no better place than The Washington. Tucked in behind the skate park, whilst a generic looking old-fashioned pub on the outside, inside is another matter. A cramped bar squats in the middle of a room with several sections, just enough room to cram a few table and chairs into each, with one room apparently big enough to host bands, but I remained unconvinced. Regardless however, Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell started chugging into motion as I leaned upon the bar. With good beer and better music, this is a place I could religiously return to.
Elsewhere, The Dove And Rainbow, burrowed in a quaint little square off the imaginatively titled High Street, offers a fitting metaphor for the city itself: Small, humble and easily unnoticed. Yet there is plenty to take heed to. It’s everything you’d expect and want from a metal pub with gig posters scattering the walls. Convert a typical metalhead’s bedroom into a drinking establishment and you’re not far off the mark.
With few big bands touring here, it seems the city has consequently turned on itself. As I later discover, many residents travel to the great cities which surround us here like bullies in a playground for gigs. Within their borders, the focus is more self-reflective and inward looking. Sheffield is still a small city, yet to adopt the cosmopolitan vibe the world’s most notorious cities do – in every aspect. The big fish may prowl deeper waters, but at The Dove And Rainbow like-minded souls are bonded together. Fans and local bands alike have turned to each other making weekends here a great social occasion. Affable and friendly, they stand side by side. Even tonight’s headliners, Nomad – Mancunian out-of-towners like myself – are received with a rapturous warmth. That mutual support of the local scene embodies the ‘us against the world’ mentality that rock and metal is founded upon.
Metal is a culture embracing people from a variety of social, cultural and personal backgrounds, an all-inclusive family of congenial individuals united through love of all things heavy. Even if the metal scene is forced to confide in more humble means, it doesn’t mean it has to suck. And it really doesn’t.
For more information and to donate to Phil Weller’s Heavy Metal Travel Guide project, head over to the Kickstarter page.