Sounds from the Steel City
Orla Foster
13:47 1st March 2023

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Sheffield's image needs a refresh in the popular imagination. Whatever people say it is, it's much harder to pin down. A dozen years ago, sure, you couldn't move for cocky lad bands and an indie disco every night of the week, but things have moved on. Gone are the seas of winklepickers and Arctic Monkeys imitators – and good riddance too.

Part of that comes from being pretty much cut off the UK tour circuit. Sheffield has to make its own fun, and with limited resources under the hefty shadow of the Manchester scene that leaves the Steel city criminally underrated. A lot of mid-size venues have suffered a lack of confidence and thrown in the towel either because they've been held to ransom by grasping landlords and developers, or simply picked the path of least resistance by swapping live licenses for more lucrative shuffleboard lanes. During summer, Tramlines Festival remains reliably bloated with big names from the world of mainstream indie, but that isn't representative of the city as a whole. 

So spare yourself the wristband and warm cup of Amstel - take to the fringes instead. To really experience Sheffield's music scene, you're better off wandering down its narrow side streets to the DIY spaces. Follow a trail of bookies, shuttered Shoezones and maybe the occasional rat and you'll reach Delicious Clam, a venue and record label located tucked away on Exchange Street. This part of town was previously home to the market, built on the ruins of Sheffield Castle and now itself a ruin. Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned at the site for fourteen years, which can only have dragged.

But nearly 500 years on this part of town doesn't take parties lightly. At Clam, post-show karaoke is treated with the same reverence afforded to headline acts, and each New Year's Eve they run a "Stars In Their Eyes" event crackling with pyrotechnics, home movies and 90s nostalgia. And the fun isn't limited to NYE. Last Hallowe'en, they teamed up with fellow DIY space Hatch to deliver an immersive sewer-themed post-nuclear shindig hosted by goblins, dominatrixes and a doo-woop band made up of really affable rats. 

DIY spaces like this are the jewel in Sheffield's crown. Nobody knows how long it will be before the entire city becomes one big plot for overpriced student flats, but as long as we still have Neepsend we'll thank our stars for Yellow Arch and the Lughole the bass in Yellow Arch rattling hard enough to make your eyeballs vibrate. In the cultural industries quarter, Sidney & Matilda is also flying the flag for DIY punk and indie as the local scene’s new favourite haunt, followed by the staple stop off at The Washington.

Showing up to whatever these venues happen to programme is often all a good night requires, but to really take a temperature check on Sheffield's music scene, catch a show from hardcore newcomers Champayne. Fronted by Jennifer Reid, they're an unholy blast of fresh air. In her Baby Spice pigtails and hi-vis jacket, Reid spends shows side-eyeing the crowd, maybe a red weal on her face where she's pounded the microphone for emphasis. It's the kind of live act that will have strangers shaking their head at you in excited disbelief, buzzing off what they just witnessed. 

On a related note, hardcore/new-wave act Big Break recently put out their debut record Angel's Piss, and a set from them will blowtorch the cobwebs right off you. An encounter with Sister Wives can be just as intense, their clothes slathered with runes, their Welsh-language battle cries springing to the defence of maligned witches. Or if mediaeval drone rock is more your scene, good news: Slug Milk's take on Wicker Man death marches will send a welcome shiver down your spine. 

Sheffield has a sunny side too: there's a burgeoning power-pop/emo revival spearheaded by the likes of Town Cruise, Forum Friends and Post Archives. And even with Jarvis no longer in earshot, the city's reputation for deadpan storytelling lives on through artists like Rosey PM and All Girls Arson Club; AGAC peddling catchy curry night singalongs, while Rosey PM brings John Shuttleworth frankness to lyrics about shaving, baked potatoes and desperately seeking a manager's approval. 

Yes, the daily grind looms large in Sheffield. Mickey Nomimono is our snarled answer to Sleaford Mods, clad in string vest, necking flat lager and tearing into lad culture like it's a greasy chip butty. Like Drenge before him, he's got a music video bearing witness to West Street's night life that part of town where nobody wears a coat and bouncers are permanently ready to pick a fight. Its blend of seediness and hedonism will probably always be a seam of inspiration for Sheffield artists, for as long as Hendersons Relish spills through the city's gutters. 

If you'd prefer something with a little more gloss, look out for Luxury Goods delivering expansive, hi-octane alt-pop. Sleek jumpsuits, a shiny bob and swooping, sugar-coated vocals are all on the menu. Picking up the baton from Self Esteem, singer Leonie is as straight-talking as her music is decadent, whether railing at the taboos surrounding periods or promoting self-love. On the other end of the pop spectrum is Teah Lewis, who channels 1960s folk influences with warmth and uplifting guitar melodies. Something for everyone. 

Outside of its indie, punk and garage acts, Sheffield also has a strong spoken word and hip-hop scene, though this tends to be more visible at pop-up events rather than tied to a specific venue. Pattern + Push is a platform geared towards nurturing upcoming talent, hosting regular contests to discover the city's next virtuoso; like recent winner Sarinity Jones, who captures the restlessness and heartache of being a teenager chasing her dream. Likewise, the Creators Hub collective have gathered local talent by running open mic nights from the intrinsically sociable environs of a barbershop

Don't forget Otis Mensah, Sheffield's poet laureate and probably its most celebrated lyricist since Alex Turner upped sticks. His jazz-inflected, philosophical brand of hip-hop is perfect experienced through headphones, softening the concrete-grey vistas as you stalk through town. 2021's "The Penalty of Our Paradox" deconstructs Sheffield's character, musing on its mix of gentleness and grit. In a similar vein, adopted Sheffielder Seigfried Komidashi is a classically trained saxophonist who unpicks formal musicianship and filters it through deeply improvisatory jazz soundscapes.

"Sheffield is a master of small-scale spectacle"

So here's my ten cents: Sheffield is a master of small-scale spectacle. In a city that doesn't like to shout about itself, you can count on being oblivious to half of what's happening. For all I know, the sound of breaking glass and disembodied shouts drifting through my window could be an undiscovered venue, the next nucleus of entertainment. The stranger frowning at me from the Aldi checkout queue could be a musical visionary, on the cusp of forging a brand new genre. This is a city which can feel close-knit, or understated to the point of anonymity. But when you've stuck out Sheffield even longer than Mary Queen of Scots did, you really start to get a feel for the place.  

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