Sunday, February 28, 2021

"We just can't let it go"

Cowley Road has long been the main hub of Oxford's music scene, but it looks as though it may soon be the only one. With the Cellar already gone, the future of the Wheatsheaf - the city centre's only other remaining venue - is now in serious doubt. As for the Lamb & Flag, the threat comes in the form of development plans for student accommodation.

The Wheatsheaf is exactly the sort of grassroots space that every city needs. Down a narrow alley and above a pub, the unpretentious upstairs room has played host to countless musicians (including Oxford heroes Foals and Supergrass), providing a perfect platform for local acts finding their feet and honing their craft as well as a welcome stage for cult outfits just passing through.

Unsurprisingly, the outcry in response to the conversion plans has been as loud as some of the gigs I've enjoyed within the Wheatsheaf's four walls. As Nightshift editor Ronan Munro sees it, this is a critical battle in the culture wars, at least as Oxford is concerned: "these venues are undervalued and overlooked. Nobody cares. People talk about heritage and culture but that doesn't just mean old buildings, it's about the places where things are created - and the Wheatsheaf is the last bastion of un-gentrified Oxford city centre."

Like others, he's called on the authorities to intervene: "The city council needs to support small venues and grassroots music." It's an oft-repeated call in places other than Oxford - including here in Cardiff, where concrete actions have failed to follow fine words and where, in the last week, it's been announced that an already razed gig venue is set to be replaced with a 29-storey block of flats. It's also a call that must be urgently heeded everywhere if we're not to emerge from lockdown into a cultural wasteland.

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