“It seemed the logical place to branch out to…” – interview with Sam Smith, Venue Programmer for the Blues Kitchen

A new venue is coming to Manchester.

The Blues Kitchen will open on 20th May 2021 to bring the country’s finest blues and soul musicians to their space in 13 Quay Street seven nights a week, along with performances from jazz, hip hop, blues, disco, house, folk and RnB acts.

Originally meant to open early last year, the pandemic has forced the team behind it to delay the introduction of their first Blues Kitchen venue outside of London to now. But with a fully rebuilt venue and a first wave of acts announced for summer, including Roy Ayers, Slum Village, KinKai, Norman Jay and many more, they’re finally ready to launch.

We spoke to Sam Smith, the Venue Programmer, about what we can expect from the new spot.


TSOTA: We were really excited to speak to you Sam about the venue, the line up, the brand and everything The Blues Kitchen is bringing to the city. So, why is Blues Kitchen coming to Manchester?

Sam Smith: When we decided to expand from London, it felt it was always going to be to Manchester. It’s always been a city that excites us and it has a rich musical history – music is at the heart of all our venues, so Manchester seemed the logical place to branch out to.

This space on Quay Street came up and it was too good to miss!

Has it made it easier to programme in Manchester, now people have been so long without gigs?

It’s very mixed. A lot of artists we want are based in America, so there’s been complications added by the pandemic in that sense. But we’ve also sorted a house band, who will be playing soul and blues music at our venue, which is made of some amazing local musicians. And that’s been really easy to put together because musicians are so keen now.

It’s been really great going on Instagram and emails and seeing people are up for it. My experience of Manchester is they like to party here – to have that taken away from the city for so long is huge.

How are you and the team feeling, given how long the wait’s been to open?

We just have to have optimism. Last year it felt like there was still caution even when we had some opening up in the summer, but this time feels different – festivals are selling tickets and they’re selling out. The government hasn’t been great at giving hospitality support, but now it does feel like the conversations are solutions.

The line-up is incredibly diverse, spanning loads of styles, featuring both locals and legends – what are you hoping to achieve with it, both short and long term?

The line-up is just a reflection of what we want from our venue. It’s the cooler side of it – we have a restaurant and bar on the ground floor, then a 500 cap. live music venue upstairs, which we also use for club nights at the weekend. We want it to be diverse up there, bringing in different crowds, with different genres and different experiences, all of them getting to find out what the Blues Kitchen experience is. And the way we achieve that is by giving something for everyone in the line up.

Having that mix of really cool DJs and live music from different genres will be really well-received here… Rather than taking niche routes, that seems to be how a lot of venues like to do things now, especially in Manchester.

Of course, and we’re in a position where, thanks to the venue, we can afford to do different styles of show, be it seated or a party, within the space, which is great… It means we can include massive heritage acts like Roy Ayers and get the local acts too.

And on that, it’s really important we have a local connection as well coming from London, working with local promoters, local artists, local venues.

We spoke to Chris Illingworth of GoGo Penguin about the jazz circuit in Manchester last year, and he gave some interesting insight into what the circuit is like up here. It’s really underground and doesn’t get huge coverage but has a really tight community feel. Do you research that sort of thing before moving up, and work out how you’ll slot into those existing networks?

A hundred percent. We’ve talked about how Manchester has that rich musical history, and its artists all feel really associated with that. We’ve wanted to reach out to so many musicians and wanted to get them involved when we moved in, and we wouldn’t have felt as confident doing that in any other city because of that Manchester pride of place.

What are you excited to see there?

So much. Especially from a musical perspective. Locals like KinKai, Abnormal Sleepz – I’m interested to see what they’ll be like playing on their home turf – then also the Touching Bass show with Demae and Athletic Progression. Ebi Soda are really cool, Secret Night Gang as well. There’s so much different stuff going on it’s going to be amazing!

With all the jazz and blues in the line up, it leans to a more foundational, original sound, which some people say has had a revival over the past few years – especially jazz. Do you agree, or is this more of a continuation do you think?

It’s so hard to say and depends what you classify as a revival – venues like Jazz Cafe and Matt & Phred’s have been around for decades, but I guess you could say these artists are being put on larger stages. Look at the West Holts Stage at Glastonbury – the last year felt like a Gilles Peterson radio show! 

But revival makes it sound like it’s going to disappear again and modern music is drawing so much from jazz that I don’t think it’s going to stop now.

And I suppose genres like hip-hop and UKG are so core to current jazz music that this type of jazz might not have existed 20 years ago – it needed artists to grow up with those new influences and new genres feeding into it.

I was at We Out Here in 2019 and that line up really captures those various influences. When I saw you guys had a Danley set up, I thought about the soundsystem at WOH (also from Danley), and it made me so excited to hear the music in Blues Kitchen. Can you explain for people why the sound is so great and what it will mean for the venue?

My friends also went to WOH and raved about the soundsystem… which doesn’t always happen when someone comes back from a festival in the UK. There is actually a connection to our speakers: when we started building the venue, we partnered with a specialist sound and lighting company called Neuron, who have been amazing. They’re local and want the best for venues and for Manchester, plus they really know what they’re talking about. And they’re the guys who do We Out Here.

So they suggested we try out this Danley stuff everyone was going mad about. The way the guys at Neuron have visualised what it can do, where the speakers are placed, how it works with the room shape, how you make it so everyone hears the same thing wherever they stand, will make it really special.

The speakers have been specially made just for our venue – there’s been a real process to finding out what our venue needs and they’ve mapped their sound for that. Never underestimate how important it is to have a good sound team, and working with Neuron will give us the best.

So how long until you open? How much is there left to do?

5 weeks now – there’s a whole team doing the final touches, finishing a mural of Ray Charles done by Akse, and getting all the visual and artificial stuff ready. The guys who run the place are perfectionists and there’s so much detail going into it, so it will be a beautiful space.

As for me, we’ll be adding more names to that list and will have more new shows announced soon!

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