Sounding Out the City
Prague may have become the most clichéd city of the modern era. After Prague Post editor Alan Levy dubbed it the "Left Bank of the Nineties," swarms of would-be American novelists armed with naivety and a few months worth of beer money answered the call in a reverse Pied Piper scenario. Invoking Prague's history as a city of musical innovation, local orchestras rake up rehash after rehash of Dvorák and Mozart for the tourists, while the architecture of the "City of 100 Spires" has been seen in so many Hollywood movies that it is on its way to becoming a white label version of pretty much anything historic.
The cliché is taken to its logical extreme at venues where live music, beer, expats, and architecture merge. While Obecní dum and the Rudolfinum cater to the well-to-do, those of the incomplete novel tend to frequent places where beer flows freely and the music is more in line with decadent Western traditions. But we still prefer to drink our cheap beer and hear our loud music in places with a little class and, fortunately, Prague does have a few clubs that host quality gigs in stylish surroundings providing affordable drinks.
By far the city's most popular concert venue for newcomers and locals alike is Akropolis and it's fairly easy to see why. Aside from the fact that it's one of a limited number of places that offers live music on a regular basis, the size, layout and acoustics make it an intimate space where a band and audience can hardly help but interact. Just as important, the acts that they book have put on some of the best shows in Prague at any venue, whatever its size, for the past couple of years (i.e., the Flaming Lips in March of 2003 and Ween last year). This is not just history, either, as they've got great shows coming up: check out Killing Joke on February 21st, when they'll storm Akropolis for their third gig.
Though the calibre of the performing artists has caused occasional disappointment (Grand Slam, anyone?), this is not the fault of the venue, which makes up for occasional clunkers by offering DJ rooms as a convenient escape when you've heard enough of, say, the Melvins for an evening. While there's usually nothing special about the DJs, the mood is relaxed and the crowd, a mix of locals and expats, always seems happy. You might attribute that to the reasonably priced beer and mixed drinks, but in any event the result is bound to please.
Another venue with style that has featured some fantastic concerts is Roxy. Though renovations have changed the atmosphere over the years, there's still plenty of ambience. The building itself dates to before World War II, when it was a Jewish community center with a theater space and even a restaurant and it still retains a sense of theatrical adventure and romance, with a fair bit of nostalgia thrown into the mix. It may have lost some of its charm when yet another round of renovations led to the removal of the holes in the dance floor where the original seats were once bolted down, but nonetheless little if anything about this place other than the music could ever strike you as modern - and an accomplished band can turn that to its advantage. For example, Fishbone, who played here in June of 2003, managed to turn the old stage into something like a vaudeville hall, a perfect match of art and venue. The fact that there was almost no one in the audience didn't seem to hurt the energy much, and it might actually have helped in one aspect where Roxy is notoriously bleak: the sound.
The acoustics are notably less than stellar, and unfortunately only a few bands could manage a first-rate show in such a space. Those who have made it through include Fugazi, Babes in Toyland and, more recently, Franz Ferdinand. Unfortunately, Roxy is primarily a dance club, and a decent concert booking, especially of the rock genre, seems all too rare an event these days. There've been some potentially interesting hip-hop shows over the last couple of years, but I tend to prefer to hear music played with instruments, and if we add the fact that shows here generally end by 10 p.m. it's no wonder it can't compete.
There are some other places offering good live music on a fairly regular basis, but few can compete with Akropolis or Roxy for atmosphere. Lucerna Music Bar, for example, suffers from an appalling layout. The audience wraps around the stage so that even if you're in the front row the odds are you're watching from an angle where you can't see the whole show. Only the few early-birds who get front and center or those who land the great tables in the balcony will get the full effect; otherwise odds are you will either be severely crowded or unable to see much at all. And though on occasion they pull a phenomenal act (Courtney Pine, for example, in 1997), you're more likely to find a revival band or a second-string Czech act than any show you can boast about to friends back home.
Lucerna's Great Hall, on the other hand, is a glorious place. It is, indeed, a ballroom, ornately decorated for elegant and elaborate events including, on rare occasion, a hell of a fun rock show. It's no coincidence that Primal Scream deemed it a great location to film a video back in 1994 - the place shouts atmosphere louder than a David Lynch movie - but nothing weird, stylish all the way. Unfortunately, the owners seem to fear the rowdies, and recent "rock" shows have been 1950s throwbacks or "pension" tours like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Let's hope for a better future for a location with such a grand past - and future potential. The venue deserves it, Prague deserves it, and maybe even I deserve it.
A classy setting that is actually looking forward is the Archa Theatre. While predominantly featuring theater and dance, it has staged some truly inspired and innovative music with The Residents, David Byrne, minimalist Phillip Glass, and other such highly regarded artists gracing its halls within recent memory. But little that really rocks ever gets near this place, and the atmosphere inside confers such an unmistakable essence of stodginess that I think I'd feel a bit strange trying to rock out there even if Bruce Springsteen or Metallica were onstage. Condemned then to intellectualism and decidedly non-rocking music, it is nonetheless a pretty good venue for the acts it books, and it could arguably be much more if it became a little more relaxed (and slightly less pretentious). February's show by the Frames could well represent a turning point.
Another somewhat pretentious and decidedly acoustically unfit site for a few concerts has been the Veletržní palác. Although Nick Cave put on a fine show there back in 2001, the sound was below standard even for that show and the building is also so overly sanitized that it's hard to feel comfortable there. That it's a rare site for a show is probably for the best.
Prague Congress Center, at the Vyšehrad metro stop, also occasionally hosts shows. With its 20 different halls, it would seem an ideal spot, but unfortunately that's not necessarily the case. For example, Patti Smith in 2002 was in a fairly generic and none-too-comfortable hall (the name translates as something like "Social Hall"). The sound was excellent but there was nothing in the location itself to add character or atmosphere to the music.
On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen, who had a solo acoustic show in 1997 to promote The Ghost of Tom Joad, played in a different hall that seemed too ornate and comfortable for the sparse music of that concert, which included several songs off his Nebraska album, as bleak a piece of American music as I know. The hall he played was once a meeting center for communist big-wigs and each seat had separate armrests and plenty of leg and headroom. While it was without a doubt the most comfortable place I ever sat in for a show, it seemed excessive in contrast to the simplicity of the songs. Still, it's a shame there aren't more concerts there.
There are plenty of other locations in Prague that book worthy live music. Rock Café, for example, hosted Corey Harris just last November. But while it is a fairly small venue with great viewing and the sound is certainly better than in Roxy, you'd better really like the band if you go here, because this joint has as much atmosphere as the moon. There is nothing architecturally to add even a hint of ambience unless black paint is your thing and, since it's too small of a place to be able to compete with Akropolis or Roxy for the bigger stars, it's probably destined to remain a second-rate venue.
There are other, similar venues: Vagon, which hosts smaller local acts while arguably disguised as a reggae club; the conveniently located Klub 007, which certainly booked acts that added some life to Prague last year with shows such as Leatherface and Texas Terri. While serviceable places to see a band, they don't complement the music aesthetically in any way.
Larger venues like T-Mobile Arena and Strahov Stadium are similarly deficient. Though they tend to attract the big names, you wouldn´t go there for the atmosphere. Luckily there are some good places around, which means that Prague can still offer more attractive venues than great bands. But chances are that the next one you find will be playing Akropolis. See you at Killing Joke …
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