First published on 29 Oct 2012. Updated on 25 Feb 2014.
Traditionally known for its coffee, international cuisine, diverse shopping opportunities and furniture impresario Franco Cozzo, nowadays Sydney Road is also renowned as Melbourne's best live music strip – all accessible via the #19 tram.
Despite the closure of the Phoenix Public House back in June (thanks to a new lease pricing its live music custodians out of the game), Sydney Road boasts about a dozen live music venues, including relaxed beer gardens, quiet bars and raucous beer barns. Here are our fail-safe picks for decent tunes…
“It's going nuts!” says owner Clint Fisher on the Sydney Road music scene. The Retreat has long been a favourite of beer garden devotees wanting to while away an entire weekend to a filthy soundtrack. Fisher describes it as “a hub... a meeting place where people can listen to a band, or read a book in the beer garden.”
One of the larger venues on the strip and right in the middle of the action, the Retreat offers live gigs six nights a week with alternative country, rock, bluegrass, western and blues being the staples. Jeff Lang, Nick Barker, Mick Thomas, the ReChords, the Wilson Pickers and Graveyard Train are alumni, and out-of-town acts like SixFtHick, Ben Salter and Andrew Morris have enjoyed residencies here. And it’s always free! All the time!
Saturday nights open cruisily in the front bar, before getting louder and heavier in the lounge. On Sunday, an acoustic set in the beer garden can help with recovery. Upstairs in the cocktail bar the occasional crooner or violinist can create a different vibe.
Best for: Serious ligging in a lively beer garden.
Thursday night is jazz night at the Green – a small, atmospheric bar with walls adorned with guitars and autographed Stones, Dylan and Clapton tour posters. You can expect to hear soothing soul, blues and funk while lounging under large, shady umbrellas and snacking on simple bar food. Michelle Nicolle has had a residency and established artists Paul Williamson, Geoff Hughes, Frank Di Sario and Tom Lee have also dropped in and out.
“Our aim is to make it a place for people to meet, have a conversation. The music is never too loud; the place is relaxed and safe,” says manager Paul Postema. “It’s like a big lounge room.”
The recently refurbished beer garden has a Deep South feel and livens up on weekends during the warmer months. “It’s a non-threatening place,” reflects Postema. “People’s privacy is respected by other patrons. This is not a pick-up joint.”
Best for: Acting as your second home. With added jazz.
Venue manager Michael Goodwin says there is much to love about the Cornish.
“Our music is random and varied – people don't get bored," he says. "It changes week to week; from punk to blues to indie to rock.”
The live music magic happens on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and the likes of the Harlots, Tex Perkins and Kaleidoscope have graced the wee stage. Michael recently installed a new PA and claims soundie Dave Carter is the best in Melbourne. A guitar mural covers the back wall of the beer garden, testament to the pub's dedication to decibels.
“The live music scene can only get better,” reckons Goodwin. “Over summer, it's going to take off.”
A new vegan menu is flying out the door according to Goodwin, and many regulars have been leaning against the bar here for decades, proving the friendliness and good cheer. Like the man says, “We’ve got a good little family here.”
Best for: Local pub feel with vegan fare.
Situated the Coburg end of Sydney Road, the POH offers something different.
“We have a classic front bar with other elements – fine dining and a café that opens at 7am,” says Danial Caneva – a co-owner along with Tex Perkins, and Shan Vanderwert and Pat Bourke from Dallas Crane. Kids receive free soft drinks and, unlike many other Coburg pubs, the Post Office is pokies-free.
In one memorable gig, Bob Log III brought his twisted bluegrass style to Coburg. “We had a dance floor filled with head-banging children,” remembers Caneva. “We aim more towards families, but they still like live music.”
Friday and Saturday nights offer the cream of thoughtful indie bands – acts like St. Jude and Spoonful – while on Sundays, bring the tackers along for foot-stomping folk and blues. Regular musical guests include Davey Lane and the pub's own POH Allstars, featuring Shannon and Pat.
Best for: Discreetly playing 'Who's that garage guitarist' in the beer garden.