The Gürtel is a hot spot for live music with no neighbors

On any given Saturday night,  this stretch of pavement flanked by busy roads under the U6 line is packed with revelers. Beneath the brickwork railway arches, live music and beer-infused gossip compete to drown out the twin dins of revving cars and rumbling trains. The kilometer-long stretch of Lerchenfelder Gürtel, lined with music venues and bars, is a Viennese institution out there on its own. Over the years, this section of the Gürtel (literally “belt”) has cemented its reputation as the meeting point for contemporary underground music: a counterweight to the historical high culture just down the road.

Once upon a time, what’s now the Gürtel was the Linienwall, a fortified wall four meters high surrounding the city. Built by Emperor Leopold I in 1704 as a second line of defense (after the inner wall around today’s 1st district) from potential attacks by Turks and anti-Habsburg rebels, the new boundary ultimately gave the area its idiosyncrasies. From 1829, a toll was required to pass the wall and enter the inner suburbs, promptly creating an abundance of establishments outside the wall. As Vienna grew, however, the inner wall made way for the grand Ring boulevard, while the outer Gürtel was reconceived as a major thoroughfare. In 1894, architect Otto Wagner began creating the future U6 line’s iconic Art Nouveau stations where the wall’s gates once stood. In 1898, the first trains came into service.

Wagner couldn‘t have known, of course, that the railway arches he built would be ideal spaces for live-music venues to flourish some decades later. In the postwar years this area became the city’s red-light district and the value of land plunged, providing cheap rents. The last ingredient was a large dose of noise pollution from the trains and traffic plying the Gürtel‘s six lanes, making enough of a racket to render any appeals to Vienna’s strict noise pollution regulations redundant. The stage was set for a revival.

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© The Loft

Birth of a scene

Encouraged by urban renewal projects at the end of the 20th century, most of the sleazy establishments have moved on, making way for institutions such as B72, Rhiz, and Chelsea, all operating since the 1990s. As the name might suggest, Chelsea is the area’s undisputed home of British guitar music, as well as the Gürtel’s inaugural archway venue, having opened back in 1994. Nowadays it hosts indie music of all types from the world over – although it remains the place to get a pint of Guinness, as well as a popular venue for watching football on big screens. Nearby, Rhiz has created a niche for itself as an essential location for the punk and experimental electronic music scene. Over the years, it’s given a boost to Viennese acts such as Fennesz, Soap and Skin, Der Nino aus Wien, or Bulbul, putting them on the same stage as renowned experimental acts such as Sunn O))), Owen Pallett, and Autechre. A few meters south towards Thaliastraße station, you’ll spot The Loft. A popular student hangout, the former wooden floor factory opened its doors in 2009, offering two dance floors spinning all genres, open mics and quiz nights.

The Gürtel goes against the current standard of other European capitals, where venues are closed down with depressing regularity. New haunts are opening up all the time along the Gürtel, such as Kramladen, which began its music program in September 2015. “We are the youngest live club on the Gürtel,” explains Sascha Müller, who books gigs for Kramladen. “Yet we’re already an important part of the live scene in Vienna.” Another relative newbie is Fania Live, a thoroughly inviting and colorful bar with a laid back, tropical feel. Filling in the vacant gaps in the Gürtel’s repertoire, they host reggae, funk, cumbia, and boogaloo – even regular swing dance nights.

No Sleep till Ottakring

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Venues like The Loft, built in an old wooden floor factory, take advantage of formerly empty and abandoned spaces to create a popular nightlife scene. // © The Loft

Well off the tourist trail, the Gürtel is where Vienna’s growing variety of expats and immigrants collide with the city’s restless young bands and DJs. Vienna is an obvious stop for bands touring across the continent, drawing higher caliber performers than one would expect within the cramped confines beneath a train line. The approachability and low-cost thrills of the Gürtel also position it perfectly as the area of choice for up-and-coming local musicians. “Whenever I hear that boring stereotype from someone that Vienna is so clean and pretty and perfect, I just question how far west they‘ve ventured from the Ring,” said American musician Ryan White. He has played dozens of concerts around the Gürtel with his band Chick Quest during the five years he has lived in the city. “Personally, it‘s my preferred area to live and hang out. I like the Kerouacian places when I go out in any city – the underground CBGB or 40 Watt Clubs – there just seems to be an underbelly of activity here I don‘t find so easily elsewhere in Vienna.”

Events like the annual Gürtel Nightwalk (going strong since 1998) or this year’s Gürtel Connection, a twice yearly charity drive, see various venues come together to fuel the continuing development of the entire Gürtel “project”. And more collaboration in the community is most certainly on the horizon, with the next Gürtel Connection coming up this month. As Kramladen’s Sascha Müller puts it: “Only if all the clubs work together can we hold our position as the number one ‘party mile’ in Vienna.”