Brixton Academy reopens its doors with tribute act rock nostalgia – and reassuring new safety measures

Brixton Academy with security presence before its reopening night
Brixton Academy with security presence before its reopening night - Helen William

Sixteen months after it was mothballed following a fatal crush during a concert by Nigerian afrobeat star Asake, Brixton Academy reopened its doors last night. In December 2022, 23-year-old security guard Gaby Hutchinson and 33-year-old concertgoer Rebecca Ikumelo were killed due to a stampede at the entrance, with overcrowding, duplicate tickets and lax security blamed. Lambeth Council permitted the Academy to re-open once it had met 77 “extensive and robust” new safety conditions.

This was the softest of relaunches for a venue that has hosted Madonna, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan down the years. On offer on Friday night were tribute acts Nirvana UK and The Smyths, and although this concert was never really about the music – it was about testing the new security protocols – the real bands both have poignant links to the Academy, which lent the night a pinch of pathos.

It’s hard to overstate Brixton Academy’s importance to Britain’s live music ecosystem. It’s one of the capital’s rare mid-sized venues. South London has nothing else like it: the closest similar venue in a city of nine million people is Hammersmith Apollo, six miles to the north-west. Brixton’s pubs and restaurants have lost £500,000 in revenue every week since it was shuttered.

The biggest change for concertgoers is a new one-way system outside, which is routed around the block in order to get in, whereas before you could walk straight to a queue at the Academy’s door. When operating at its full 5,000 capacity (unlike on Friday, which was capped at half) this will inevitably add time to entering. But what price safety? There was a strong security presence too – 100 guards, one told me. Venue owner Academy Music Group (AMG) recently poached the man who ran Wembley Stadium, Liam Boylan, to be its new boss. They’re taking this very seriously.

Many of the 77 measures were unseen, such as a new centralised command and control operation and new external tannoys for crowd control purposes. Duplicatable e-tickets and paper tickets are out. “Your phone is your ticket,” I was told in a pre-show email, meaning that tickets are no longer emailable or printable and therefore . AMG has apparently spent £1.2 million on improvements, including a new PA and lighting system (previously bands hired their own kit). Will the increased running and labour costs means ticket prices will have to rise? Academy gigs are now big operations. Again, what price safety?

Brixton Academy
Brixton Academy - Luke Dyson

The 95-year-old mock-classical venue’s interior has remained reassuringly unchanged yet things felt fresh and thought through. Credit to AMG for their lightness of touch despite the welter of revisions.

And what of the bands? They were good, prompting singalongs and moshing amongst an at-ease crowd excited to be back. Many people leaping about to Nirvana UK weren’t even born during the band’s Nineties heyday. There were some Academy old-timers present too. I met Steve, who’s been coming here for over three decades and was wearing a “Jim Bob say Brixton” t-shirt. “It’s the best venue,” he said.

The choice of bands was meaningful too. Nirvana were due to play Brixton Academy the night Kurt Cobain took his life in 1994. And The Smiths played their last ever concert here in December 1986. “I was here!” screamed the man next to me when “Morrissey” mentioned this from the stage. The singer then dedicated There Is A Light That Never Goes Out to the two women who were killed by the crush. It prompted the biggest cheer – and the only one that really mattered – of the night.

Definitely Mightbe (tribute to Oasis) + UK Foo Fighters (tribute to Foo Fighters) play at the Brixton Academy next Friday