Radiohead, Lewis Capaldi and Emeli Sande are music superstars with one thing in common – the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen was a springboard to their fame and fortune.
These are just a few of the acts who played small, intimate gigs at the much-loved venue before they were famous – cementing its reputation not just in the Granite City, but on the nation’s gigging circuit.
Others who cut their gigging teeth at the West North Street venue include Snow Patrol, LCD Soundsystem, Jamie Cullum, The Libertines, The Cranberries, Travis, Sigur Ros, Young Fathers and Mogwai.
It is fitting, then, that Aberdeen Performing Arts has been asking people to post their own re-creations of classic album covers online during lockdown – a great tribute to the special place the Lemon Tree has in the life of the Granite City.
“The Lemon Tree has had an enviable track record of the past 30 years for attracting some big names,” said Ben Torrie, APA’s director of programming and creative projects.
So I do think the Lemon Tree
is partly responsible for the
success of some of these acts.”
He believes the Lemon Tree, and venues like it, play a critical role in helping musicians learn their craft as they strive for success.
“There’s an atmosphere in the Lemon Tree for a sold-out band gig that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. There is a special feeling in that room, in that situation and I do think that’s a critical part of the infrastructure of the music business. So I do think the Lemon Tree is partly responsible for the success of some of these acts.”
On the roll call of before they were famous, Ben said Radiohead always springs to mind for him.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing that a band of that stature played the Lemon Tree in the early days.”
Radiohead graced the stage of the Lemon Tree in 1995 as part of their tour for The Bends, their second album. Two years later came OK Computer and Radiohead found global success, playing packed out arenas and stadiums across the world, returning to Aberdeen to play the AECC in 1997.
Ben said: “We had LCD Soundsystem and Biffy Clyro in the early days as well as some of Scotland’s best pop acts like Texas, Travis and the list goes on.”
In October 2000, Irish rock band JJ72 were headliners at the Lemon Tree. Gig-goers who pulled themselves away from the bar to check out the support would have found themselves listening to Snow Patrol.
At this point, the band was finding critical, but not commercial success. They slept on fans’ floors after shows. Sometimes they would pose as members of Belle & Sebastian to get into nightclubs. But in 2005 Snow Patrol released Eyes Open and the world was their oyster. No more cadging beds or pretending to be another band.
Perhaps the swiftest turnaround in fortunes belongs to Lewis Capaldi. Scotland’s Beyonce played the Lemon Tree on December 14, 2017. In an interview in the Evening Express ahead of the gig, the rising star was described as being on the “cusp of a major breakthrough”. No kidding. In March this year, he closed out his sell-out UK arena tour at P&J Live playing to 11,500 fans.
“Obviously he’s gone stratospheric since playing the Lemon Tree,” said Ben.
Emeli, when she was still Adele Sande,
did a great gig in the Lemon Tree
to less than 100 people.”
The Lemon Tree has also been a launch pad for local talent. It was where Emeli Sande first started stretching her incredible vocal and song-writing talents.
“Emeli, when she was still Adele Sande, did a great gig in the Lemon Tree to less than 100 people. Within two or three years of that she was selling out two gigs in a night at the Music Hall,” said Ben, not to mention her show-stopping turn at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics as the album Our Version Of Events became one of the biggest-sellers of 2012.
The special atmosphere of the Lemon Tree isn’t restricted to those in the audience.
The bands love it too, says Steven Milne, lead singer of Aberdeen favourites The Little Kicks.
“To be in that room and on that stage, there’s a timeline above the bar with all these names and you just think ‘wow, it’s amazing the folk who have passed through here’ and often a lot of them were on as support,” he said.
“I’m a massive Radiohead fan, but to think they came and played that room is incredible.”
“But there’s always a nice atmosphere when you play there. There’s something about the Lemon Tree that if you are a local band growing up in Aberdeen, it has a bit of kudos… it feels like you are on the right track if you are graduating towards playing the Lemon Tree as a headline act.
“I grew up, musically, in the Lemon Tree.”
Not only has he played there often, Steven has also enjoyed some outstanding gigs over the years.
“There is a mix of names that come to mind for the before-they-were big folk. That includes Bloc Party in 2004, supported by Maximo Park. Both those bands have come back to play the Music Hall.
“LCD Soundsystem in 2005 was a big one for me. It was an amazing gig. They were quite a cool band playing in our wee corner of Scotland and little Lemon Tree venue, but you felt like they were going to go on to bigger things. One of their final gigs before they had a break was in Madison Square Gardens. It’s quite a contrast to go from the Lemon Tree on a Wednesday night to Madison Square Gardens.”
More recently, Steven says one the most memorable bands he saw was Young Fathers, who played the Lemon Tree in 2013.
“They played to about 70 or 80 people, now they are a big act, playing everywhere and were heavily involved in the last Trainspotting film,” he said.
“But they were amazing, they are a three-piece band but live, they play with such energy. They were at the Lemon Tree on the cusp, just before their album came out and won the Mercury Prize. We saw them just before they blew up.
“There were only 80 people in the room, but it was a really good example of a touring band who are really on it, playing their hearts out despite the fact the room was only a fifth full. Everyone who was there was just blown away by them.”
“More up to date, there was a band called The Snuts that played in 2018 and they are now selling out SWG3 (in Glasgow) and all over the place.”
Steven said he has also enjoyed the career trajectory of Public Service Broadcasting.
“They have played the Lemon Tree at least twice and came back to do HMT in 2017 for True North. They are now massive. They have a huge production with their screens and everything. It was great to see that in its infancy at the Lemon Tree.”
Given his rich history of gig-going and performing at the Lemon Tree, it seems almost inevitable that Steven found a role involving the venue. He is now the cultural programme manager for Aberdeen Performing Arts, programming the Lemon Tree and the Music Hall.
Of course, the Lemon Tree isn’t just about the music.
It also offers cutting edge drama and is a key player in Aberdeen’s burgeoning comedy scene. It has also been a launching pad for some of the best-loved comedians in the country.
Back to Ben Torrie, who said: “There’s a little club of comedians who have played all three of our venues, the Lemon Tree, the Music Hall and His Majesty’s.
“It includes John Bishop. He first played the Lemon Tree as the third name on a bill of breakthrough comedians and nobody had a clue who he was.
“Within 18 months he sold out the Music Hall. Kevin Bridges is another one who has played all three, as has Sarah Millican.”
“The Lemon Tree is more than one thing and that’s why people love it so much,” said Ben.
“And we are trying to shape it as the place to go to discover something new, be it the next big thing in the music world, or contemporary hard-hitting drama, or the next big comedian. It could even be a familiar musician playing in an unfamiliar setting or trying out new material going in a different direction.
“That springboard artist is exactly what a venue the scale and style of the Lemon Tree is absolutely perfect for.”
Ben said the invitation for fans to re-create and post classic album covers is a bit of fun while the Lemon Tree and other APA venues are closed due to the coronavirus campaign.
“It’s to keep our audiences engaged and we’ve had some interesting contributions,” he said.
You can see some of them and learn how to upload your own efforts here.
How the beating heart of Aberdeen’s arts scene started life as a Christian club to keep women off the city streets
The Lemon Tree is an irresistible magnet for fans of full-on music, side-splitting comedy and drama and when in full swing it resounds to the sound of cheers, laughs and applause.
But its origins are more sedate.
Number 5 West North Street started out as St Katherine’s Club, built in the 1930s by the Young Woman’s Christian Organisation.
It’s avowed aim was to be an activity centre to keep women off the streets of Aberdeen, but quickly became a cornerstone of the community.
Originally, it hosted regular, strictly alcohol-free dances. It was a place where many couple in the Granite City first met before settling down for married life together.
It’s popularity carried on throughout the 1980s when it became, simply St K’s.
The dances carried on too, while the building was home to community arts groups and a vegetarian restaurant.
As the 1990s dawned, the city council decided a permanent base was needed for the growing audience being attracted to the Alternative Festival – a hotbed of rock, theatre and comedy.
In 1992 the Lemon Tree came into being.
The name was drawn from a pub which had stood on the site before St Katherine’s was built.
It became a key player in the entertainment and arts scene in Aberdeen, helping establish the city’s reputation as a cultural centre.
In April 2008, Aberdeen Performing Arts took over the lease of the listed building and the Lemon Tree entered the latest chapter in its history.
It’s one that’s still being written.