Have We Got Venues For You

Mal Campbell moved to Hebden Bridge having previously stayed with friends in the area. Priced out of London and looking for a new family home he turfed up in West Yorkshire, unaware that the relocation would come with an unexpected change of career.

“I had desk job job at the time, but the company had an office in Leeds, so I asked if I could move there and they said yes. It all happened very quickly,” he tells me in the car taking us from Leeds to Hebden after our 6Music show at BBC Yorkshire.

“And I thought, great we’re moving to a town which has got a good venue in it…but at the time it (The Trades Club) had lost its way and they weren’t doing a lot.

“Then my predecessor suddenly left, so I stepped in.”

A veteran of bands of the 90s, Campbell used his understanding of the gig circuit to start putting the Club back on the map. It took a while to start convincing agents of its convivial allure, but the more artists who played there, the more the word of mouth tributes began to circulate.

“One of the breakthroughs was when Ed Harcourt played here. And he really enjoyed it. So I said please can you tell your agent. That was a turning point with at least one agency.”

Campbell is splendid company during the 50 minute trip: a good talker and a good listener. Arriving at the venue he leads us into the neighbouring Little Theatre, the backroom of which is doubling up as tonight’s headliner Richard Dawson’s dressing room. Then it’s into the venue itself, through a slightly anonymous front entrance and up some stairs.

It’s a wonderful place: at the top of the stairs, there’s a narrow passage, with a bar on your right, which is like the snug of a village pub and ahead there’s the main room, a mixture of Village Hall and (with its lovely curved ceiling) tiny music hall theatre.

It’s a comfortable 200 capacity (tonight’s gig sold out weeks ago, but you can see the stage, even from the back, move around pretty easily and the sound is warm and clear). No wonder, under Campbell and co’s leadership it’s become such a fondly loved place among musicians: I Am Kloot’s John Bramwell recorded a live album here and Nadine Shah chose to complete her stint as Independent Venue Week ambassador with a gig here.

The Trades Club is more than just the music venue though. It’s a place to socialise and swap ideas – and when the heavens unleashed hell over Christmas 2015, it opened its doors to a town cut off from the outside world.

“There’s one road in and one road out and both were flooded,” recalls Campbell. “The cash points didn’t work, there was no police, we were trapped in. But because we were on the first floor, we were able to help out.”

Over the following week the Club served three thousand meals and offered a meeting point for people who’d been made suddenly homeless.

In return, with the insurance money only covering half the cash the venue needed to rebuild, the community pulled together to help restore it. The bond strengthened.

Even now the downstairs is still a no go zone. Outside on a smoke break, I get chatting to one of the local Unite union leaders (he tells me of the Trades Club’s political and working man’s roots and how they used the basement as an HQ). There are, he says, a team of volunteers, local union folk, still working all hours on rebuilding the downstairs.

ASIDE: later on I hear him asking another gig-goer if he fancies a trip to the Durham Miners Gala in July.

“Can the wife and kids come?”

“Of course, Put you down then shall I? We’ve got coaches going from all over. Sheffield, Leeds…here….”

It’s amazing this place. And I hate using the A word. But I don’t think I’ve felt this at home since my youth, hanging around the bar at the Harlow Square.

As an example of how a venue can be so much more than simply a stage for music, the Trades Club must be hard to beat.

Mind you, we’d already seen another community-based venue earlier in the week as we started our 6Music Independent Venue Week tour in Stowmarket.

The John Peel Centre is another triumph of the volunteer. A formerly derelict 19th century corn hall, the roof had fallen in and all the windows were out when Mid Suffolk District Council first suggested rebuilding it.

“Somebody had the idea of using it as a place for young people to go to and it developed from there,” Sheila Ravenscroft explains. “They asked if they could put John’s name on it and I said yes. And then I got involved and then it moved on to other things.”

“We put on gigs in this really derelict building to start with, with the windows still out and then we got some grants, worked really hard and the venue, as it is now, has been going for about five years.”

It is high-ceilinged, airy and bright and the moment you arrive people start engaging you in conservation, as if you’re possibly the son of someone who lives opposite the corner shop. Everything is run by volunteers, from the promoters and door staff to the team organising the bar.

Tonight it is £3 to get in to see four local bands and it’s £3 for a pint of cider. One JPC regular says it’s twice as busy as they expected it to be (the result of IVW publicity, or possibly because of the booking acumen of Dan, who runs these local band nights under the banner ‘Emerge’).

We get the beautifully-voiced 15 year old uke-playing singer Rosie Hiskey, the windmilling long hair of  Royal Blood-esque Kulk, 90s-pop influenced Sound Mirrors and the scrunchy, melodic rock and roll of Pet Needs. It is one of those something for everyone bills that venues like this thrive on.

Shelia can barely move for people coming over and talking to her: “I think because Stowmarket had nothing before and the area surrounding Stowmarket had nothing, it’s just so wonderful that finally there’s somewhere that young bands can come. I think because this came from nothing, that’s one of the reasons it’s been successful.”

The morning after, I have a quick wander round Ipswich Town Football Club’s ground to see if the big gate is still there, which they used to open 20 minutes before the end, allowing cheapskates to sneak in. I really want to go and see what the old branch of Parrot Records has become, but there’s no time. It’s back on the train, tube and another train to get me to Guildford.

The Boileroom is another venue I’ve not visited before but have heard a lot about; another band-friendly place, which has rightfully fought its way onto the grassroots touring circuit over the past decade.

More than that, they’ve now opened up the top floors of the old Victorian building to give workspaces to local artists and a record label called Failure By Design.

“My mum’s an artist,“ says Dom Frazer who runs the ‘Room, “And I realized from quite an early age that all art…there’s music, people who do art…but we’re all artists, we just have different disciplines and we thought ‘actually we have all this space, that’s either used for storage or accommodation, why don’t we use that for our artistic family.”

Frazer took over the Boileroom from her Dad in 2006, running it with her brother till six years ago when he moved onto pastures new. They transformed it from a standard boozer, first to a 130 capacity venue and now one which she tells me holds 300 people. I look around suspiciously and ask where they put everyone (do they have nine people under the sound desk and three or four hanging from the gantry over the stage? No, 300 is legitimately a good fit).

Certainly it’s busy for Tuesday’s Indie Venue Week gig, headlined by Trudy & The Romance. In contrast to last nights, sage, but more senior crowd, tonight it’s a really young audience, partly due to a gang of under-18s who’ve been drummed up by openers Twitch, who are nervously waiting in the wings about to make their live debut.

“I hope we don’t embarrass ourselves, “ says a Twitcher. “We’ve only been playing together for about two months, so it’s pretty nerve-wracking.”

I’ll tell you what it is….It is like Beatlemania down the front when they go on. Boys are chanting, girls are screaming, everyone is dancing or at least awkwardly jumping into each other. Not that Twitch don’t deserve it.

The strange coincidence (or is it?) is how song-based all the bands are tonight; how strong on melody and structure they are. Twitch make a nice, clean, sometimes excitable indie-pop sound (in the manner of, but not as refined as Trudy & the Romance), while there’s a more roaming, mid-beat indie-rock set from Frames and a bunch of very strong-sounding melodies from China Bears who were our session guests on Tuesday’s show.

This makes the cold, damp walk back to the station a bit more bearable. The Boileroom is good though. One of our listeners describes it as having something of the New York dive bar about it and I can see what they mean, although you can also tell there’s been a lot of thought and love poured into it.

Dom tells us that when their licence was under threat in 2014, following complaints from two neighbours, Paul Weller (the good Surrey man that it is) wrote to the local council in support of their case, explaining how essential these small venues  – in his case, the nearby Woking Working Man’s Club –  are to young bands and their development. Tonight is absolute confirmation of that.

No debut gigs on Wednesday. The Cookie in Leicester is about two minutes walk from the local BBC station, at the end of the High Street which is populated almost entirely by pubs. You walk straight into a bar (there’s another upstairs) and then descend into the basement for the gig.

I’d been forewarned that both the stage and the ceiling are quite low and that if you’re at the back you won’t see anything. And that’s true. But tonight no-one seems too bothered. There is a reverential atmosphere in the place, among an audience who seem immensely grateful to have got a ticket. It feels, hemmed in as we are, as if we’re somehow all about to share in something special. Which wouldn’t be wrong.

The sell-out show opens with that nice Tom Williams fella, whose latest album ‘All Change’ is still worth a listen if it happened to pass you by last year (I think there’s a lot to be said for an album which opens with the lines: “Standing up on your hind legs/Man you’re an animal.” If that had fallen out of Brett Anderson’s mouth, people would be pinning Nobel Literature Prizes to his lapels within seconds).

Tom’s slightly understated, anti-rock demeanour might play against him at times, but he has become a far more natural, less inhibited performer over the years.

As has, in some ways, Gaz Coombes. Good though his debut solo album was, it was still a bit of tight-hamstring record (not limping away from Supergrass, but not yet at full fitness).

‘Matador’ his second album though was a cracker; fizzing with ideas. And from what I’ve heard, this forthcoming one is shaping up very nicely too. In Leicester, in the reverential room, he plays for just over an hour including some of the new songs ‘Deep Pockets’, ‘Oxygen Mask’ and ‘The Oaks’ alongside some of his previous aces: there’s a marvellous version of ‘The Girl Who Fell To Earth’ and he finished with the ‘Grass song ‘Movin’’.

We hang around for a quick drink afterwards, talking about his just announced date at the London Palladium. But the bar runs out of ‘apple’ cider (it’s been out of a lot of drink tonight), so I take that as a cue to go.

The Cookie (I’m back there in May by the way, on my One Man Show tour: outrageous plug!! Tickets available etc) was one of the newest venues I got to last week, along with the final date of our tour at Liverpool’s Studio 2, so named because it was erm, an actual recording studio prior to being turned into a venue.

There’s history in this small room. While the Parr St Complex which houses it, still has recording spaces – Liam Fray and The Courteeners are rumoured to be in one of them while we’re there – I’m pretty sure the old Studio 2 was where people like Elbow recorded ‘Asleep In The Back’.

Today, as the climax/last hurrah of our week on the road, BBC Music Presents Idles: a short 30 minute live to air set which, in so many ways, says more about Independent Venue Week than anything I’ve managed to convey on air in the past few days, or anything I can properly try and find words for here.

It is a shot of adrenalin.

It is the intensity and belief in their performance.

It is about that moment – and that moment only. About being in it.

It is the shiver of expectation produced by the first guitar squeal of ‘Heel/Heal’

It is Joe Talbot’s inner monologue, unleashed.

It is Bowen leaping into the crowd, writhing around with his guitar.

It is the feeling that you’re feeling what other people are feeling.

The marvellous, momentary oneness of a gig.

It is breathless.

And it’s over.

That gig. At that time. With those strangers. In that crowd.

It will never be (exactly) repeated.

It is yours.

I’ve eulogised about this band, possibly to much already (have I? I can’t help it). But you know what it’s like when you fall in love with a band. There’s very little you can do about it.

As referenced on this site my first Idles gig was at the Bristol Thekla. During their set, Talbot dedicates their endeavours to another Bristol Venue, The Louisiana. You know that, wherever they end up (and as you’ve probably heard, they’ve just signed a record deal, recorded a second album and announced an American tour) there will always be a part of them, beholden to that place.

It will always be home.

“Some rooms just have a magic about them,” Mal Campbell told me the previous day.

It’s a line that pops up in my head having left Idles, and gone off in search of The Lost Brothers playing at the Leaf Club.

As a result… as I wander slightly lost through Liverpool, I find myself offering up a little prayer, thanking the Lord for all the Mal Campbells around the country. And all they do for music. And for us.

God bless the bloody lot of them.


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