Live music is alive in Leek

This bank holiday I had the pleasure of attending and performing at ‘The Situation’s Big May Birthday’ event held at the Foxlowe arts centre in Leek.

For those not local or aware of those words what I have just said, ‘The Situation’ is a live music promotion group based in Leek, spearheaded by Simon Edwards and Steve Hamersley. The ‘Foxlowe’ is a beautiful 18th Century manor-house type thing (note the precise architectural analysis here…?) which was remodelled in the early 20th Century and is a grade II listed building. Leek is a small market town in the Staffordshire Moorlands at the foot of the peak district.

So, now you know what I’m talking about, I can take each in turn. ‘The Situation’ have been going for several years now, hosting regular events at various venues, always pushing to get live and original music back into people’s social schedule. I first played one of their nights around four years ago at the now closed ‘White Swan’ (a beautiful old building with a great function hall, which has alas been sold to Wetherspoons so they can come in and leech as much character and personality from the building and surrounding area as possible, but that’s another story) with my former band ‘sMelt’, and as I remember, it was well attended and a great night was had by all. Since then, like all ventures, they have had their fair share of challenges, from poor attendance, to sound set-up, to venues being closed etc… but they have relentlessly continued building up their name and reputation, seeking out new bands and civilizations, and going boldly where no local promotion company has gone before. Excuse me, went a bit Trek then.

Well last Sunday’s ‘birthday bash’, featuring 19 acts in 12 hours over three stages, I think, was their defining moment so far. The culmination of their persistence and passion to get things moving, the day was well ran, well attended, showcased a dazzling array of local, national and even international  bands (some Canadians in the form of Fist City added this element) and the sound was spot on. I will briefly mention that the weather was also beautiful, which is fortuitous, but I don’t think Simon and Steve can take credit for that unless they have fostered some secret mad shamanistic skills I’m not aware of. They had the excellent idea of setting up two stages at each end of the main hall so that as one band played, the other set up, keeping the day on schedule, punchy and joined up throughout. In the early stages they kept it to acoustic acts set up outside on the Foxlowe’s beautiful exterior patio and grounds which gave the early audience chance to settle in, relax, and break themselves into a day that picked up pace from about 4pm onwards with the onset of the ‘ping pong’ bands in the main room stages.

So yes, this was a good day for live music and a good day for Leek. I’m unqualified really to review the acts, I’m a musician not a reviewer, but it was an eclectic mix, ranging from the angelic tones of acoustic act Dominic Morgan (a young local lad who plays everywhere he can – he has an amazing work ethic and voice, he will go far) to the femme punk catchy-bastard sounds of ‘Hooker’, the excellent and raucous ‘Fist City’ (with their army of tiny supporters), the prog-folk Strauss & Strauss ( I think I just invented that genre?), and of course, my band Gravity Dave. Not to mention the excellent Gasoline Thrills, The Downloads, Vertigo Fish, Health Junkies and all the other brilliant bands that dominated the day with new, live and original music.

In a Kevin Costner moment, Steve & Simon told me, “If you build it, they will come”, which has been their philosophy from the outset and is now paying dividends. All I could see was happy faces, all I could hear was new and exciting music, and they had a good few titanic real-ales on to boot, which is always a good thing. So well done one and all. It can be done and it has been.

It makes sense because in Leek there seems to be a disproportionate amount of bands and artists for the size of the place, and thankfully, a similarly disproportionate number of pubs, several of which are capable of hosting live music. However, the scourge of cover bands tends to make up the larger part of local music, and there is a whole section of Leek (the Market place) which at night is turned over to a weird kind of mini city-centre bar/club life, inhabited by many fighty and shouty people, shepherded and watched over by the best part of the moorlands police force each Friday and Saturday night. I should add here, that the ‘Foxlowe’ used to be one such venue under the guise ‘The V Bar’ – which was noted for its sticky carpets, crap music and fighting. Since then, it has been bought by a community group who have turned it into the most excellent arts centre, cafe and venue, demonstrating that it can be done, communities can reclaim their culture from the lowest common denominator. Which is why it needs the rest of us (I would argue, the vast majority of) none shouty-fighty people to organise and attend nights like this. Unfortunately, venues are being lost and Leek suffers from a lack of transport links and accommodation to open it up as a regular night-spot for live music lovers. Some of the accommodation may soon be answered by the development of  a Premier Inn, unfortunately at the loss of yet another old, vast and interesting building (The Talbot), but at least it could make Leek a weekend destination, and if it does, I think live music should be at the forefront of its tourism trade, along with its excellent artisan and independent shops, markets and real ale pubs. There is even talk of the train lines re-opening, linking it to Stoke station, and therefore the rest of the country, which economically would put Leek back on the map. Fingers crossed the council don’t  mess it up.

I’ve also had the pleasure of being involved in an annual music-festival in Leek, ‘Leek Summer Jam’ which has ran for four years and played host to thousands of guests, hundreds of acts and generated income for dozens of local businesses. We’re having a year off this year while we decide what to do next, but it makes me breathe easy knowing that that there are guys like ‘The Situation’ still keeping the flag flying for live music and arts in Leek, and the country – many of the bands playing on Sunday were from all over the country, including Manchester and London, so as the words gets out, the ethos of Leek’s love for live music should spread across the UK, and who knows, maybe the world! (well there was that Canadian band… and an Irish chap…)

So I’ll sign off now after having the pleasure of writing a positive article about something well conceived, well executed, and of real value to the culture of Staffordshire and the country in general.

Links:

The Situation FB Page. You should find all the info you need about the bands mentioned and links:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Situation/113561162062815

The Foxlowe website:

http://www.foxloweartscentre.org.uk/

Leek arts festival website (ongoing throughout May – but this kind of event would have happened either way, still, check out what’s on):

http://leekartsfestival.co.uk/

And of course, my band’s website:

www.facebook.com/gravitydave

All the acts:

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A gig at a leisure centre? Okay then…

So I sing and play guitar in an originals band called ‘Gravity Dave’ (www.facebook.com/gravitydave). We’ve been going in one form or another for a year and a half now, and all of us played in various bands for many years before.

We work hard every Thursday night rehearsing and writing new material. We pay the practice room fee out of our own pockets and of course, all our equipment costs and maintenance and occasionally recording costs and such like. I’m sure you’ve heard all this before if you know anyone in a band, but live ‘band’ music really is becoming the lesser revered and funded sibling of the arts.

On Friday we played a gig in a leisure centre cafe. That’s right, a leisure centre cafe. As in, there were people filing in and out behind us on their way from/to various sporting activities. The night itself was organised by a local music promotions company and takes place in that venue every last Friday of the month. When we signed up for it, not unusually, the thought that the venue would actually be within diving distance of a swimming pool had not crossed our minds. But when we found out it didn’t matter, because we’ve played plenty of conventional venues without audience anyway, so it could be a turn up for the books, who knows? You see, that’s what it comes down to sometimes, just hoping we stumble across the places where folks still turn out for live bands and original music in Stoke & Staffordshire, wherever that may be.

As it happened, there weren’t really that many folk there. Each of the three acts had a small showing with them, mostly family and friends, and the organisers had mustered a small crowd, but all in all, we’re talking less than 20 I reckon (that includes the acts). I must say at this point that the actual music was great and well received by the few who attended. I didn’t really catch enough of the first act ‘The Carpet Lions’ to say much about them here (they had a flight of the concords thing going on, but it felt a little unformed, but they were only teens and it takes some confidence to try that kind of thing), but I did have the pleasure of catching ‘The John Macleod’ band’s set (www.facebook.com/mrjohnmacleod). As soon as they got on stage I relaxed. It would be one thing to play a gig in a leisure centre with next to no audience and a weird line-up (comedy acoustic acts followed by rock/punk acts?!) but seeing a ‘proper’ group take the stage at least gave me something to hold on to.

They played a great set which moved through prog to folk (which actually makes a lot of sense), with a charismatic front man (John Macleod), a synth/accordion player who was able to create studio-esque backing to the live music (adding buckets of ambience) and a meaty bassist working with the drummer to keep each tune powerful and driving. I’m not a music reviewer, so if you want an idea of how they sounded, half of the set sounded like ‘Cake’ and the rest was more traditional (yet brilliantly realised) rock/folk. I apologise emphatically if any of them read this and totally disagree – the long and short of it was, I thought they were great.

So after watching those guys, it was our turn and we did our thing. It’s not my place to review myself, but we were told by the Macleod guys and our support (and the sound guys) that the set was good and people enjoyed it, which is all we can hope for. The usual groan of “It’s a shame there weren’t many here…” came from all quarters, and after meeting some nice new people, swapping details and vowing to gig together at some point, we went home, happy with a nights work and glad to have made an impression on the few that were there, if nothing else.

I don’t know if there is a moral to all this. It’s hard for me to judge because playing in a band myself means I don’t always feel that obliged to go to other nights when I’m not on the bill. That’s not being egotistical, it’s just because all being well, those nights are all rolled into one and I can play and watch all at the same time. Playing at a leisure centre was weird but it still worked in the end because it’s quite simple – a couple of good acts and an audience in one room makes for a night (plus booze, there must be booze). The one element (at least in this area) that is missing is audience. I know you might scoff and say that’s because we don’t have one of our own, but it’s a catch 22 situation really – if the passing audience isn’t there to pick up new fans, how can you expect to get new fans?

My favourite nights are usually the free ones. This gig was £4 a ticket, and the band could get £1 for each sold. We were given 32 tickets, which even if we had of sold them all, would have been £32 between 4 people. That’s £8 each for a night that started at 6pm with the sound-check and ended past 11pm. That’s not the organisers fault as this isn’t unusual for a night like this, but when you think that we pay around £50 a month for our rehearsal room, that’s not even being covered, let alone our petrol and thousands of pounds worth of equipment costs. And anyway, we didn’t sell the tickets because it was out of our usual area, too expensive and  quite possibly, because it was in a leisure centre and I don’t think people’s brains could quite process that!

It’s a familiar story and I think the reason it happens is because we would do it anyway (most times) paid or not. So why pay for something that you can get for free? Well, because we would get better with more time and resources to develop. Your nights out would get better. The music in the country would get better. The charts would get better. The quality of people’s lives would get better (in cultural terms). The local music industries would be better funded. More money for recording studios, photographers, film makers, merchandise companies, venues, technicians etc… as a real culture of good quality live music is fostered. But hey, cover bands get paid. But cover bands need something to play! One day all the bands will be cover bands and when people finally get bored of the sets, it will be because no-one is left making original music anymore. We will be doomed to listen to bad versions of the Kings of Leon for all eternity. We will be Mustang-Sallyied to death.

So this may seem negative but I don’t mean to be. I know the sentiment was there with the organisers, and I’ve been in that position before as an event organiser myself where the last people you think about paying are the bands because all the other stuff takes so much money and time to put in place. Maybe one of the solutions for bands is merchandise – selling CD’s, downloads, badges, t-shirts and what not (we’re going to give that a go as we play our next few venues), but it is a shame in a way that it comes down to that when you’ve spent months or years coming up with a solid 40 minute set of original songs, played them, been appreciated, but not paid.

And it’s not all bad. We are surprised every now and again and we know that it’s up to us to seek out and play the better venues with the bigger crowds, though that will probably mean playing out of the county. Having experienced Liverpool’s music scene directly on occasion and vicariously through my older brother (who plays in two bands up there*), I know it exists. But then, Liverpool has a legacy, as does Manchester, London and Birmingham. Stoke’s legacy is a bit of a mixed bag, but there are bands in almost every spare room and dilapidated factory unit around here, brimming with enthusiasm and ability, trying to get out. I wish we didn’t have to ‘get out’. I like it here, it’s where I live. I mean, going further afield is cool, but it would be nice for that to be an optional extra, knowing that there are plenty of packed (and paying) venues back home in the meantime.

Well this has turned out to be a long post! I’d be surprised if anyone reads this far. If they do, confound my expectations by leaving a little comment. Even if it is just the world ‘splurge’. I’ll know what you mean by that, it will make me happy.

Finally, my band are quite busy at the moment so check out www.facebook.com/gravitydave for event information. I’m on local radio with them tonight, and I guess that might make it into my next blog anyway.

Ta for now. Splurge.

Garry.

Ps. If anyone from VB Music reads this – Keep it up. I’m talking about the broader world we all find ourselves in. The unusual venue is a bit of a hard one to get your head around, especially with it not being near to a town centre, but the way the night was ran and the feeling among the acts was positive. Tickets prices are probably too high for a lot of people, especially when they also need to travel out by taxi to the venue and such like. Audience’s need incentives (free or cheap entry, easy location) and set up a merch table for the bands with someone to man it if possible. I hope this helps and doesn’t sound arrogant, but you do want to build these nights up I imagine and I reckon these few things would help.

* My bro’s bands – Check them out and all that:

https://www.facebook.com/HillaryandtheDemocrats?fref=ts – Hillary & the Democrats

https://www.facebook.com/goodgriefliverpool?fref=ts – Good Grief!