Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Bob Marley… over the last six decades and longer, audiences in Bristol and the South West have experienced the leading artistes of their day, live and up close, thanks to a community project launched by leading Bristolians 150 years ago this month.
In the early 1860s, a group of prominent local businessmen decided their home city needed its own concert hall. With a growing population set to exceed 300,000 by the end of the century, and thriving industrial sectors including the docks, tobacco and chocolate, Bristol was ripe to blossom culturally.
The businessmen, among them Joseph Storrs Fry, of chocolate fame, William Henry Wills (tobacco) and Elisha Smith Robinson (packaging) raised £40,000 for the creation of the venue and, on 20 September 1867, The Colston Hall opened. Complete with a £5,000 organ, the hall accommodated 5,000 people, far more than today’s 2,075 capacity.
Sited in central Bristol, up the hill from the docks, the hall used its cellars to store imports which helped pay for the building. That it was named after 17th century Bristol merchant Edward Colston, much of whose wealth came from slave trading, divides opinions in modern Bristol, where a sizeable Afro-Caribbean community has fostered many of the city’s most successful live music acts including Massive Attack and Roni Size.
“The venue is at the heart of the city’s music scene and it’s fantastic to see investment that will give Bristol a modern venue.”
The venue’s music programme gathered momentum when a reported 1,800 people attended the first Bristol Music Festival in 1873, in spite of heavy rain. They witnessed Haydn’s The Creation, directed by Charles Hallé, founder of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra. The festival ran every three years until 1912 and, as Bristol University academic Peter Skrine writes, “By the end of the century it had put Bristol on the musical map of Britain”.
But along the way disaster struck when the building was burnt down by a fire spreading from the clothes factory next door. It reopened in 1901 with a new organ donated by Henry Wills and in 1919 Bristol’s Corporation (now Bristol City Council) bought the hall for £65,000, later installing an 835-seat balcony for cinema audiences. In the inter-war period it welcomed major musical figures and entertainers, from Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov to the US singer and activist
Despite surviving the Blitz, the venue burnt down again in 1945, the culprit a smoldering cigarette. It wasn’t until 1951 that the new hall reopened, same year as The Festival of Britain, allowing Bristolians to feel part of the national post-war renewal. Buddy Holly, Count Basie, Cliff Richard, Louis Armstrong and Gracie Fields were just a few of its visitors in the 1950s.
Danny Betesh of Kennedy Street remembers his first booking at the hall, Roy Orbison in 1963.
“Supporting him were three British chart acts, Freddie and The Dreamers, The Searchers and Brian Poole and The Tremeloes,” he says. “We did two shows a night and the top ticket price was ten and sixpence [52.5p in today’s money or roughly £10 accounting for inflation].
“All tickets were sold over the counter at the venue, the local record shop or by cheque through the post. We have promoted regularly at the Colston Hall, ever since, recently with Van Morrison, Neil Sedaka and Mike & The Mechanics. Van likes the venue and he’s our next sold out show there in November.”
In the 1960s many of rock and pop’s legends graced its stage. In November 1964, The Beatles, who played there twice, had flour tipped over them by four Bristol students who’d climbed the gantries. Bob Dylan played in 1966, shortly before his famous motorcycle accident. When Jimi Hendrix performed in 1967 with Pink Floyd, The Move and others on the bill, the then 14-year-old fan Malcolm Coates said, “When the last number, Purple Haze, was announced I thought the end of the world was upon us.”
Not all shows were a success. Just a few hundred attended The Tamla Motown revue in 1965, featuring Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and Martha & The Vandellas, even though promoter Charles Lockier gave away 1,000 tickets to Afro-Caribbean Bristolians.
Throughout the 1970s, the Colston Hall, by now Grade II listed, continued to reflect music’s cultural changes with visits from David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Bob Marley, Queen, Leonard Cohen and The Clash. In the 1980s the hall welcomed The Cure, BB King, Madness, Elvis Costello and Depeche Mode, while acts ranging from Morrissey and Tanita Tikaram to Take That and prog rockers ELP and Chuck Berry performed in the 1990s.
During that decade, Bristol produced its own international artistes including Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead. Massive Attack’s Grantley Marshall (Daddy G) opened the debate about the venue’s name when he declared his band would never play the hall while it was named after a slave trader.
But the venue demonstrated it could change, as Conal Dodds, formerly with promoter Metropolis and now with Crosstown Concerts, recalls. “Before I promoted Portishead there in 1998 you couldn’t take drinks into the hall and the seating was fixed,” he says. “But I persuaded them to take the seats out in the front, demonstrating that the venue works with a standing floor.”
Graeme Howell was director of the Colston Hall from 2004 to 2011, when the need for a better customer experience became overwhelming.
“The hall lacked public circulation spaces so there was insufficient room for a sold-out concert of 1,900 people [outside the main space],” says Howell. “Modernising the customer facilities was the priority, offering a strong night out and, from a business point of view, generating secondary spending.”
A proposed two phase redevelopment scheme, already in place when Howell arrived, saw Phase One deliver a modern five level foyer, whose atrium boasts bars, restaurants, new performance spaces and education facilities. It opened in 2009 at a cost of £20 million, raised through Arts Council England and BCC.
“We brought the bling back to Bristol,” jokes Howell of the gleaming golden building that emerged beside the hall’s old Byzantine-style frontage. “The new extension was sympathetic to an existing Grade II building, a bold statement that BCC was investing in culture.”
The foyer allowed multi-event festivals within the building using the open access entrance area and the 350-capacity Hall 2, converted by Howell from a temporary bar and renamed The Lantern. He also launched a programme of live music around the city including The Square Sessions (1,500) in nearby Queen Square, plus elements of Bristol Harbour Festival (est. attendance 83,000).
“The Colston Hall turned over £10 million per year of which only £0.9 million was subsidy so we had to generate cash many ways,” Howell explains. Under his stewardship the hall hosted shows by Sigur Rós, Nick Cave, Roger Daltrey and Noah &
In February 2011, the Bristol Music Trust (BMT) was founded as a private limited company to run the hall. Chaired by Bristol businessman Henry Kenyon with board members including BCC, local arts organisations, music and education professionals plus community representatives, it appointed Louise Mitchell as chief executive that May.
“The council understood the need to create a company that could be more entrepreneurial and responsive,” says Mitchell. “Local governments are not the best at running entertainments venues.”
The contrast between the new foyer and the antique hall added urgency to the challenges: raising £48 million for Phase Two while working in a deteriorating building. Production facilities are inadequate for modern tours while Mitchell admits artiste changing areas are “embarrassing”.
“We can keep trading with this building for another year but not much longer,” says Mitchell.
Fundraising expects to reach over £40 million this October and the council has promised to underwrite the project.
“There’s enough capital to start the building work in June 2018. So, basically, we’re off.” she exclaims. “It’s important that the hall looks special and part of Bristol. If it sounds lovely but looks the same as others worldwide, that’s not good enough. We want to respect Bristol’s heritage, which is why architects have created the maritime theme.”
The hall will expand to roughly 2,300 capacity (standing)/
2,045 (seated) with two tiers of shallow balconies buttressed by mast-like pillars. The Lantern upgrades to 500-capacity and a new independently accessible venue, The Cellars, will
“The get in moves to [lower level] Colston Street and a lift takes everything up to a scene dock between the main stage and The Lantern, where all boxes will be stored,” says general manager Nick Craney.
“The new ease of movement means the spaces can work much harder, with events morning and evening.”
Head of programme Todd Wills has developed festivals such as the Americana event River Town, Simple Things and Bristol New Music. Following the renovation, he says, “Some of the bigger US artistes like Paul Simon and Randy Newman will come here. Because our facilities haven’t been up to standard, it’s been hard to justify a higher ticket price. A national promoter might now feel they can charge £60 to £70 for those artistes.”
The 150th anniversary is being celebrated with a range of events from a Bristol Bands Takeover plus a 2,500-capacity Harbourside event The Outlook Orchestra with Roots Manuva. Throughout the closure the venue will programme its events at the venues and outdoor spaces it already uses until the expected reopening in summer 2020.
BMT has also decided that the controversial Colston Hall name will go.
“We are pursuing naming rights with various companies to close the gap on fundraising but the decision was not financial,” Mitchell insists. “We don’t want to airbrush history but we have to be a building for all Bristolians and it felt like the right thing to do.”
Rob Challice of Coda, who booked Bon Iver and Warpaint is fully of praise for the venue.
“Colston Hall is a great venue especially in standing format,” he says. “Todd and Matt [Aitken, music programmer] have done a great job. BBC 6 Music Festival and Simple Things have shown how it’s possible to use the whole venue.”
Agent Nigel Hassler of CAA, who works with the Lighthouse Family, Imelda May and Alison Moyet, adds, “Bristol is a main conurbation and The Colston Hall is the only venue in the area of that style. It appeals to an older demographic and has built up a great reputation over the years.”
Paul Fenn of Asgard, who’s booked Emmylou Harris there as part of the Americana festival, regards it as part of the UK touring scenes “backbone”, while ATC’s Cecile Communal champions its taste in contemporary sounds. She has booked artistes including Malian rock band Songhoy Blues and Ibibo Sound
Machine at the hall.
Technical teams who work there also have affection for the venue. Bristol-based Evans Audio Visual Staging installed the current PAs in the main house and The Lantern, as well as providing equipment to touring shows.
“The main hall is multi-tiered and reverberant so it’s quite a challenging space but the crew are a nice bunch,” says Paul Goold, the company’s technical manager.
Colin Bodenham, founder of lighting and rigging company Utopium, says, “The venue is at the heart of the city’s music scene and it’s fantastic to see investment that will give Bristol a modern venue.”
While the days of the Colston Hall brand are numbered, Bristol’s emerging new venue is in highly respected hands, and actively supporting live music at all levels. The new facility is expected to stimulate an extra £254 million in additional economic activity for the Bristol economy over 20 years plus £149 million across the UK, resulting in the creation of 274 full time equivalent jobs.
If that is achieved by enjoying the next generation’s answer to The Beatles, Count Basie, Bob Marley or even Massive Attack (widely tipped to perform at the re-opened hall), who wouldn’t raise an economy boosting glass to that?