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Bristol

City Limits
25 June 2019

From club gigs to outdoor events and stadium shows Bristol remains one of the south west’s most vibrant cities for live music. Even the temporary closure of two venues can’t dampen local promoters’ enthusiasm, and there’s even an arena in the pipeline. Allan Glen reports 

It may still be waiting for that elusive arena after several false starts and finally some certainty, but Bristol continues to put on a good show. 

Not only did it recently host a concert by local lads Massive Attack, but over at Ashton Gate Stadium (cap. 32,000) there are performances by Take That, Muse, the Spice Girls and Rod Stewart line-up this summer.

The latter was promoted by Cuffe & Taylor, with tickets from  £35, the others are all promoted by SJM Concerts, with tickets for Take That from £65, and £70 for Muse and the Spice Girls.

The series of concerts, which also included Future Islands (promoted by  The MJR Group) last year, follows on from a £45 million renovation at the stadium in 2016.

“The rebuild transformed the stadium into a state-of-the-art venue for top-flight entertainment,” says Ashton Gate event manager Katie Griffin. 

“With three concourses linked into a horseshoe it has been deliberately designed to be able to switch from the home of Bristol City and Bristol Bears, to the largest conference and events venue in the south west.”

Any live music events at the venue have to happen around the usual season of fixtures, with discussions already taking place with promoters for 2020-21.

“That said, we have live local bands playing in our Fan Village week-in, week-out on matchdays,” she says. “ We are licenced for up to five stadium bowl concerts each year which is important to us, as live music invites a whole new audience to attract to the stadium.”

Elsewhere, with two of Bristol’s best-known venues closed for refurbishment and the opening of the much-talked about arena making slow progress, you would be forgiven for thinking the city’s music scene is somewhat subdued. 

You would, however, be very wrong.

According to Anton Lockwood, director of live at Nottingham-based promoter, festival organiser and venue operator DHP Family, the temporary closure for refurbishment (see LIVE UK issue 231) of its Thekla venue (400), has not diminished its overall business in the city.

DHP’s Massive Attack two sell-out outdoor shows each drew nearly 30,000 people earlier this year, more of which later.

The company also organises multi-venue one-day event Dot To Dot, which also takes place in Nottingham and Manchester.

“We had a record attendance in Bristol this year, with an audience of around 5,000,” says Lockwood.

Headliners Crystal Fighters and Jordan Rakei were among more than 60 acts playing this year.

“We also have fringe-type events running alongside the main event, so there can be anything up to 150 acts playing,” he says. “It’s  a massive event for us, and a good illustration I’ve been giving of it recently is that in 2017 I got an email from someone I knew containing a link to a YouTube video and a note saying, ‘Check this out’. 

“So I played it and straightaway thought, ‘We’ve got to have this guy on Dot To Dot’, then went to see him at the Hy Brasil in Bristol with 40 or 50 people watching, and he was astounding.”

And the name of that artiste? “Lewis Capaldi, and that’s what Dot To Dot is all about,” says Lockwood. “New music and breakthrough acts.”

Finally coming

As for Bristol Arena, the long-running saga has finally reached a conclusion, but not everyone is happy with its final location.

The company behind the project, Malaysian developer YTL, has appointed architects to transform the Brabazon hangers on Filton Airfield (where Concorde was developed and housed) into a 16,000-capacity venue. 

YTL won the contract for the arena last year, when the previous council-funded project for a 12,000-capacity building in the city centre, to be operated by SMG and Live Nation Entertainment, was scrapped (see LIVE UK issue 232).

Some in the city believe Filton Airfield is too far from the city centre.  But DHP’s Scott O’Neill, the promoter behind Massive Attack’s two sold-out shows at The Steel Yard (14,000), a custom-built venue at Filton Airfield, believes his shows prove the site is more than suitable to accommodate a major venue.

“There have been a lot of political discussions over where is best for the site – in the city centre or at the airfield and, personally, I think there are positives either way – but the Massive Attack shows prove people will go to an arena show that is not in the city,” he says. 

A loss to the concert circuit until scheduled to reopen in 2020, the 1950s-built Colston Hall (1,934) is being redeveloped at a cost of £48.8 million. 

Run by Bristol Music Trust, it will return under a new name, following a local campaign against its current name’s association with Bristol-born slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston. 

Investment is also driving the market at mid-level, with Academy Music Group’s O2 Academy Bristol (1,600, 250), having had a new L-Acoustics KARA PA system installed.

Among the acts playing the venue are Damian Marley (promoted by Academy Events), Suede, Skunk Anansie (both SJM), Kamasi Washington (Goldenvoice), James Blake (DHP), Mastadon, Kill Switch Engage, (both Live Nation Entertainment – LNE), Slowthai (AEG Presents), Richard Hawley (Crosstown Concerts) and Kate Tempest (Kilimanjaro Live).

With approximately 150 shows  a year, the venue is integral to live music in
the city.

“We have a very experienced and established team, many of whom have been here since we opened,” says general manager Josh Westaway, pointing to local emerging acts Ishmael Ensemble and Swimming Girls as ones to watch. 

“They have the knowledge and skills
to successfully market and promote
niche genres as well as mainstream events in the city, both locally and as
national promotions.”

Electrification

Then there is SWX (1,150) and the Anson Rooms (1,200) at Bristol University.  

Acquired by the Electric Group in October 2017, SWX is a former ballroom. The group also owns London’s Electric Brixton (1,600) in Brixton. 

Since taking over the venue, promotions and bookings are handled by head of music Mike Weller. 

“One of the main things we did was augment the L-Acoustics Line Array with a new monitoring and side fill system,” explains Weller, who says there have been more than 100 shows in the past 12 months.

“Given the success of the live diary, we also focused on bringing in a full-time technical manager to provides support for touring parties.

Investment, adds Weller, is ongoing, with live music infrastructure a priority.

“We are investing in facilities generally, including a lift in the rear of the building and upgrading and improving as much as we can,” he says.

“SWX also hosts epic major weekly club nights too, which have massively contributed to creating the brand.”

Acts playing the venue include Halfmoon Run, Fontaines DC, Raleigh Ritchie (all DHP), FKG (AEG), Unknown Mortal Choir (SJM) and Sleep, Sunn O)), You Me At Six and Ministry (Effigy), while gig highlights for Weller include Razorlight (DHP) and The Struts (LNE).

Rich history 

Working in such a music-focussed city can be challenging, as Rebecca Evans, head of events, programmes and venues at the Anson Rooms, explains.

“Bristol is such a creative hub for music, and we’re proud to be a part of such a buzzing music scene, but the wide range of options in the city can be a blessing and a curse,” she says. “As a venue you have to work hard to give customers a reason to come to your show over the range of others taking place that night.”

Operating out of the Students’ Union building at Bristol University, the Anson Rooms has hosted shows since 1965 with a rich concert legacy featuring Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse and Ed Sheeran over the years.  Acts playing these days  include Kurt Vile, Hawkwind (both MJR), DMA’s (SJM), From The Jam (AGMP) and Delain (LNE).

Evans says there have been 35 shows in the past year. “We’ve been proudly independent for the past 50 years and are looking forward to continuing to develop the Anson Rooms.

“We’ve opened our availability up to six days a week, Tuesday to Sunday,
and now include a full PA and live band package in our hire price, meaning it’s a better set-up for promoters and we can pass the savings made on to
ticket holders.”

Future plans include introducing more live music to the other two venues in the building, The Winston Theatre (208) and Pegg Theatre (80).

Creative fusion

St George’s (576, 80) recently reopened following a year-long £6.3m renovation.

“The new two-storey extension fuses modern architecture with the original 1823 building,” explains marketing manager Esme Jones. “The opening of the extension saw the beginning of the 2018/19 season, where St George’s relaunched as a creative space for music and ideas, giving people the opportunity to get under the skin of music-making.”

Acts playing the venue include Madeleine Peyroux (One Inch Badge), The Unthanks (DHP), Courtney Pine with Zie Rahman, Chineke! Orchestra, and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Rachel Podger (both in-house).

Musical favourites

The Fleece (450), The Exchange (250), which is about to open an additional 60-capacity room and The Louisiana (140), provide club-level artistes the opportunity to consolidate audiences and emerging acts the chance to
get started.

Having such a strong student population is one of the main drivers of the market, according to Chris Sharp, owner of The Fleece, which hosts more than 300 gigs a year.

“As a result, the current music scene is as competitive as ever,” he says, adding The Fleece has recently undergone a £10,000 upgrade to its lighting system.

“We believe we now have one of the best lighting rigs for a venue this size in the UK,” he notes. 

“We want to make the whole experience of playing at The Fleece as smooth and pleasurable as possible from the moment the band arrives,” says Sharp.

Among acts playing the venue are Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, Cavetown (both Kilimanjaro), The Black Dahlia Murder (Effigy), Kate Nash, Confidence Man (both Crosstown), SWMRS (DHP), Easy Star All Stars (MJR), I Don’t Know How But They Found Me (LNE) and Walter Trout (The Gig Cartel).

The Exchange, now run as a Community Benefit Society with nearly 400 people buying shares has, says the venue’s Matt Otridge, secured its long-term future.

“In the coming weeks we have a brand new lighting rig and air-conditioning being installed, and before the year is out we expect a big PA overhaul, new seating area outside, and the second stage to be open. All in all, it’s going to be a big year for the venue.”

The Exchange also houses a café, vegan kitchen, record store and recording studio.

“We still consider ourselves to be primarily a live music venue,” he says. “Last year I think we had around 320 shows, and this year we will end up having more by the time our second stage opens.”

Among acts playing The Exchange are Jeffrey Lewis, Melt Banana, Pigx7 (all Dictionary Pudding) and Martha, promoted by Deadpunk Promotions, which is run by Otridge.

Also promoting at the venue are Invisible Llama and Effigy, the latter run by Miles Jelfs, who puts on around 50 shows a year in the city. These currently include Daughters, and Brutus at The Exchange, Polyphia, Cancer Bats and Chon at The Fleece (450).

“The current Bristol scene is the most exciting I have ever known it to be, both in terms of the great bands here and in people coming out to shows,” he says. “There is so much fantastic Bristol talent killing it on the local scene and breaking outside of the city on to the national gig and festival circuits.”

Jelfs points to local emerging acts No Violet, The St Pierre Snake Invasion, Scalping and Sans as ones to watch.

According to Iwan Best of Invisible Llama, it is the DIY spirit of Bristol that makes it unique.

“There are so many creative people putting on amazing events,” he says.

The Louisiana (120), meanwhile, has shows with Mogli, Rosie Lowe, Tangled Hair, Swimming Tapes (all DHP), JS Ondara (LNE), Hatchie (Crosstown) and Orla Gartland (SJM).

The venue is a 30-year-old institution in the city, having hosted early performances by artistes such as Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Florence + The Machine, George Ezra, Dua Lipa, Wolf Alice, IDLES and
The National.

Major changes planned later in the year, include new PA and lights.

As promoter Mig Schillace, explains, live music is in the venue’s DNA 

“We host live shows almost every night,” says Schillace. “If we weren’t a live music venue, we would have closed years ago.”

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