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Teesside

City Limits
9 April 2018
Princess Alexandra Auditorium
It may be fate, or just the result of passion and hard work, but there is undoubtedly a renewed sense of confidence among promoters and venue operators, supported by multi-million-pound refurbishments, more shows and a plethora of local talent emerging.  Allan Glen reports

If in the business of live music, every region has its day, then this could be Teesside’s moment.

For whether it’s the hottest new emerging act at a multi-venue event or heritage bands in mid-market spaces and festivals, the area is buzzing.

It’s also beginning to benefit from increased levels of investment in the infrastructure, such as nearly £10 million pumped into refurbishing two venues in Middlesbrough and Stockton, while next year will see the opening of The Globe, a 3,000-capacity concert hall that could radically change live music in the North-East.

Also helping energise the scene are a batch of emerging Teesside acts who are building audiences nationally, among them Cattle & Cane, Cape Cub, Mouses and Avalanche Party.

Raising the profile further are several successful multi-venue events, including Stockton Calling and Twisterella in Middlesbrough, while in a significant move, Graham Ramsay of long-standing regional promoter Ten Feet Tall is expanding his live music programme, adding two new venues to Teesside.

“We’ve recently built a bit of a niche for ourselves with the more established, heritage acts, which is great,” says Ramsay. “But it also means we can build an infrastructure, take a few more risks, and start booking some emerging acts alongside the heritage bands.

“The strategy is to do shows at a range of levels.”

This includes booking acts into two new spaces, including the 750-capacity Princess Alexandra Auditorium (PAA) in Yarm, 10 miles outside Middlesbrough.

“It’s got full public access, and we’ve got a good little programme going on in there,” says Ramsay. “We’ve only done a few shows so far, but we’ve got plenty more to come.

“It really came on our radar when Middlesbrough Town Hall [1,420] closed for refurbishment and we were looking for a place to host music and comedy events.

“For an area the size of Teesside, audiences here are spoilt for choice”

David Griffiths

“We put on a few tester shows and they worked really well. It’s a great venue, the audiences love it and they’re a great team to work with.”

Artistes performing at PAA include Suggs, Steve Harley, Lloyd Cole, Ruby Turner, Eddi Reader, Jason Donovan, The Wildcats of Kilkenny and Alexander O’Neal.

As well as promoting at PAA, Ten Feet Tall is to open a new live music venue, Base Camp (150), in a Grade II listed former Post Office in Exchange Square. Middlesbrough.

“There were a few shows on in there, some art events too, but we’ve now taken on the lease of the building,” says Ramsay. “It’s got its own beaten-up charm.”

Other TFT shows across the region include Chris Difford, Nick Heyward, King Creosote, The High Kings and Ricky Ross in ARC (550) in Stockton, while Ramsay also has Status Quo and The Bootleg Beatles booked to perform in Middlesbrough Town Hall, due to reopen in May, following an £8m refurbishment.

Welcome return

While the capacity of the main room and The Crypt at the Town Hall will remain the same following the works, 1,420 and 537 respectively, the stage in the main auditorium has been rebuilt and a new PA and lighting installed, while a new space, The Courtroom (160), has also been added to accommodate a series of acoustic and folk music shows, billed The Courtroom Sessions, as well as other events.

The first act to play the Town Hall will be James (promoted by SJM Concerts), followed by Cattle & Cane and the Northern Orchestra (promoted by Henry Carden) and Queen Extravaganza (The MJR Group/Phil McIntyre Presents).

Rob Guest

Henry Carden

“The acoustics in the main room are better than ever, and it’s going to provide people with an amazing visual and sonic experience,” says business development manager Rob Guest. “The Crypt has been stripped back and looks great, with some lovely features revealed, such as the original barrelled ceiling and windows.

“That space is completely flexible, too, with moveable staging, lighting and sound throughout.”

As the largest music venue on Teesside, over the years it has hosted shows by David Bowie, Oasis and the Stone Roses.

“There are a few really passionate promoters who work hard to keep the scene vibrant and active, among them Ten Feet Tall, Tees Music Alliance and The Kids Are Solid Gold,” says Guest. “It would be good to see one of our local bands break nationally and internationally in the coming years, as there is a lot of great talent around.”

Emerging talent on Teesside is also given the opportunity to play Hardwick Live (10,000), this year headlined by Kaiser Chiefs, Shed Seven, Happy Mondays, Echo and The Bunnymen, Melanie C, Feeder and PiL.

For the past two years, the event, held in Sedgefield, has been booked by Steve Davis of Newcastle-based SSD Concerts. Day tickets cost £49, with weekend tickets priced at £89.

“Where possible we try to book local talent,” says event organiser Jonathan Woodliffe, adding that this year’s line-up includes Dennis, Voluntears and Smoove and Turrell.

The event is based around a mixture of live music and other family entertainment.

“We’ve always promoted the event as very much for families,” he adds. “There are two stages for the music and then lots of other entertainment across the site.”

Booming in Billingham

Such is the strength of live music on Teesside that The Forum (649) in Billingham is now taking bookings for autumn 2019.

“It’s at the stage now where we are having to plan that far ahead,” says venue manager Derek Cooper.

“Also, agents and promoters are now happy to book their shows into the theatre on a Monday or a Tuesday, whereas before they would be looking for a Thursday to Sunday.”

With up to 200 live music shows a year, the theatre hosts a range of entertainment, with artistes playing the venue including Big Country, Lulu, Rick Wakeman, Joe Brown, Lindisfarne, Nathan Carter and Les McKeown (all in-house promotions).

Cooper puts the success of the venue down to several factors: a great venue, a great stage and “most important of all, a great audience”.

“The people who come to see shows here are very appreciative,” he says.

An artist’s impression of The Globe (Stockton)

Global ambition

Back in Stockton, work is continuing on restoring The Globe (3,000), which, in its ‘60s heyday featured acts such as The Beatles, The Shadows and Cliff Richard.

It is due to open in the spring of 2019, with the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) recently appointed as operator.

The new project will cost £15 million in total, with £4.5m coming from the National Lottery and £10.5m from Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council.

Council leader Bob Cook says it was a huge coup to attract ATG.

“We are delighted to have the opportunity to work with them to create a venue capable of hosting the kind of acts and performances that will attract audiences who currently have to travel to Leeds or Newcastle to enjoy music of this scale,” he says.

Also in Stockton is ARC, which has two spaces for live music, The Point, and Studio Theatre (93). Acts playing the venue include Wishbone Ash, Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra, Amelia Coburn, Steeleye Span and Limehouse Lizzy (all in-house promotions).

Nick Wesson

“Teesside isn’t particularly short of venues these days, but – and I guess it’s a common problem across the country – you sometimes feel like you want to physically march people to gigs,” says ARC marketing and press officer Nick Wesson. “It would also be great to see a bit of diversity away from male dominated guitar bands.”

Overall, though, Wesson points out that cooperation among promoters and venues is good. “All the venues complement each other and try to help out.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than during multi-venue event Stockton Calling.

Led by the Tees Music Alliance (TMA) team at The Georgian Theatre (300), shows also take place at venues such as ARC and KU Bar (300), with The Kids Are Solid Gold (TKASG) promoting a stage at The Storytellers (180).

Among this year’s headliners are Lightning Seeds, Field Music and We Are Scientists, while emerging acts include Teesside favourites Mouses.

Paul Burns

According to TMA CEO Paul Burns, the DIY ethic is one of the area’s biggest strengths, citing local bands, Abel Raise The Cain and The Black Sheep Frederick Dickens, as carving out their own space.

“Both of those acts have had quality releases, part of what we’d call 360 artistes, completing their own circles with self-penned, self-produced, self-released and self-promoted works of consistent quality,” says Burns. “This is backed-up with well-chosen live appearances that leave audiences intrigued and wanting more.”

Located just off Stockton High Street, The Georgian Theatre recently underwent a £1.4m refurbishment, increasing the capacity by 100, and bringing with it new bars and social spaces.

Acts playing the venue include The Wonder Stuff, The Wedding Present, Shed Seven, the Skids, Lucy Spraggan, Big Country, Dr Feelgood and Urban Voodoo Machine (all TMA-promoted).

As well as Stockton Calling, other TMA events include Songs From Northern Britain at The Georgian Theatre, a co-promotion with TKASG, and First Wave, which is promoted in conjunction with Stockton’s KU Bar. The former event showcases new acts from the North-east and Scotland. Acts playing the events have included Avalanche Party, The Van T’s, Plaza and Black Waters.

However, Burns warns that audiences are becoming increasingly risk averse. “They won’t take as many chances on new bands as they might have 10 years ago.”

One in a bullion

Andy Carr

Independent promoters who are willing to take that risk are undoubtedly paramount to the development of live music on Teesside, and among the most active are Andy Carr of The Kids Are Solid Gold, Jimmy Beck at KU Bar and The Storytellers, and Henry Carden.

Together, Carr and Carden co-promote Twisterella, while Carden also manages Cattle & Cane.

“At grassroots level the scene is as strong as the very best in the UK,” says Carr. “The Teesside crowd is brilliant.”

TKASG’s current shows include Girl Ray, Partner, Charles Watson, Foreignfox and Boy Azooga at the Westgarth Social Club (200, 120).

According to Carr, events such as Stockton Calling and Middlesbrough-based Twisterella continue to further strengthen Teesside’s reputation as a place to see emerging talent.

The Georgian Theatre

Acts to have played Twisterella, which takes place at venues such as Teesside University Students’ Union (1,000, 300), The Townhouse (200), TSOne (200) and Westgarth Social Club, include Clean Cut Kid, Spring King, Fickle Friends, PINS, Fatherson, Hyde & Beast and Skinny Girl Diet.

Other shows Carden is promoting, meanwhile, include Cape Cub, Llovers and Tom Joshua at The Georgian Theatre, Lail Arad and JF Robitaille at The Tea House (35) in Middlesbrough and Dylan Cartlidge at Westgarth Social Club.

As he notes, another significant indicator of increased activity is the number of Teesside acts being signed up by agents, with Cattle & Cane, Avalanche Party and Dylan Cartlidge all now on Primary Talent International’s roster, and Plaza at Coda Agency.

“It won’t be long before the likes of Cape Cub, Tom Joshua and Llovers follow suit,” he adds.

The latter act is also being tipped as one to watch by promoter Jimmy Beck, whose  KU Bar made its name with early shows from acts such as Friendly Fires, The Enemy and The Wombats.

KU remains one of the best well-known venues on Teesside, hosting some of the main acts performing at Stockton Calling, with this year’s sold-out event featuring We Are Scientists, October Drift and Cape Cub.

Beck also owns The Storytellers (180) in the town. Acts currently playing include The Ninth Wave, The Snuts, Kioko, The Howl & The Hum and The Seamonsters, all promoted by TKASG for this year’s Stockton Calling.

“The music scene in Teesside has seen some good bands come through recently,” says Beck. “We’re especially excited by the young acts such as Llovers, We Tibetans, Cattle & Cane and Cape Cub.”

Dave Griffiths

Such is the buzz surrounding Teesside that other independent promoters such as David Griffiths of Fast Forward Promotions are also putting on more shows.

Having started promoting acts following a chance meeting with reformed north-east veteran punks Penetration in 2010, he now puts on shows across Teesside.

His events at The Georgian Theatre include Wire, Mari Wilson, James Taylor Quartet, Doctors of Madness and Penetration, while those at the Westgarth have included Filthy Tongues, The Len Price 3, Fallen Leaves, Galileo 7, Dustaphonics and Pete Wylie & The Mighty Wah!.

“For an area the size of Teesside, audiences here are spoilt for choice,” says Griffiths. “There’s an amazing amount of promoters bringing in a wide variety of music to the area. There’s always someone to go and see if you’re willing to take a chance.”

In summing up, Burns, who is keen to talk-up the area, but is also pragmatic about the challenges facing Teesside, points out that although there are a lot of very talented and original artistes working hard to get their music heard across the area, there is also a hunger from audiences to watch and listen to more familiar material from tribute and cover acts.

“I suspect that’s no different to most other towns, but as an organisation which is passionate about supporting songwriters and musicians that’s frustrating,” he says.

“By no means are we against covers and tributes – any form of live music is to be valued, but that type of act can only exist if someone writes their songs in the first place.

“Making original music more accessible is one way of improving things, and cost is a big factor,” he adds. “Artistes and agents setting ticket prices can sometimes be counterproductive; wouldn’t it be better to reduce entry by a third and double the audience?”

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