Having been involved in the local music scene for four years now, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch artists from these shores outgrow the streets that raised them and flourish into full time musicians. I’ve stood in the mosh pits, been glued to the barrier, as so many of these people I’m lucky enough to call friends turn into pop stars for the night.
It’s a magical thing to witness, the coming together of years of practice, dedication and hard work from the musician, and often some degree of luck for the audience themselves. The right place, the right time, the right songs…but how do these moments happen? Although there’s no definitive answer, ask anyone in love with their local scene and you’ll hear independent venues mentioned nearly every time.‘Independent Venue Week’ is an idea based off that belief, a week dedicated to celebrating small, independent venues across the UK.
I found myself at two gigs over the weekend of IVW. On both occasions local bands topped the bill, on both occasions, the venues were full. My first stop was Voodoo, an effortlessly cool punk bar tucked away in the corner of Fountain Street in Belfast. With it’s low ceilings, sticky floors and incredible atmosphere, it’s became a rite of passage for younger bands ready to make their first steps towards playing to a slightly bigger, edgier audience. Although there’s no local bands on support duties for the night, each were making their Northern Irish debuts. I caught up with Tom Featherstone, lead guitarist with Mancunican art-pop band Horsebeach, to ask what he thought of his first time in Voodoo and independent venues in general… “That really did feel very special tonight. The crowd were so up for it, the floor was shaking. Without these sort of venues we couldn’t go on tour…these places are our door to the world! Voodoo is fantastic, if everywhere is like this in Northern Ireland then your scene must be incredible”.
To test out Tom’s theory I decided my second night of independent venue week should be spent away from the capital, bringing me to the North Coast. Kiwi’s Bar is a new venue right in the heart of Portrush. Formerly part of the Playhouse Theatre, a venue renowned for their encouragement of local music, the hope that Kiwi’s would take in local bands was higher than most, but thankfully they lived up to that expectation. Unsure what to expect, I was greeted at the door by a flood of people all wanting to join the already packed out room.
Verse Chorus Verse, Runabay and The Emerald Armada formed a full Northern Irish bill. With no set promotion to advertise, (not an EP launch in site!), you could be forgiven for not expecting a huge turnout. The reality was very different, as NI Development officer for Help Musicians UK Nikki MacRae explains; “That’s one of the best things about the North Coast, the people here are incredible audiophiles, they are so supportive of the local music scene…people do tend to forget that and focus on Belfast, but places like the North Coast are so vibrant and you could see that at the Atlantic Sessions we had recently. Every one of those venues was rammed from start to finish, and now look at this!”
Refreshed by such strong turnouts, I thought I’d finish my report by talking to Tony Wright, aka Verse Chorus Verse. Having learned his trade as part of North Coast legends And So I Watch You From Afar and playing nearly every independent venue in the country, I wanted to hear his views on the importance of these places and their future - “Independent venues are the most important thing in music today. There’s many venues associated with bigger organisations who still give you the chance to play, and I will never criticise them for that, but independent venues are where you really build it. It’s where the seeds come from, and the trees grow out of. That’s where we’ve all learned how to do our jobs. The loss of them, which is happening more and more, is horrific, because these are where artists learn to make mistakes.”
Clearly very passionate, Tony finished up with some words of encouragement for the future of independent venues and the local music scene. “Everything feels like it’s being taken control of by a load of big money corporations, but live music is something we can do in the corner of a bar! The more we can do these sort of things as musicians and fans of music, the better…and when you’re scared about the future of these places and indie music, please remember that’s when you get the really good stuff! The best music grows out of the hardest times. We’re in for a treat for the next couple of years”. A positive end to a great weekend.
Local music in Northern Ireland is alive and well for now, especially the independent venues.
Taylor Johnson and his band, Brand New Friend, performed for our #HMNItakover day on the Belfast Botanic Gardens stage back in November 2016. He also writes for and runs Encore NI a non profitable music website/media organisation.