Colin H on The Warehouse Remembered #2 charity gig at the Pavilion, Belfast
In these days of misery, doom and toilet-roll shortages, I thought I’d share some a positive tale. It happened last Friday…
America has its ‘Woodstock generation’, Belfast has its ‘Warehouse generation’. I found myself spontaneously arriving at that phrase during compering duties on Friday night, and it feels good. The Warehouse was a one of those magical venues that only lasts for a moment. In this case, 18 months spanning 1994–96. It felt a bit longer at the time, because I went there two or three times a week, to see touring troubadours and local (mostly original-music) bands of every kind – blues, rock, jazz, grunge, folk, Irish trad, soul, reggae… In hindsight, it was a golden age for local music: the possibilities offered by self-funded CDs had just arrived, which gave an impetus to everyone to work towards something. Local radio was still ‘local’, not playlisted by an algorithm in Milton Keynes – a local act could still get their music on air, and could still cause a sensation among listeners. Talent could ‘out’, as it were.
Chris Roddy and Ernie Magennis were the publicans at the Rotterdam Bar on Pilot Street, an isolated cul-de-sac down by the docks with only derelict buildings, a working man’s club, a reclusive monastery and their hippie hangover hostelry. Chris’ dad had run the legendary Pound club in the 70s and early 80s, where all the 1960s survivors (generally all ex-members of Them) and moustachioed men playing Steely Dan covers and Chicago blues played on a Saturday afternoon – there being curfews in the centre of Belfast at night in those days. The only other significant gig in town at that time, save for a still thriving cabaret scene, was the Harp Bar, where all the punks played. Sometimes a punk band might play the Pound, but not the other way around.
There was no passing trade at the Rotterdam, but by word of mouth it found its clientele. I was often there from 1992 onwards, when Bert Jansch & Peter Kirtley played. Erstwhile Grease Band guitarist Henry McCullough played often in the place with his woozy band of guys from the 70s, locking into ten-minute mid-tempo grooves. Henry would also be a regular attraction in the Warehouse, which Chris & Ern opened in late ’94, across the road in – of course – an abandoned warehouse, supposedly to allow the Rotterdam to be refurbished. It never was, but the larger premises somehow coincided with, or helped create, a particularly thriving local scene.
I was writing for newspapers and magazines for a living by then (1994–2001) and decided to chronicle all this exciting local stuff – mostly in regional paper ‘The Irish News’, sometimes in national paper ‘The Irish Times’ – with reviews and interviews. I organised a 2CD live recording, ‘Alive in Belfast: The Warehouse Sessions’ in April 1994, which captured 12 local acts doing their thing. “Was anyone famous on it?” you ask. Well, Cara Dillon and Foy Vance are the obvious ones who forged careers a level or two up, Irish jazz kingpin Linley Hamilton is in there, as are award-winning co-writer to the stars Iain Archer and one future Snow Patroller. But everyone was great, and at the time, the big noise locally was Brian Houston – whose career had suddenly taken off on the back of one of those local radio fairy-tale situations I mentioned, when his song ‘Daddy’s Getting into Jesus Again’, an autobiographical tale based on boozing, false promises and failed redemptions in a family, struck a chord with listeners. He sold 2,000+ copies of his debut mini-album on CD, recorded with a £100 loan, on the back of it – and went on to headline every local venue right up to the Waterfront Hall (2,000+ capacity) by the end of the decade.
Last year, I joined Facebook, and on the back of that started sharing uploads of digitised music (from a box in my loft) on YouTube, from mid-90s demo cassettes, EPs, self-released CDs and local radio sessions. Suddenly, the Warehouse generation were getting in touch… In September, after a few jolly café get-togethers with musicians I mostly hadn’t seen in 20 years, I thought, ‘Let’s do a show…’ And so we did: ‘The Warehouse Remembered’ at the Pavilion Bar, Belfast. Albert Mills, a character from the Pound Club era, was already running popular events periodically at the Black Box under ‘The Pound Remembered’ banner with a load of people from the 70s doing a turn. Times for the 90s crowd to do likewise.
Yacht-rockers the Bush Turkeys, power-poppers Strawman, psychedelic scenesters Disreali Gears and the mighty Stonefish – a cauldron of pure molten rock – were joined by a one-off assemblage called Dave McLarnon’s Hat Band, featuring live music stalwart Dave ‘The Hat’ McLarnon, a founder member of Shock Treatment, Sunset, Peacefrog and doubtless others. We raised £900 for a nature charity and had a whale of a time. Warehouse proprietor (and still occasional pub gig promoter and shabby-chic drifter) Chris Roddy even dropped by, about halfway through… sporting a hat even jauntier than Dave’s and keeping his enigma intact.
A couple of months back, Pete Major, a nine-foot tall jangly-pop personality from back in the day, emailed to say that if I ever fancied running a Warehouse Remembered #2, his band, the Holsteins, would surely be up for it. Which obviously meant that I started planning WH#2. From tiny pebbles dropped in ponds, ripples happen.
This time, on 13 March 2020, we would have the Holsteins, an even more legendary one-off incarnation of Dave McLarnon’s Hat Band (playing a set of Ulster rock classics, from ‘Gloria’ to ‘Broken Land’), a quartet of South Derry’s finest songwriters (from Warehouse-era favourites Devlin Law and Asterix) in a new back-porch country-esque unit, One More Great Adventure, and no less than the Belfast Elvis, Brian Houston. Brian was up for the idea of rehearsing a unique power-trio set with punk legend Petesy Burns (the Outcasts, Stalag 17, ARSE) on drums and the Bush Turkeys’ burbling-bass behemoth Ali MacKenzie on bass – to debut songs from his sensational forthcoming high-energy blues-rock album ‘Embrace’, a side-project/standalone project credited to ‘The Presleys’.
Holsteins drummer Brian McNamara and his wife Alison run a support group for people affected by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, so we looked no further for a worthy cause.
Was it a fabulous evening of music, bonhomie, camaraderie and nostalgia? Of course it was! But it was also, like the previous one, energy-giving and inspiring in the here-and-now.
From Warehouse Remembered #1, the reunited Bush Turkeys decided to continue as a periodic concern; it’s likely that Strawman will take a similar path. Dave McLarnon, recently retired from podiatry, has found yet another band to occupy his newly expansive vista of time – with the added excitement that nobody really knows who’s in it, but almost anyone can be. At WH#2 it was Dave plus Billy Shovel (AKA Ben Trowell, Ghost of an American Airman), Norman Boyd (Stonefish, the wrath of God, the lone horseman of the apocalypse, the Marshall stack at the end of time…), Ali MacKenzie and Petesy Burns. It could barely *be* more legendary. But you never know…
At Warehouse Remembered #2, we raised £700 for the support group – a little less than I’d hoped, but genuinely useful for a small-scale, local group. The less tangible but no less important benefits, though, are around the whole experience and good vibes of the thing. The positive energy in the room was amazing. Everyone involved – audience, musicians – seemed to have a terrific time. Brian Houston, who was king of the castle back in the 90s, working mostly in North America these days, loved being ‘part of a wider community’, as he put it – something he hadn’t experienced before, having been so focused on his own career back in the day. Music lifers like Dave McLarnon, Ali MacKenzie, Petesy Burns, Norman Boyd and Ben Trowell just love playing – they have to; even though all have day jobs of one sort or another, live music is who they are. They radiate the joy of it.
The quality of songwriting and empathy from the Maghera cohort is, to my mind, astounding – four friends who did the vans, pubs, going-for-it thing back in the 90s and who are now, after years raising families and working for The Man, gathered around one magic microphone with almost no other amplification, like hillbilly Shakespeares, letting their songs command the room – and they did, they really did. The Holsteins are humble – they know they don’t have the musical chops of some of the others on the bill, but that’s not what they’re about and it never was: five people in a garage with something to say, three chords and a captivating singer in Niamh Rooney with which to say it. Their spirit and unassuming authenticity were compelling. Though we never did get that 40-minute ‘Freebird’ from Pete Major that at least one person kept going on about… 😀
The ‘Warehouse generation’ spirit was evident offstage as well. When a video guy I was depending on (I’m all for documenting things) went incommunicado during the week, my great pal Cormac O’Kane – a Warehouse commando in Britpop should-have-beens the New Brontes back then, a recording studio wizard of sound today – offered to do the needful, and turned up with two cameras and, remarkably, consumed only the one drink all evening. (I could tell you tales…) Strawman supremo Bruce McClements kindly offered to take some decent quality pics on the night, as did Pete Major’s brother David. Design guru Mark Case, who crafted many an album cover for local bands in the 90s, designed the event poster for free, though he couldn’t be there on the night. Helen McGurk, sassy scenester back in the day, currently features editor of a local paper, gave the event and the charity two pages of publicity (though was also out of the country on the night). And not least, Mickey Rafferty, vocal and songwriting sensation with the Minnows (a sleeping Warehouse-era giant that threatens a new album this very year) and currently a regional PR mogul, generously pushed out PR material for the event – even though the Minnows’ recently launched alter-ego covers act, The Handsome Princes, were playing at another venue half a mile away that very night.
I love a bit of community spirit – I did then, and I do now. With so much selfishness in the world – with major nations run by fundamentally self-serving, narcissistic people – I’m still buzzing with the positivity of last Friday. I feel sure there must be many other places in Britain and Ireland that had particularly fervent music scenes peculiar to a period of time or a venue. If that’s true of where you live, and you can reconnect with your fellow scenesters from that period, I would encourage you to do so – to send out some ripples in the pond and see what comes of it. Get the band back together, be on a mission from God – just find something to peg a night of positive energy on! It’s a door to a happier time, and a happier way of being in the present day.
We just about got away with it in terms of timing – Brian Houston’s own solo show at another local venue this weekend, alas, has been cancelled due to Coronavirus fears – and like many other professional troubadours, that will cause a month of pain for his way of life. The Pavilion Bar itself has cancelled events this week. Maybe we’d have raised a bit more had there been no Coronavirus threat, but I’m relieved that we went ahead and did some good. It’s not just about money, it’s about community. As someone who too often gets too focused on the cashflow aspects of self-employed life, I’m taking note of that myself!