TAITMAIL Small is beautiful
By Patrick Kelly, Northern Editor
A few months before Covid hit I found myself in Sheffield with some time to kill before I could catch a train home, and wandered down a little city centre lane into a place called Trippet’s Lounge Bar.
Nestled in its wood panelled cosy ambience, I ordered a drink and was soon treated to a set by an amazing band of jazz musicians. Not wanting to leave, I decided to have something to eat. One delicious meal, a few more drinks and some of the best jazz music I have heard for ages later, I realised how late it was and… just about, managed to catch the last train.
So I was dismayed to hear a little while ago that Trippet’s was in real danger of closing as a result of the pandemic-induced crisis which has got many a hospitality venue. Owners Debbie and Carl Shaw, who had ploughed their life savings into the venture, were facing bankruptcy.
It made me think again about the vital contribution that these little, commercially run venues make to the artistic and cultural life of their home cities. I thought of places like Pat’s Bar and the Rotterdam in my home city of Belfast and the part they played in helping the local population live through the darkest days of the Troubles, when most discos were closed and live music was as rare as an Orange parade in the Vatican.
Pat’s Bar and The Rotterdam were pubs, pure and simple, but their enlightened landlords knew that providing a stage for local musicians of all genres was not only a commercially clever move, it also created a safe space for young people of all traditions to gather and support their more musically talented friends and relatives. But just as importantly, and they may not even have realised it, mine hosts also threw a lifeline to an emerging musical culture that was in danger of disappearing through lack of exposure. These two bars - and the Pound Loney Club - paved the way for the thriving arts scene that Belfast now enjoys.
Not only that. When licensing rules changed to allow longer opening hours if entertainment was provided, the Rotterdam diversified into theatre and became the crucible of an alternative theatre scene which up to then had struggled to find an audience. At its height, in the late 80s and early 90s, the pub’s fame attracted a regular clientele as well as an ever-shifting crowd of tourists and sailors, misfits and musicians. Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy jammed there before continuing a long musical collaboration. Local actors adopted the place, and despite its location in the derelict docks area of the city, the likes of Julie Christie and Bill Murray would drop in after a day’s filming.
Places like these existed all over the country. Little bars and restaurants, clubs and community centres with their cramped stages and dodgy PA systems played, and continue to play, as vital a role in our cultural life as large theatres, concert halls and arts centres with all their advantages of sophisticated lighting and acoustics. They are, as one commentator has it, the R&D arm of the music industry. No less a personage than Paul McCartney said of venues like the Cavern Club, which played such a major role in the rise of the Beatles: “Artists need places to start out, develop and work on their craft and small venues have been the cornerstone for this”.
Recent surveys have shown that small venues are also the most popular way for audiences to access live music. Never mind the massive arenas and stadiums, 78% of respondents to one survey said they had attended one in the previous 12 months, far in excess of those who had queued for tickets to Wembley, or the 02.
Local live music also encourages tourism. As the owner of Camden Town’s Dublin Castle puts it, “We get people travelling from Japan who come to The Dublin Castle because they know that Amy Winehouse played here and she used to frequent the bar”.
So it’s good news that the pandemic seems to have prompted a recognition of the importance of these small venues to the arts ecosystem. Commercial venues have been able to access the Cultural Recovery Fund and Arts Council England has specifically recognised their value with its £2.5 million Grassroots Venues Emergency Fund.
The Cultural Recovery Fund has ridden to the rescue of Trippet’s with a lifesaving £110,000 grant. Together with the crowdfunding campaign that means that the much-loved venue will continue to host students and pensioners, gin drinkers and pint swillers and those who just love to hear live jazz.
“There’s no doubt this grant has saved our business” says Trippet’s Debbie Shaw “and we’re proud that our contribution to the cultural life of Sheffield and the wider region has been recognised by the Arts Council.”
Amen to that.