It’s now over a year since the last of Christchurch’s two major earthquake events brought the city quite literally to its knees, necessitating the closure of the CBD area, and along with it most of the city’s live music venues. That time has seen disputes and frustrating delays but as 2012 gets going properly, so too has the Garden City’s entertainment scene started to return to life. First some of the inner city venues then Lyttelton’s Wunderbar. There’s life in the old girl yet. Marcus Winstanley who, in his spare time, is the Programme Leader of Live Sound and Event Production at MAINZ in Christchurch, agreed to undertake the ambitious task of giving NZM readers a round-up of the current live music scene from a gigging musician’s viewpoint.
I’d doubt, in the history of Christchurch, there has ever been a year of change like 2011; change that was keenly felt by Christchurch’s small but busy local music scene. The Christchurch CBD was mostly destroyed and EQC is still in the process of dismantling numerous unsafe old buildings and new buildings alike.
Inner city music venues like The Bedford, Al’s Bar, Goodbye Blue Monday and The Media Club were all completely destroyed on February 22nd, and until access is granted and repairs undergone, the Dux De Lux and Isaac Theatre Royal are unusable.
The effect this has had will be felt for years to come, as not only are the venues in upheaval, so too the other organisations that feed our industry. Tertiary institutions like MAINZ, CPIT Jazz School and Broadcasting School and high school performing arts faculties, which are all lower on numbers than normal, some still operating from temporary premises until cleared to re-enter their facilities.
But as we close in on 2012’s NZ Music Month it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact quite the opposite. Immediately after the quakes the serious lack of live music saw house parties and clandestine cocktail bars in student flats hosting live music. Al Park of Al’s Bar began putting on shows at the Lyttelton Yacht Club and the town’s promoters moved further afield to the likes of The Venue in Hornby. Many of the older venues took the opportunity to take on something new or build their businesses into something bigger and better.
Dragging itself from the rubble of the Arts Centre and relocating to Addington, the Dux De Lux, or at least a part of it, opened in January. The newly named Dux Live (pictured above) is aimed squarely at fans of live, original music and the former warehouse has been purpose-built into a live performance venue. True to Dux style, it offers much more besides, including The Dux’s own range of beers, an upstairs mezzanine and a yakatori kitchen.
The original Dux De Lux has some quite minor damage and is still standing in the Red Zone and the Arts Centre Council are on record as saying there is a place for the Dux when the Arts Centre reopens. But like so much of the inner city, timeframes are still unknown. Lucky for us, the Dux hasn’t waited around to see what’s going to happen.
Both the Dux’s owner Richard Sinke and manager Ross Herrick harbour a deep dedication to providing musos with a place to perform original music and their vision was to build the venue around the stage as a centrepiece. Surrounding the stage, but up a level, a mezzanine floor provides patrons with views of the stage and some shelter if it gets too loud. There’s a bar and couches up there too.
Pumping a full 40% of their build budget into the acoustic treatment and sound system, Dux Live sounds great. Hung from the ceiling is a state-of-the-art KV2 sound system providing clean, powerful and consistent sound throughout the venue. And the Lincoln Road premises are bigger than the original Dux with a capacity of 300.
Since opening Dux Live has hosted a number of bands including Guitar Wolf, Mountaineater, An Emerald City – that as well as a whole bunch of local acts. It is also branching out into dance music and has acoustic sets on Sundays.
The Darkroom is perhaps Christchurch’s best-kept live music secret. Situated at 366 St Asaph Street between Madras and Fitzgerald Streets, it’s currently the only venue within the CBD and definitely the closest to the red zone. Across the road is Gopal’s Vegetarian Restaurant and across the lobby in the same building is Galaxy Records. The Darkroom didn’t exist before the February earthquake and is built into an old warehouse. It’s owned and was pretty much hand-built by Bang Bang Eche bassist T’Nealle Worsley and her partner Jasper Bryant-Greene. All the beers are from boutique micro-breweries and, as Jasper points out, all have been enjoyed by the owners and come highly recommended!
As a venue The Darkroom is tiny, and this is a good thing. With a maximum capacity of 48, gigs are intimate and suited to smaller, quieter acts that have a more alternative bent. Loud bands play there too. Somehow it never feels ridiculously full but also never feels too empty. Some standout gigs from acts like French For Rabbits, Bang Bang Eche, Shenandoah Davis, Bachelorette, C Spencer Yeh and Disasteradio have set the musical vibe of the space, and Jasper and T’Nealle have hosted special events like wine and cheese fundraisers for African orphans.
In keeping with Christchurch tradition, they don’t seem to allow a door charge and they don’t pay a huge guarantee, but according to Jasper the reasoning behind this is that they don’t have the capacity for large touring acts that need the money anyway. They prefer acts that are mostly not in it for the money or who like the vibe of the space. Fair call.
The performance space is quite small, but raised on a sturdy rostrum and fits a four-piece band if the amps and drum kit aren’t too big. They have a vocal PA with a 6-channel desk and a couple of monitors. Since you don’t need to mic anything except the vocals it’s like watching a band playing in their practice room which is pretty cool, I reckon.
The Bedford’s aim has always been to provide larger scale NZ and smaller international touring acts with a decent place to play in Christchurch, providing concert-sized sound and lighting rigs and space for around 1000 people. Under trying circumstances since September 2010, owner Wendy Newland has done an incredible job of getting these types of acts back into Christchurch and she should be commended for it. Acts including Shihad, Six60, I Am Giant, David Dallas, The Black Seeds and Roots Manuva have all played or are going to play soon and many nights are a sell-out.
The only problem is that there just aren’t any buildings in Christchurch where you can put 1000 partying fans. Not a one. There is however a glut of empty lots once occupied by buildings, so Wendy erected a large marquee at 86 Moorhouse Ave and started putting on events there in March. Last year she was situated in Colombo St doing a similar thing. The cool thing about being in a tent is that it feels like you’re at an outdoor party, so it’s something a little bit different for the city kids that you can still catch a taxi home from.
Unfortunately, though, this raises another problem. Tents also tend to have quite thin walls and as such, bass tends to escape and travel long distances and keep the last few inner city red zone-huggers awake in their beds. Complaints have led to Wendy’s resource consent being revoked and Christchurch’s only large contemporary music venue is again a thing of the past.
As I’m writing this, the fate of The Bedford is unknown. Wendy has run the last couple of shows at the CPSA building on Madras Street, but that won’t be big enough for Shihad. Hopefully news is good.
At the end of March this year, The Wunderbar (pictured above) had its grand re-, re-, re-opening. Closed three times since September 4th 2010, the last year and a half haven’t been the easiest for owners Andrew Bishop and Deb Copeland. Remarkably they’ve taken it all in their stride and with a lot of work and a lot of love, Christchurch has its most eccentric bar and venue back.
The Wunderbar is in Lyttelton; the port town about 20 minutes drive from what used to be the centre of Christchurch. Lyttelton was hit extremely hard by the quake of February 22nd and again in the strong July aftershocks. Many of its wonderful historic buildings have been demolished since, including many bars and restaurants but also The Harbourlight Café and El Santo Muerto, Lyttelton’s two other great music venues. However, being built in more modern times, The Wunderbar building easily withstood all the shaking, only losing a bit of cladding and needing its outside stairwells brought up to code.
The Wunderbar is still pretty much the same inside – quirky decorations, kitsch paintings, mannequins, ’60s lampshades and in-house music via old turntables playing anything from Flying Nun classics to B52s.
The venue is called The Backroom and is separated from the main bar by a short hallway where bands usually set up merchandise and take entry fees. The room itself is a beautiful, dark-red carpeted room with red lamps along the walls and an insane… contraption… that hangs from the ceiling made of circuit boards, stage lights and mirror balls. It’s been there for years, nobody questions it. The Backroom takes 122 patrons and there is a PA system with subs, so you can mic up the whole band if you bring your own mics. The stage isn’t huge, but you can fit a drum kit.
It’s really a great place to play and to watch live music, especially at the local level or smaller touring bands – obviously it’s not big enough for major acts – but always feels well populated even for bands with smaller audiences. And the décor is something else. A gig at The Wunderbar is always an occasion.
Honourable mentions should also go to a number of other venues that have cropped up in Christchurch’s time of need. Not least The Brewery on Garland’s Road in Woolston which, in June, was the first bar to open up and take the ‘gig-bar’ mantle from the Dux and Al’s Bar. They’re still putting on gigs but have gotten a little quieter over the past couple of months as other venues have cropped up. It has a nice PA with mics and sound operator provided and pays a generous guarantee too so it’s a no brainer for musicians.
Music doesn’t start until 11pm when the restaurant closes. The Brewery’s owners intend getting more heavily into the music scene with major plans to build a shopping complex on their large site that would also include a 400-500 capacity venue. Al Park of Al’s Bar will manage the venue when it’s up and running.
Filling in the hole left by The Bedford after the quake was The Venue at The Equestrian Hotel in far-flung Hornby. The Venue is still open every weekend and does a lot of hard rock, metal and dance music. It has a capacity of about 300 but you have to hire the PA.
Looking after the young’uns, Zebedees Nightspot has been at its 479 Blenheim Road address since 2004. It’s a 400 capacity all ages alcohol-free venue that is in constant demand in the weekends for gigs but also throughout the week by bands wanting a place to practice. Steve White has managed the space voluntarily since it opened and in that time literally, tens of thousands of kids have played, practised or watched music at Zeb’s.