Uncrushed by corporate greed: how these Hull music venues overcame Covid-19

By December 11, 2020 December 12th, 2020 Hull, News

We all love a good underdog story, don’t we?

In Hull this year we’ve seen shocking closures of major venues and a huge rise in unemployment in the live entertainment sector. Welly club – the biggest, most popular music venue in Hull shut its doors in July. The Polar Bear soon followed suit.

Yet on Spring Bank West, one small, grassroots music venue remains open – a lighthouse in a chilling storm of closures and cuts. Hull local and ex-Boathouse member Jayney Wright’s beloved Off The Road Live Lounge has prevailed against all odds, furloughing all staff during lockdown and attracting a growing number of customers as restrictions lift. 

Though not as well-known as the aforementioned clubs, this venue has been a quiet guardian over various successful Hull bands and musicians. Having harboured La Bête Blooms, The Vialetters, The Froot, and Kahuna, this gem of a venue has been monumental in propping up’s Hull’s music scene.

I spoke to Dan Mawer of upcoming synth-rock band Low Hummer, about what Off The Road has done for him and his music career:

“Off The Road gave me my first opportunities to play live!” Dan exclaims. “First as a solo musician, and then as a band member in various music projects.

“Back then (many years ago now!) Off The Road was a promotion company based in a variety of venues.

“In La Bête Blooms, my first band, we had the privilege of playing lots of different stages with OTR, which helped us take our very first steps together.

“Off The Road always provided a safe environment with a community of music lovers who were incredibly supportive.”

Zach Penrose from Hull band The Froot, (also employed by Jayney Wright as bar staff) added to the praise:

“The venue is a great place for artists in Hull as many know each other from the music scene go regularly, but personally the owner Jayney would put gigs and festivals on in and around the city. When my band The Froot was first starting out she gave us loads of gig experience and confidence and promoted us from the start! We are always grateful for it. 

“As the Covid rules started to kick in with the table service and track and trace I found it difficult at first as bar staff to keep up with it, however we all quickly adapted to it and it soon became normal…I suppose.”

But Off The Road isn’t the only grassroots Hull venue that successful Hull musicians speak highly of. Dan Mawer also sings praises for The New Adelphi Club, one of the longest running music venues in Hull, having hosted rock giants such as Oasis, The Stone Roses and Radiohead.

“When I first started making music,” says Dan Mawer. “I’d turn up every Monday for their open mic night which remains one my favourite acoustic nights in the city. 

“It was, and still is free entry on a Monday, with some amazing musicians popping down to try new material on an audience.

“Sometimes the place was packed and sometimes it was empty, the diversity of the audience and performers each week helped me learn to cope playing live in lots of different situations!

“The venue also booked incredible, inspiring, and often fairly bonkers bands that I could go and watch, sometimes for the price of a Diet Coke, which was good because I’ve never had money for more than that on a night out.

 “A gig that seriously moved me in a grassroots venue was Josh T Pearson at the Adelphi club. I had the chance to support him and he was a lovely man, with some gorgeous songs that had a packed Adelphi Club stunned into silence. Attracting a talent like that to Hull is what Adelphi does best.”

A linking factor in both venues is their cherished open mics, which cover poetry and spoken word, as well as musical acts. 

OTR hosts Hull’s most successful spoken word open mic night – Away With Words (run by East Hull punk poet Jim Higo) – has blossomed in this cosy yet eccentric venue. Though Away With Words has moved online and continues to prosper on Zoom, several of the poets and attendees loyally pop into Off The Road for food or drink, embraced as if with strong arms by the warm, welcoming atmosphere. 

When I spoke to Higo, he reiterated that Grass roots venues are “essential” to the performance poetry scene. 

“They provide a stage for new and novice poets looking to get started and for established performers to test new material and hone their skills,” Higo states. “There are diverse and varied shows and open mic opportunities at both venues that suit most spoken word styles and genres.  Venues like Off The Road and The Adelphi Club are vital in ensuring writers poets and performers have a welcoming, informal and non-judgmental platform to share their work and develop their passion for performance .” 

Even I have a positive personal experience of Off The Road’s encouraging hospitality. When I was a shaky, stuttering, shy poet writing shocking verses and weak lines, OTR and Away With Words gave me the stage to build my confidence. Months later, Jayney watched me progress into a poet confident enough to perform as a support act for musicians. 

So, what can music venue owners learn from Jayney Wright?

What is Off The Road’s secret to long-lasting success?

Sacrifice. Self-sacrifice. 

“I have been sacrificing [my] hours and wages so I could employ others etc for nearly two and a half years or so, because I have only paid myself a part time wage,” admits Jayney. “More often than not, I have missed out paying myself to pay others so I only claim so much for myself to live on – which doesn’t pay my household bills but luckily I have a couple of people living with me, so I’ve managed to just have enough to pay my bills.

“I tell you running a business isn’t what’s it’s cracked up to be – the owners are the last ones to be paid and if there is no money left at the end of the week then the owner doesn’t get paid.  I’d be okay if I was a rich owner.”

What makes Jayney’s venue a beloved part of Hull’s music community is its investment in Hull’s beginner music scene. Jayney pays young bands accordingly instead of expecting them to play for exposure alone. Not only that, but she has offered up the venue for free to those who can pitch a good live entertainment night. Sound tech included. Amazing, right? 

I haven’t even got to the food yet. 

As Zach Penrose says, “I recommend the food from the venue! All fresh…cooked properly with care! With a very quirky vegan/veggie menu! I personally dig the cheese sauce or “rare bitchin sauce” on chips…bangin!” 

Undoubtedly, food and drink has been monumental to this venue’s success. With the lowest priced item being chips at £2, and their highest price item (Sunday roast) being marked at £8 or two for £14, the venue offers quality food and drink without putting a dent in your bank account. The temporary rebranding of the live lounge as a restaurant and bar due to pandemic restrictions and the imposed limitations on capacity has meant Off The Road has adapted brilliantly in the face of uncertainty. With the future of gigs and touring being very up in the air at the moment, many music venues are following suit and rebranding as restaurants and bars in the meantime, including Gorilla in Manchester who have recently been taken over by Tokyo Industries. According to some Gorilla bar staff, the venue plans to reopen within the next few weeks as the government rethinks tiers. There is even the possibility of Gorilla using the venue for socially distanced gigs, talks and film screenings.

Prior to tier 3 being imposed, The Adelphi Club had successfully put on several outdoor socially distanced gigs – something that may well be brought back in the new year. After speaking to Mat Oliphant, the events manager of the Adelphi Club I was left in high spirits about the club’s future. As the venue is classified as a community interest company (CIC), they have been able to receive funding from the Arts Council and have been able to furlough the majority of staff during the pandemic. Currently, Adelphi plans to reopen in the new year but is still selling merchandise online. Oliphant also mentioned talks about making the venue more accessible, with the installation of a disabled toilet being a real possibility in 2021. He also revealed a new art installation by Jimmy Cauty (who used to be in the band The KLF) will be available for 10 minute viewing slots in the next few months; his work had been featured in Banksy’s Dismaland a few years ago. 

“I’ve had a sneak peek of it and its absolutely amazing” says Oliphant. “That’s something everyone should get down and have a look at.”

The Adelphi has the Independent Venue Week coming up in January which is always quite big for the club – in the past they have had the likes of Public Service Broadcasting and Fatboy Slim, but a lot of next year’s acts will be livestreamed. 

“We have got some very big acts that were going to happen this year, that are still happening next year. One chap who was going to be playing at Bonus arena said he was gonna come and do us a secret gig first – let’s put it that way. You can work that one out,” hints Oliphant. 

So, what can we learn from Hull’s surviving grassroots?

Passion and community will be the cornerstone to surviving in uncertain times, venue owners who are music-driven as opposed to money-driven will prevail because of their investment in others, through self-sacrifice whether that be in time or resources, both venues and owners have knit together a solid support system that will not see either venue go under. 

As Dan Mawer says, “If the Polar Bear and Welly had stayed in Hull people’s hands, who knows what would have happened! But Off The Road and The Adelphi have both shown longevity Is possible with hard work and a constant engagement with the local community.

“My biggest hope is that we can identify that running these venues is very difficult, especially in a city like Hull where the vast majority of people are living on small incomes and can’t afford to support live music every week.

“A support network across the country needs to be further established to make sure we keep as many music venues open as possible. That’s happened a lot more this year thanks to organisations like the Music Venue Trust raising awareness that venues need help.”

Despite all the closures, Mat Oliphant is confident that Hull will recover and encourages more artists to get in contact with the Adelphi as restrictions lift and a vaccine rolls out. 

“Hull’s got such a thriving scene, when we start back up again I want to see more young bands, older bands, whatever I don’t care, DJs, producers, theatre companies – just send us an email and hire the place,” insists Oliphant. “‘Cos if you’re local as well it’s a lot cheaper ‘cos we’re a community interest company.”

With regards to local bands interested in booking gigs at the Adelphi, Oliphant offers some valuable advice:

“I would look up a similar band from Liverpool/ Manchester/ Glasgow and I’d send an email saying we’ll put you on at The Adelphi if you put us on at your gaff – like a gig swap. So, you get them over, pay them the nominal £50 fee at the Adelphi, take all your money on the door, give the other band some money, two weeks later you go play a gig in Liverpool with them. That’s what used to happen all the time but then this idea of an agent like someone else has to do the booking for you, or you have to go through a booker or promotion company or promoter – just do it yourself! It’s called DIY music for a reason. Do it yourself and I want to see loads more of that next year, as people will be dying to play a show and come see a show.”

Though we’ve lost some major venues this year it’s not all doom and gloom for Hull. Off The Road and the New Adelphi Club just show how music venues can survive, even thrive when in the hands of passionate, community-driven individuals. 

As Dan Mawer says about Jayney Wright: “Her work in the city can quite often go unnoticed, but her eye for weird and wonderful music, poetry, and comedy and all things artistic has built an everlasting community of people who support each other and develop new artists regularly in Hull. She’s always shone a spotlight for people from all sorts of backgrounds and that’s hugely important.”

For more on The New Adelphi Club, visit: https://www.facebook.com/TheNewAdelphiClub

For more on Off The Road visit: https://www.facebook.com/offtheroad.hull

Words: Jemima Mitra