A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to experience three great gigs a few days apart, each in a completely different type of venue, in a very different type of architecture. The venue size increased as the days passed culminating with a large-scale 10,000 capacity arena. This gave me a good opportunity to assess, admittedly on a subjective level, how each of these venues operate for live popular music performance and what are the characteristics that make them successful, an issue I have been engaged with recent writing (for my book Live Architecture, 2012, and a new essay in a forthcoming book Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience, 2014).
The first gig was the smallest in size, held at Liverpool’s Kazimier club. I love this place, small enough for every gig to be intimate and to host local acts, but large enough to attract bands that are sufficiently established to have a sizeable national, or even international, following. The Kazimier also seems to be a good luck venue for me as every act I have seen there has been great, and I mean not not just good… great.
I bought my tickets for alt-country band Lambchop as soon as they came out, relishing the fact I would get to see them in a small place, as last time they had come to the city it had been in a 2,000 seat auditorium (more of which later). Would they even fit on the stage, at least six musicians, each of which was a multi-instrumentalist? But they squeezed in, so much so that they couldn’t or wouldn’t struggle up the precipitous steps in full view towards the back of the stage to go off and on again for the obligatory encore. These steps are not the only quirky feature of this venue, which is in a converted theatre. The audience space has multiple floor levels with platforms at the back ensuring a good view for all. A deep balcony runs around the wall, the two sides joined by a catwalk that you can traverse behind the sound engineer and DJ station. There’s a shop, bars upstairs and down, and a multi-level garden at the back of the venue which has its own bars and a stage. Art Deco railings left over from the club’s previous life accentuate the place’s mixed history, although like many night clubs, created and operated on a budget, it has a generally nondescript interior decoration, typical of cost-conscious reconfigurations of spaces designed for night time use where lighting and sound systems have priority.
The venue works equally well when set up cabaret style with tables and chairs (The Handsome Family was a memorable gig for me experienced this way) or for raucous stage-front moshing (The Battles as loud and exciting as a night like this can be). The club would not be described as ‘architecture’ in the conventional sense – it is a built space that has been cobbled together from what was available, but it can be ascertained that its character has benefited from this adaptation of a building designed for a quite different purpose, but with the essential attributes of being the right size, in the right location, and with sufficient malleability to accommodate the required changes. The smallness of the venue makes it a forgiving one in that you will always be close to the person on stage, and its uniqueness, different from the usual low ceilinged cellar or echo-laden shed, enhances its original and some might describe it as historic charisma.
For Lambchop, whose music is quiet and contemplative, the audience were all but silent, hanging on each note and whispered word from Kurt Wagner, erupting into applause at the end of each number. I saw the band previously at the 1930s classical auditorium, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (which incidentally was the venue for my second gig this week). They were great there too, playing their soundtrack for the 1920s silent movie Sunrise, but that Tuesday in June, less formal and more intimate, was special.
Describing what it was like to be at this specific gig and what the Kazimier is physically like is comparatively easy, but stating what the character of the venue brought to the experience, and also how it changed it from what it might have been like in a different place is more difficult. I have written before about how the management of a venue, and simple sensitive alterations to its fabric can dramatically alter how well it works for both artists and audiences. The former include making sure the performers are cared for, ensuring they have confidence that their logistical needs are sorted, and that everything that can be done to support the quality of their performance is being done. For the audience it is that the place is safe, accessible, provides a good show, and does not exploit their good will in terms of cost of tickets and refreshments. The Kazimier, though not luxurious or architecturally outstanding, does this without a shadow of a doubt, something that is even more difficult for independent venues, which do not have the financial clout or scale of operation to compete with the AEG and Live Nation organisations, and must deal with local authority regulations and licencing alongside making sure the beer gets delivered on time and the toilets work.