The Seed Ensemble were the last band I saw live, back on a Sunday evening in March at Glasgow’s Glad Café.
Led by alto-saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, the ten-strong group of young Londoners are a shining example of why the UK’s thriving jazz community is attracting so much attention: fusing musical traditions from Africa and the Caribbean, celebrating black British culture, and taking on contemporary political and social issues. It’s exciting and progressive – to see them is to feel a rush of adrenaline. For a non musical, reason it was different to the other shows I had been to in 2020. Different because I knew it would be a long time before there was another.
Today, The Glad opens its doors for the first time since the pandemic enforced period of closure kicked in. It means residents of the city’s southside can swing by for a beer or a coffee in the café, but it’ll be a while before we’re watching a Mercury nominated jazz act in the 150 capacity venue. It’ll be a while before we’re able to witness live music of any description. Strictly speaking, the new normal means the bar staff can’t even stick a playlist on.. And while that might change any day now, it’s hard to put a timescale on the return of live music in Scotland.
‘It is extremely hard to say’, says Joe Smillie, The Glad Café’s Creative Director, when I ask if he has any idea when we can expect to see gigs back. ‘We obviously don’t want to put on events that put our staff, artists and of course our customers at risk, so we are not in a hurry to get going again while COVID19 remains a massive issue.’ Smillie is currently rescheduling dates for the Spring of 2021. ‘I’d be delighted if we could get going properly around that kind of time,’ he adds, cautiously.
Where’s the life line?
This is a long time for The Glad Café to survive with an integral part of its business model taken away – and this is a place that, although it is an important artistic hub, isn’t entirely dependent on the live music industry to bring punters through the door. What about the places that are devoted entirely to the previously ceaseless cycle of touring acts and local shows? What about nightclubs? While there have been some successful crowdfunding campaigns to help (The Hug and Pint were quick off the mark, and the support shown worldwide for the Subclub was astonishing, such schemes are solutions only in the short-term, temporary measures – helpful and potentially life saving to be sure – but temporary. Government support is essential, which is where the Music Venue Trust has proven its worth.
‘Without their lobbying, advice and support most of your favourite venues would already be throwing in the towel,’ Smillie says of the MVT, ‘and the Government would not have stumped up the money you’ve heard about.’ The Glad are set to benefit from what Smillie describes as ‘a fraction of the millions the Scottish Government have to spend on cultural venues’. This will help keep The Glad afloat, but Smillie continues to look out for more funding schemes, such is the precarious position he, and his venue, are in. It’s stressful and often frustrating. ‘The Grassroots Music Venues Stabilisation Fund has only just opened for applications even though the £97m was announced at the start of July! That isn’t really good enough. Things have to move quicker so more businesses don’t go bust.’
What will remain of the live music industry when it’s safe to open the doors to venues, either as socially distanced operations or – a distant hope – as they once were? Will there still be an appetite for shows? Or will we be so accustomed to entertaining ourselves in the comfort of our own homes? I ask Smillie if this is a concern: ‘I think people want to get back to seeing live bands again,’ he laughs. ‘There is something incredibly special about being in the crowd, watching an act that you love, looking over at someone you don’t know, watching them cry and joining in! I love the Sopranos but it’s not the same, is it?’
In the eye of the storm
Ronan Kealy, better known by his stage name Junior Brother, spent the first half of the year gallivanting around Europe with The Murder Capital, before a run of his own headline gigs took him up and down the UK. His Glasgow show in February took place slapbang in the eye of Storm Brendan, a lifetime ago, and on reflection a comparatively benign force of disruption.
He was grateful for some down time, if anxious about the virus and its impact. As well as chilling out, Kealy’s used the last six months to finish recording the follow up to 2019’s Pull The Right Rope, his brilliantly idiosyncratic debut album that, along with a captivating live show marks him as one of his country’s most exciting folk musicians. ‘I was up in Analogue Catalogue (Julie McLarnon’s vintage recording studio in County Down) recording the next record,’ he says, ‘we were in the middle of it when the lockdown hit. So by the time things lifted and I went back in, we got pretty much everything tracked – such was the time I had to tweak all the arrangements during quarantine!’
I’m curious to talk to Kealy. He’s the only person I know, who has played a gig in recent times – a socially distanced double header in Cork back in July. Could this be a viable option for Scotland? Something that could give venues a shot in the arm while we wait for the fabled vaccination and the all clear for business as usual? Kealy is positive about the experience. ‘I did two shows in one night in the Kino, a fantastic converted cinema. The Good Room, who put the show on, really did an amazing job keeping everyone safe and sticking to the guidelines. So much so, you would wonder why live venues have not been entrusted more to put on more shows, given how successful these ones were.’
Dreamers on the run
Closer to home, Carla J Easton is celebrating the release of her most recent album WEIRDO, now one week old. Two years in the making, it was more or less ready for release when lockdown hit. ‘It’s become so ingrained in me that you have to perform live in order to promote your work and make people aware of it, especially after the work has been released,’ Easton tells me. ‘My big worry is what life my album will have in this strange new world. I spent two years working on it and getting it to the point where I thought “this is finished and I am ready to share it”. Touring or performing a record once it’s released is part of the celebration of a finished body of work – for me anyway. Like exhibiting a piece of art. It leaves the studio and takes on a life of it’s own and in new spaces takes on new meaning. My album won’t have that.’
Easton is a resilient character. While not being able to play live has obvious downsides, she’s launched a fanclub called Dreamers on the Run where fans are able to support her financially in exchange for merchandise, exclusive artwork and invitations to intimate listening parties. ‘I was quite honest in my reasons for doing it,’ she says. ‘When you are DIY, though it is a lot of hard work, you quickly realise that you aren’t alone and people want to help you and support you.’
It’s something, but it’s not the real thing, and no substitute for the highs and lows of live performance. ‘I miss drums,’ she begins. ‘ I miss that a lot. I miss being in a tiny studio with my band rehearsing. I miss ringing ears after a show and being euphorically tired. I miss the community of live music – all the people that make it happen and all the people you meet. I miss going to a gig and making friends with someone and the only basis for that friendship starting is that you were in the same room at the same time celebrating the music you love.’ And the bad? ‘I don’t miss the constant promotion and worry of how many tickets I’ve sold. Or the financial stress of whether or not I lose money, break even or turn a small profit from performing – usually I’m the latter. But mostly I miss being able to do my job. Which is to get on stage, plug in my synth and sing for people.’
Let’s get the ball rolling
Kealy’s testimony excites me. There’s no end in sight to COVID19. No definite end point. There are predictions based on science, and hard work being done in that community, but nothing is agreed and nothing is guaranteed. We continue to play the waiting game. In the interim it makes sense for there to be some sort of solution. The Eat Out To Help Out was a great boost to the hospitality industry, albeit making a larger dent in Rishi Sunak’s budget than was expected. Is there an option for a similar scheme to boost venues? Or is there no money for such a scheme (with it all sitting in the accounts of tech billionaires who, you know, think we should all just work harder). The socially distanced show won’t work for everyone – but it would work for many. Even if venues like The Glad Café are only able to welcome 30% of their usual crowd, it would get the ball rolling, gets engineers working, get musicians like Carla J. Easton doing their jobs again.
Kealy says nobody criticised him or anyone at the Kino for embarking on their endeavour to navigate the choppy waters of a public health crisis and find a solution. ‘The venue did such a great job distancing everyone and presented the space so well that in any footage or photos, it was quite clear all regulations were being followed,’ he says. While the experiment was a success, it’s not quite become the norm yet in the Republic. ‘There haven’t been many gigs, no,’ Kealy admits. ‘Some socially distanced gigs are starting to happen though, most recently in Dublin, with a max of fifty people indoors I think. You’d like to think these kinds of shows are a stopgap to keep the industry going until things get back to normal. The optimist in me says that will be the case.’ The optimist in me yearns for something similar.
Junior Brother – Full of Wine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0i6Ojm9P5c
Carla J. Easton – Never Knew You https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPmFIrlXzBg