Wedgewood Rooms celebrates 20 years with national recognition

The Subways who appeared at The Wedgewood Rooms
The Subways who appeared at The Wedgewood Rooms
Sara Gohl  is determined to be an inspiration to her son. and below,, Sara, Robin, and husband Richard in France before her cancer diagnosis, in 2015

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Imagine Annie Lennox singing in your lounge while you watch from the sofa, or The Kinks rocking in the kitchen as you eat your morning toast.

Admittedly it’s highly unlikely, but the proximity and intensity would be a heck of a buzz because music is invariably better in small places. Being close to top performers creates an unbeatable atmosphere.

Geoff Priestley

Geoff Priestley

One such small place (though with big ideas and a big reputation) is the Wedgewood Rooms in Albert Road, Southsea, which has been shortlisted in a competition organised by music publication NME to seek out the best small music venues.

The magazine reckons it’s about time they were recognised for offering a very different experience to stadiums, arenas, theatres and halls.

With small venues up and down the country being forced to close because of increased rents, licensing costs, tax hikes and the march of online listening, the value and vitality they bring has never needed broadcasting so badly.

The Wedge, as it’s fondly known, has been a jewel in this city’s crown for two decades, a bastion of live music and comedy, whether local, international, up-and-coming or critically-acclaimed.

Steve Pitt, chairman of the Culture Partnership, a committee which advises and lobbies Portsmouth City Council, is delighted that the Wedge has gained some hard-earned national recognition.

Steve says; ‘It is absolutely vital to the music scene down here. Without it, there wouldn’t be a music scene.’

Everyone of a certain age from Portsmouth has a Wedge memory, whether Oasis in the spring of 1994, Flaming Lips in the winter of 1999. The Strokes at the beginning of 2001 or Razorlight in the middle of 2004.

The no-frills policy in place at the Wedge is one reason behind the venue’s popularity. Another is its dedicated workforce.

General manager Geoff Priestley is quick to stress the critical role played by his staff.

He says: ‘The venue has a small team of hard-working, dedicated and unsung staff, whose love of good live music, not economic gain, is the motivation.’

That dedication, as well as its enduring ability to attract quality acts, has rightly put the Wedge in the running for the NME prize.

But promoter Ian Binnington is keen to stress that the NME initiative is less about picking a winner and more about highlighting a common challenge faced by all small venues.

‘It is of course a great commendation to be shortlisted,’ he says.

‘It’s a good reflection on the city and its cultural life, but what the NME is doing, regardless of the outcome of the prize, is highlighting the importance of small local venues.’

One only has to think of big supermarket chains replacing specialised stores, or local pubs closing their doors, or the march of the franchise café, to see that small independent establishments, in whatever field, are an endangered species.

Independence needs to be protected and respected, says Ian, if a vibrant and progressive musical culture is to survive.

He adds: ‘The independent aspect is important. The corporatisation of music and music venues threatens development and stifles creativity.’

NME editor Krissi Murison says: ‘Small venues play an extremely important role in nurturing talent, which NME is very proud to support. It’s in all of the UK music industry’s interest for small venues to prosper.’

And let us not forget that the Wedge has an Edge, an intimate, 100-capacity mini-venue, too. The Edge is currently running an ‘acoustic showcase’, where local performers turn up and perform in a relaxed and supportive environment. The semi-finals of the showcase take place on June 21 and 28, with the final to be held in the main venue on July 28

But the Wedge doesn’t only nurture talent; it hosts plenty of seasoned performers as well. How does such a petite establishment pull in the big names? Geoff is sure that the efforts taken by those at the Wedge to look after the artists when they first come to perform pays dividends.

‘We try always to be amiable and friendly when dealing with artists. Rapport is important. We make a good impression on artists when they are starting out in their career, and they are happy to come back to us later on.’

Other shortlisted venues include Concorde 2 in Brighton and The Joiners in Southampton – both of which are also independently-run. Is it a coincidence that independence is so often married with quality?

Should the Wedge win the south east heat, it will go forward into the national final. The eventual winner will be chosen by an NME-assembled panel of experts, including artists, promoters and agents.

To vote go to nme.com. Voting closes tomorrow night.