Live shows make their comeback with music, comedy and more

What was the last show you went to? Was it a comedy gig where you roared with laughter at the performer’s jokes?

Saturday, 22nd August 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Saturday, 22nd August 2020, 10:14 am
Live comedy at The Farmer Inn in Catherington on August 8. James Alderson warms up the crowd for Chris McCausland, Cally Beaton and Russell Kane. Picture by: Paul Jacobs/pictureexclusive.com

Or a gig where you stood shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers singing along to a favourite song?

Or maybe it was an uplifting musical in a theatre?

Whatever it was, it all came to a halt on March 20 as the government ordered all venues – along with pubs and restaurants – to close as the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic began to become apparent.

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But now, shows are starting slowly to return in open spaces – large pub gardens or fields, or even car parks.

Since Thursday, Portsmouth City Council has teamed up with The Wedgewood Rooms and other local acts and promoters to put on six days of shows, under the banner of Lockdown Mastered.

While high winds put paid to Friday night’s events, it continues today and next Thursday, Friday and Saturday on Clarence Field in Southsea.

The outdoor shows will see the audience placed in socially-distanced bubbles for each family or friendship group.

Katy Hurt is performing on the Americana night, co-hosted by Square Roots Promotions, as part of the Lockdown Mastered series of shows. Picture by Dillon Osborne

Waterlooville-based comic James Alderson is promoting the comedy nights. James normally has a packed schedule; as well as travelling the country to perform his own material, he also promotes regular shows at The Spring in Havant, The Ashcroft in Fareham, The Spinnaker Cafe in Gunwharf Quays and the Comedy Allstars nights in Horndean.

During lockdown he turned to Facebook Live. Most evenings at 8pm James would go live to his fans to chat about the issues of the day and whatever else took their fancy. He’s racked up more than 100 of these live streams.

But he was champing at the bit to return to live performance as soon as it was safe.

After putting out the feelers on social media about putting on an outdoor gig, the landlady of The Farmer Inn at Catherington got back to him and said she was game – they could use the field next to the pub.

Gareth Howells with his son Louis Howells, of Bemis. Picture by Dave Coombs

But the government’s indecision and shifting goalposts over what was allowed left him with a headache.

‘I thought, we’ll put it on sale on the premise that surely we can do it outdoors?’ says James. ‘And then it all started coming out that, no, we couldn’t do it even standing two metres apart outdoors if they were strangers.

‘A week before the show, I was sat watching one of the government’s nightly broadcasts. Within the first sentence he said: “We will be allowing outdoor shows”, and I just burst into tears and screamed and shouted.

‘I couldn’t believe it because I had been working for so long and fighting against the Environmental Health and local councils to do these outdoor gigs, and telling them that we would be doing anything and everything needed to justify putting them on.

Tash Alladin performing with Mix-Tape at The Queens Hotel, Southsea, summer 2020. Picture by Paul Windsor

‘And then when it was official, there was such a relief.’

James has since sold more than 1,250 tickets to six shows at The Farmers Inn – each one selling largely through word of mouth.

The first show took place on July 25 with James joined by other local comics: ‘I got some of the local pro talent in and they did an amazing job. I knew, like me, they needed the money! And it was a smashing gig.’

Subsequent gigs have featured touring acts. At the August 8 show he was joined by Russell Kane, who is more used to playing major theatres.

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And with the government further relaxing restrictions, indoor shows have been allowed since August 15, James is bringing back his other regular shows, although they will be with reduced audience numbers.

(Go to comedy-allstars.co.uk for more information.)

James has been militant about maintaining social distancing throughout and adds: ‘I’ll go with what we're told to do, and if the worst thing is that I’ve been keeping at least a metre away from people unnecessarily, I can live with that.’

However, he laughs: ‘But who knows, Boris could come on in an hour and say: “Social distancing? Sod it”.’

The Wedgewood Rooms in Albert Road, Southsea, held its last event on March 15 – their regular comedy club.

The venue’s manager Geoff Priestley was contacted by the city council to help with the Lockdown Mastered shows.

‘It’s nice to make contact again with what we do, because it’s been such a long time since we’ve done anything,’ says Geoff.

Even though August 15 was billed by the government as a significant move, it’s going to be a little while longer before we see shows inside The Wedge and its like.

Geoff explains: ‘We’ve been told live music venues can reopen, but there’s no official government guidelines for live music venues at the moment. There’s performance guidelines and pub guidelines, but no specific indoor live music guidelines, but they’re due soon apparently.

‘The other issue is economic viability – we’re 400 capacity, but according to guidelines under Covid and social distancing, it’s about 60, to abide by all the measures. It’s just not economically viable to open.’

With all his full-time staff bar one on furlough and ‘an understanding landlord,’ Geoff says, ‘at the moment we’re okay.

‘It’s costing some money to be closed, but if we opened at the current capacity, I think the calculation is that the average venue our size would lose £26,000 a month, which is sustainable for about two months, and then no more Wedge.

‘I’ve spent the last week writing and rewriting applications for the Cultural Recovery Fund.’

The fund is part of the £1.57bn rescue package announced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

‘If I can get the funding, we want to open – we want to do what we do, but the truth is even if we do open we can’t do it the way we did, so we have to look into other things.

‘If I can get the financial support to tide us over until next spring when we’ve got a very busy and potentially doable programme, then we’ll still be here and we’ll kick into doing what we do.’

In April The Wedge was also part of a nationwide crowdfunding campaign organised by The Music Venues Trust, #SaveOurVenues, and was the first venue in the country to hit its target – £12,000 – in just 12 hours. It is now at £22,000. This has enabled Geoff to pay other freelance technical staff who had ‘fallen through the cracks’ of government support schemes.

Recalling the period, Geoff says: ‘It had been a very emotional couple of days – it wasn’t just the money, it was reading all of the nice comments.

‘It’s nice to know that some people registered the other things we do and don’t shout about, in the local community. People recognised we’re in the heart of the community – not just musically.

‘It’s one of those lucky moments in your life where somebody actually tells you that what you’re doing is alright. It’s quite weird.

‘You never really find out usually.’

As the frontman of folk-rock band Bemis, Gareth Howells will be performing at Clarence Field on Friday. Their last show was part of a charity night at The Wedge on February 29.

Along with his son Louis, who is also in the band, they have put on 14 Facebook live shows since March.

They used the live stream to help raise a bit of money for Louis.

‘We did the virtual tip jar thing, and that worked,’ says Gareth, from Milton, Portsmouth. ‘We used it to raise funds for his rent at university – the band was his only income. The rest of the band have got day jobs, but the gigs were his only income. It’s been really good.

‘It’s not a replacement, but it kept me going. If there are musicians out there who haven’t done anything like this, then they probably haven’t been able to rehearse much either. It’s enabled us to keep our hand in.

‘We were pushing ourselves too and learning loads of songs. We were adding new songs all of the time.’

Now though he’s looking forward to getting front of a real audience again.

‘We’re all eager to get out there. You are communicating with your audience all of the time and you’re bouncing off of them and feeding off of them.

‘To do it cold like that on live streams and reading comments or imagining the response, it’s not the same – for either party.

‘One of the things I’ve missed is the big sound that PA gives you – I don’t want to upset my neighbours by setting up a PA in our living room! I love the sound of an amplified acoustic guitar, I love the sound of a voice through an amplifier.

‘You can’t beat that sound – it’s such a fantastic feeling hearing that live in the room or field or wherever you’re doing it. That extra oomph you get.’

With a couple more potential gigs in the pipeline, the popular festival act are going to take it slow.

‘If it’s physically possible for pubs and venues to put gigs on again, then it’s great for them to get the business in. When lockdown first happened, we as a band weren’t sure when to stop – we still had gigs advertised, and some in the band were wondering if we should cancel them or what we should do. It was very uncertain what was the right thing to do.

‘I do want to be cautious and do the right thing, but I don’t want to do anything that stretches the rules. I think we’re going to be treading carefully for a while.’

WHO’S ON WHEN AT LOCKDOWN MASTERED, AND MORE

The Lockdown Mastered shows began on Thursday, but there are still tickets for the following:

Today, 1.15pm: Silly Scott and Friends, family show Today, 5.15pm: Americana with Katy Hurt Thursday, 1.15pm: Silly Scott and Friends, family show Thursday, 5.15pm: Mojo Dollar playing hits from the ’60s Friday, 1.15pm: Mr Tall, family show Friday, 5.15pm: Bemis, Chris Ricketts & Dan Eagle Saturday 29, 1.15pm: Mr Tall, family show Saturday 29, 5.15pm: Comedy with James Alderson and Friends

Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk for more information and tickets. Evening shows are £10 for adult tickets, £5 children. Family shows are £5 adults, £2 children.

The Gaiety Bar on South Parade Pier is now also hosting ticketed gigs, including Colour of The Jungle on August 28 and Too Much 2Tone on September 11.

The Queens Hotel in Southsea has live music in its garden, every Saturday and Sunday, from midday, until September 12. Today features Choose 90s – Filta, Lee & The Freaks and Saving Koko.

STEPPING ON OUT – AGAIN

Tash Alladin loves to perform live.

By her own admittance her two favourite events of the year are Victorious Festival and The Southsea Alternative Choir’s Christmas gig where she appears as a guest vocalist.

Tash returned to live performance with party act, Mix-Tape at The Queens Hotel in Southsea, on August 2.

The Horndean-based musician says: ‘It was just so nice to be able to see people’s faces again, even if it was a bit weird because they couldn’t get up and dance or anything like that. But you can feel the enjoyment from the people.

‘We weren’t sure at first how it was going to go down, but people were so receptive and into it – we did a couple of encores and people were stopping us on the way out. It was a great response.

‘You can feel the love and the emotion from people – just being there and doing something we couldn’t do for a few months.’

During lockdown Tash and her partner Ashley Hills have launched a new ‘’80s soul, pop and dance music-inspired’ act, Tash Hills.

‘Next year I’m looking forward to doing the festivals and putting together a full band with a brass section and everything.’

Mix-Tape next play at Crick Fest, in aid St Wilfrid’s Hospice and Melon Mission, at The Cricketers in Westbourne on August 30, from 1pm. Also playing are Island City, Archie McKeown, Hard Case and more. Tickets £2.50, pre-booked tables only. Find them on facebook.com.

Tash Hills’ debut single Stepping On Out was released yesterday. For more information go to iamtashhills.com