Hereford's live music scene has been lacking.
Sure, Pulp and the Manics played the Leisure Centre. That was 20 years ago. The county has had its success stories in Mott the Hoople, The Pretenders, Ellie Goulding, and Years & Years, but its own local gig listings have been thin on the ground.
Without dedicated venues and without ardant music lovers busting a gut to entice touring bands (and not losing money), a rural county with crap transport links will, time and again, miss out to venues in Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff.
Until now. The tentative revival of Hereford's live scene is still in its infancy but it's here and it's happening above pubs, in bars and at small summer festivals. Homegrown musicians are making more noise, a vibrant network of independent promoters are busting a gut to put bands on and venues are fuelling the desire to watch all unfurl at close quarters.
To find out more about the future of live music in Hereford city, we caught up with four key players. Richard Page is the promoter behind the Wild Hare Club, conceived to provide ‘human music on a human scale’; Andrew Marston is a producer, club DJ, and a presenter on BBC Hereford and Worcester where he hosts the station's Introducing show; John Hales founded music promotion group Hereford Live, set up Hereford Blues Club and co-ordinates live music at The Grapes pub; Michelle Cuadra is a blogger, founder of The Underground Revolution, and champion of homegrown alternative bands.
Straight to it... what's fuelling this resurgence of the Hereford music scene?
Michelle Cuadra: I'd say the music scene has always been going in Hereford, but there have been ups and downs. Afflictions like the smoking ban, which was profoundly felt on a national level, austerity and, in general, a lack of more daring and adventurous venues played there part.
The Victory has always supported promoters like Hereford Dead who put on more obscure metal nights. There have always been DJ venues and places like The Black Lion and Mamma Jammas, but when pubs began to close down or change hands, there seemed to be less attendance and far too many cover bands.
The Booth Hall has really welcomed music of all genres and opened minds. Promoters have come together to support that venue because they are willing to try anything. There is no arrogance or limitations.
Right now, The Plough [Whitecross Road] has a great ska and mod scene that people have started to hear about. That is how it all works… the buzz.
John Hales: Not wishing to be immodest but it helped when I started up Hereford Live. That was when Hereford was at its worst; just cover bands and tribute bands. We started promoting original bands. It gave the scene impetus. People who were not involved saw there was a reawakening.
There has been a domino effect. When The Booth opened last year that was a big boost because they [owners Willow and Arran Vidal-Hall] were into live music. The Left Bank has been increasing its live music and Robert Plant appearing there [read more] fired people’s imagination as to what could happen in Hereford.
The Booth Hall, in East Street, opened in 2016 and has build its a reputation for live music, erring on the alternative.
Richard Page: I think it really kicked off at the end of 2015 and I doubt if you can attribute it to any one factor.
It's also a reflection of the wider changes happening in the city, and possibly a change in the demographics. We’re all aware of the opening of lots of cafes and restaurants too. Hereford properties are relatively cheap and there are opportunities for people with entrepreneurial spirit.
I also think there may be a reaction against the notion of music being a utility that you can stream at will like turning on a tap. There may be a growing appetite for the authenticity of witnessing a live performance, of actually being in the moment. It’s definitely exciting in the county at the moment with much more on offer but we – that's the people organising events – need to grow our audiences because at the moment most shows are not economically viable and therefore not sustainable in the long-term.
Andrew Marston: After a decline in the pub trade and changes in the social lives of people meaning they were much more inclined to stay home, people are now saying ‘If I get a pub and I get a city centre venue and I open the doors people don’t just come in so I have to so I have to make some effort.
You've got people like Arran and Willow at The Booth saying ‘Do you know what? We're going to stick some trapeze on. We are going to have live music on and that's what we are going to be known for'. All of a sudden you think of The Booth and you think of live music. All of a sudden all of these people who are enthused by music have a platform.
The Venue helped in many ways. It kept the scene ticking along for as long as it could.
What happens as well is when you’ve got venues putting on live music and you live out at the back-end of Madley and you’re coming into town and you're seeing audiences, people rocking out on a stage, you want a piece of that action.
When you come to town and there's tumbleweed blowing down the centre of a stage, there is nothing to inspire you to form a band. So we haven’t got the number of bands we used to, but what we’ve been left with is quality and determination.
We can be proud of the quality of our musicians then?
Michelle: God, yes. We have a stunning community of what I like to call border folk musicians. There are some great alternative bands writing original music.
Richard: There are, of course, lots of quality musicians in the county – many who’ve been developing their craft for decades, Martin Blake and Whiskey River immediately come to mind, as does Little Rumba and Will Killeen.
There are good musicians to be found wherever you are. Sometimes the isolation of an area can be a driver to developing a particular musical scene and I love the evolution of a strain of Herefordshire psych-folk under the Weirdshire banner.
Boredom may be a great spur to creativity too. There are some great young musicians emerging in the county, such as Shannon Walker and Claire Perkins.
Andrew: In Manchester when you are 13 or 14 and you get bored, there are plenty of things to do. If you live in Longtown and you get bored, you form a band and there's nowhere that's putting on live music so you organise the gig yourself so I think what we’ve seen is a scene that has been born organically.
Rural areas have a more impactful, happening, exciting music scene than any of these big cities where people are complacent and bands are fighting over each other to go and play to minimal audiences.
John: The first time I saw Troy Redfern was in The Black Lion when he was in a band called Electric Blues Reaction. I tried to make a point of seeing him after that. When I got Hereford Live going I put him on as many times as I could. 40 years ago Troy would have been a big noise on the blues rock circuit but because it's not so fashionable now he is having to work harder.
You have got to have that will to succeed, some people expect it to fall into place. Reality shows have made people think you just have to get up on stage and everybody will adore you. Some people think you will do a few reasonable gigs and people will be booking you for the bigger gigs. You have got to do as many as possible and get yourself noticed.
Hereford-based duo The Boondogz, regulars on the city live circuit.
Hay on Wye's Cherryshoes.
Blues guitarist Troy Redfern.
Based in Bromyard in Herefordshire, Vaginapocalypse are purveyors of folk-punk with wit, grit and harmonies.
How much of a problem is the lack of a big music venue?
Richard: I would love to see a medium-sized venue in the county, but I have doubts it would be economically viable. A promoter who is resident in the county puts shows on in London and the home counties but not around Herefordshire because there simply isn’t a population density with sufficient income in the county to support the scale of shows he promotes.
The nearest thing to a medium-sized venue we have is The Courtyard which is struggling as various funds of income have been cut. Musically its programme has really gone downhill with the theatre resorting to putting on more tribute bands - they are guaranteed house-fillers but tribute acts do nothing for extending the musical culture. I would love to have access to a good performance space that could accommodate several hundred people.
Michelle: I certainly feel we need a convention centre-style venue that accommodates larger acts. We have The Venue which for The Underground Revolution would be our go to spot for a bigger gig. We aren’t there yet because these bigger bands require investment and we are all volunteers without funding. Hereford needs to put in a lot of work before it can pull in a stadium sized crowd. Never say never.
John: We can’t get big draw bands to come to Hereford because there is no 500+ capacity venue.
Andrew: Lakefest is testimony to what can happen if you ask local people to promote and provide the bands, you use local sound engineers and everybody gets inspired and says to all of their friends ‘come on, you need to be part of this’.
Every year Lakefest [which in 2016 moved from Gloucestershire to Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury] has doubled its audience. It started as a cider festival with 500 people, this year was 10,000. The Big Chill pulled in 40,000, and they reckon they could have got 60,000 on that site.
The Big Chill festival drew 40,000 to Eastnor Castle deer park every summer. In 2011 line-up featured The Chemical Brothers, Kanye West, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Jessie J, and Calvin Harris. Photo: holdyourhorsesblog
Having relocated from Gloucestershire, Lakefest now fills the former Big Chill site. This year's festival runs 10-14 August.
Hereford has been called a ‘dead-end’ city by people who move away. Is this the impression you're getting now, in 2017?
John: A lot of young people from Hereford move to Bristol. You can’t blame them, but things are picking up.
Richard: Herefordshire is glorious and I am beginning to actually like the city itself more and more. For a young person I think there’s a need often to get away, see the world and meet people from other backgrounds.
Bigger cities often offer more job opportunities, it’s natural to want to spread your wings. I wanted to get away when I was young and I still have a need to get about now, but I also love it here. The landscape is inspiring and the city is on a manageable scale. I think many young people leave and come back, like I did. Of course, if the university happens that will bring more young people in and that will be good for the creative life of the county just as the art college is now.
Andrew: Worcester is a bit of a role model and, as a Hereford lad, it pains me to say that.
One day someone had this great idea - why doesn’t every pub in Worcester put on live music for one weekend. Some people were saying ‘but there aren’t enough people?’. Of course, there are enough people. How many people live in Worcestershire?. Something like 26 venues put on live music that weekend [the inaugural Worcester Music Festival] and they estimated an extra 10,000 people came into town. What happened in Hereford is every pub tried to close down every other pub.
There are great comparisons. Look at the amount of bands from Herefordshire that go and play in Cheltenham – Cheltenham’s got a real big music scene - and the amount of people we see historically playing Bristol and Cardiff. All of a sudden I think we are realising that we can do that here.
The Hungry Ghosts at Worcester Music Festival 2016. Photo by Cindel Oranday, winner of the festival photo competition.