Total Production

Band On The Wall

November 2009 Issue 123

Rachel Esson reports on the big-budget restoration of a small but massively historic Manchester live music venue...

It was with a sense of irony that I listened to Band On The Wall’s new CEO, Gavin Sharp, declaring that the live music venue “doesn’t make much commercial sense”, just four weeks after it had re-opened following a £4 million investment.

“If it did,” he said, “then there would be one in every town, but there isn’t. We had 10 musicians on stage from Nigeria last week and we had the Jazzanova band from Berlin; they’re not big enough to play anywhere else, so without this place it just wouldn’t happen.”

A commitment to delivering diverse music, education and continuing the venue’s rich cultural heritage — which dates back to around 1862 — has kept this venue in operation, not financial gain.

Closed in 2005 for redevelopment, Band On The Wall has been completely renovated, restored and reborn by registered charity Inner City Music, with the help of combined funding from the Arts Council England, Manchester City Council and Lottery Heritage Fund. The premises will now operate as a registered charity run on a not-for-profit basis, with a voluntary board of directors overseeing the business.

“There was an awful lot of willpower from the City Council,” explained Sharp. “Because the place is so old, all the big players at the City Council came here as students. They have witnessed The Boardwalk and The Hacienda disappear and they wanted to see Band On The Wall stay.”
The 300-capacity venue on Swan Street, at the edge of the city’s quirky Northern Quarter, was one of several iconic music venues to make music history during the latter part of the last century, when its inner walls became a breeding ground for pioneers of British punk, rock, pop, dance and acid house.

But the majority of its peers at the time (such as The Boardwalk and The Hacienda) that spawned the ‘Madchester’ days, closed their doors before the Millennium to make way for modern flats.

Unlike its former competitors, Band On The Wall has survived the rise and fall of a number of musical eras and been reinvented many times since it first opened as the George and the Dragon pub. The venue was named Band On The Wall in the 1930s when musicians used to perform from precarious platforms strapped to the wall.

At the forefront of the industrial revolution the venue bustled with musicians and buskers, during World War II servicemen found respite from the air raids under its roof listening to a regular band, and in the ‘70s it operated as a jazz club before pioneering the new punk sound, hosting early performances by the Buzzcocks, The Fall and Joy Division. It is this dynamic history that has kept Band On The Wall from the same fate as other ailing live music venues in the city.

Sharp, who first worked at the venue 10 years ago as programmer before going on to work at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, said: “It didn’t matter what kind of music you were into, it was a key venue for jazz, reggae, world music, punk. It has meant an awful lot to an awful lot of people.”

He returned to the venue as CEO to launch it on September 25 with the same ethos of showcasing rare acts, world music, and up and coming artists from a wide range of musical genres, from jazz and dance (as well as DJs), to rock and soul.

Open five nights a week, with early evening acoustic gigs on a Friday and Saturday, and 3am licence, Band On The Wall has so far hosted popular gigs by Mica Paris, Athlete, and Kaidi Tatham.

When it came to the renovation, there was no question that the venue had to be completely reinvented; the building’s foundations were almost 200 years old, the rest of it in a complete state of disrepair, and the club’s technology had to match up to the sophistication of other touring destinations in the UK.

An 18-month build process comprised significant structural reinforcement, conservation of the original plaster work, an extended mezzanine level in the main room, new PA and lighting systems, and a new backstage area in the cellar complete with toilets, storage, two dressing rooms and disabled shower.

An entirely new space has been created in the adjacent building serving as an adjoining early evening bar called the Picture House, which features a new box office, serviced by Ticketline. This bar will soon serve food and have wireless internet access. A function room on the top floor hosts educational programmes, and music and dance classes.

Adlib Audio won the pitch to design and install the sound system for the venue. System designer, Adlib’s Roger Kirby, first set up some demonstrations of several different audio systems at Adlib’s premises in Liverpool, from which the dV-DOSC was recognised as the best sounding option.

This was followed by a number of speaker and room simulations in L-Acoustics’ Sound Vision to evaluate loudspeaker placement and optimise coverage within the room.

“We all agreed that the dV-DOSC rig would work best in the space, offering a detailed high frequency and solid low end response, with the system also having adequate headroom for the eclectic programme of live events that are planned,” stated Kirby.

Band On The Wall’s technical manager Andy Williamson, who gave up touring as sound engineer for the likes of The Script and Scouting For Girls to take up the post full-time, now manages all aspects of sound and lighting at the venue.

“When Gavin told me Adlib were involved, I looked at the plans and didn’t see any point in changing anything,” he said. “I’ve known Andy Dockerty for years and knew they’d do a good job.” 

The main audio system comprises three dV-DOSC mid highs, with a single dV-sub flown on each of the two side hangs, and two dV-DOSC flown centrally to cover the balcony. The system is completed with three SB28 subs, with a pair of Adlib AA81 cabinets utilised as centre fills providing coverage directly in front of the stage.

The control playback rack includes BSS FDS 960 graphics for grab EQ and Tascam CD-RW/CD playback machines along with an ASL comms system. A Soundcraft Vi4 was specified as the main mixing console for the venue, due to its routing flexibility and the intuitive design of its control surface, which will assist visiting engineers, who may be new to digital mixing.

The Vi4’s MADI output allows all 48 input channels plus stereo mix to be sent to the venue’s recording studio for capture should this be required. Said Williamson: “I’ve used all the digital desks but this one is a lot more tactile. It feels more like analogue as it’s touchscreen and every channel has its own bit, so it’s a lot more accessible.”

For monitors, Adlib supplied eight of its bi-amped low profile 1515W ‘MP3’ wedges. These are processed with BSS 334 mini-drive crossovers and driven by Crown XTi1000 and 4000 power amplifiers.

There is no monitor desk as such in the house rig. The eight monitor sends are all handled by the Soundcraft Vi4 at FOH, however there is a 48 channel multi-core infrastructure with break in/out facilities to allow swift patching for visiting monitor consoles.

Adlib also supplied a full package of mics and stands — Shure, Sennheiser, AKG and DPA — and BSS AR133 active DI boxes. Equipment
is housed in custom Adlib manufactured sleeves and flight cases.

The main challenge of the project was helping to design the new PA flying facilities that entailed custom structural steel work being newly installed in the venue’s roof. Adlib worked closely with the Shed km architects and all main building contractors to ensure they could get their flown cabinets accurately positioned and the subs appropriately ensconced beneath the stage.

Sharp commented: “I have to say that Adlib were absolutely brilliant, we would have really struggled to do it without them. Andy Dockerty came to several of the initial meetings and took an active interest in it all and Roger Kirby has been brilliant throughout.

“Not only have they completed the install of probably the finest PA in any small scale venue in the UK on time and on budget, they also made a huge contribution to the final design of the rigging, sound and AV studios, through positive relations with other contractors and system designers.”

DBN’s Nigel Walker completed the lighting design for Band On The Wall. An important part of the brief was that they wanted a retro feel to the lighting in keeping with the lounge ambience of the room.

This was not necessarily to be related to any specific period, but they definitely wanted to avoid any resemblance to the current trends for glitzy neon and flashing LEDs. “It’s not about the lighting rig, but who’s on stage,” said Walker.

“We needed a minimal lighting rig as it’s mostly jazz and world music coming through; nothing really needs changing on it,” said Williamson.
Walker’s design utilises a front and back truss and a bar over the front of the stage, which measures a cosy 3m deep x 9m wide, with a headroom of under 5m.

Martin Professional MAC 300 moving lights with the wide lens are rigged to the front truss, chosen for their compact dimensions and good light output, and used for the basic stage washes, along with ETC Source Four PARs. There is also a Martin MAC 250 that can be used for highlighting singers and musicians.

On the back truss are five LED PARs, a low maintenance solution, and two Source Four Juniors used for cross lighting, complete with break-up gobos and two sets of two-way Moles.

At FOH, DBN has supplied an Avolites Pearl Tiger console, and Zero 88 six-way Beta pack dimmers for control. Walker, who used to frequent the venue during the ‘70s, stated: “It was a great honour to be involved in this high profile project on our home ground, and the challenge was designing and supplying something appropriate and in character for the venue.”

With a certain amount of the money for the restoration allocated to artworks, Manchester resident artist and designer, Mike Trainer, was tasked with enhancing the design. He created the sophisticated bar front and the bold carpet design.

Said Sharp: “When I first heard we were putting carpet in I couldn’t understand it. But when we took the carpet out it sounded so different and I think it’s integral to the living room sound Band On The Wall gets; it’s like it’s a giant hi-fi in a carpeted living room.”

The major art piece was yet to arrive at the venue; a giant graphic equaliser wrapped round the outside of the building that will be connected to the FOH sound. For such a small venue on the edge of the city, the amount of time and investment that has gone into the redevelopment is astonishing.

Commented Sharp: “When you’re doing a single show turnover of £50k, outgoings are insignificant, but here it’s all significant. There’s a certain amount of pressure because £4m has gone into it and there’s an expectation that it will be successful. The board, even though they are voluntary, are keen for it to succeed.”

The venue may not make commercial sense, but its re-launch marks a victory for music, education and culture.

As word spreads across the city that its doors are open once again, and people realise its aesthetics and sound quality are up there with the best of them, it should be enough to draw back the crowds.


Band On The Wall
  • Band On The Wall
  • Band On The Wall
  • Band On The Wall
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