The Musican Story

The Musician pub in Leicester is one of the best small/medium music venues in the country. Not bad for a place that six years ago was abandoned and derelict.

The Bakers Arms, as it had been since being built around the turn of the century, was a central Leicester community pub serving the inhabitants of the terraced houses that clustered around it. Time and social change had not been kind though. First the community vanished, then their houses, to be replaced by offices, car parks and light industrial units. By the late 1990s it was empty, derelict and unused.

Enter local property developer Jim Kelly, who had a vision of a chain of music pubs across the country, all called the Musician. Six months and much money and refurbishment later the Bakers Arms opened as a music venue with Nicola Turner as licensee, featuring in the main tribute and cover bands with the odd local artist thrown in for variety. Sadly lack of experience meant that, although the venue was a great space for music it struggled financially and it's future did not look good.

Across town, local music promoter and record label head (Rideout Records) Darren Nockles had a problem as his main venue, the Royal Mail, was about to close to make way for new office development. With his Rideout partners Dawson Smith and Paul Allatson he recognised the Musician's potential, started to promote there and the Musician was reborn. Sadly Paul died in 2001, and Dawson moved on to other things around the same time, leaving Darren in sole charge of the music.

A glance at the November 2000 flyer, some six months after he started to promote at the Musician, is instructive. There's music every night of the week, with a range of local artists, some blues and some folk/roots, but it's the country and Americana performers that catch your eye. Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, Sid Griffin (Long Ryders, Coal Porters) and his new venture, Western Electric, and Nicola favourites Tandy. "I've always been an Americana fan" says Darren, "from Neil Young to Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons to Guy Clark, through the 1980's New Country movement, particularly Steve Earle & Dwight Yoakam, who in turn led me on to Hank Williams and George Jones."

The new Musician flourished as an intimate space (120 capacity, though it was a bit snug when full) that attracted a huge range of performers. It's renaissance coincided with one of those blips in popularity that country and Americana music experiences from time to time in Britain, and pretty much anybody who was anybody played there at least once.

As time went on though it became clear that the small size and lack of facilities were restricting what could be put on, for practical reasons (some bands simply wouldn't fit on the stage), financial issues (the cost of putting on some bands was too great compared to the audience that could be accommodated) and simple oversubscription (the venue couldn't accommodate everyone who wanted to see certain artists). So in 2004 plans were put in place for the next big change. This was a major expansion to increase capacity to 220, provide a better stage, a proper dressing room, better toilets, a seating-cum-chatting area well away from the music, a new PA system and purpose built sound desk.

The old Musician closed it's doors for the last time on 31 December 2004, after a New Years Eve bash where staff, performers and audience alike made a valiant effort to make sure that not a drop of alcohol would be left to remove the next day! During the next month basic work was done, including adding the new toilets, and doing the groundwork for the extension. It reopened on 1 February, actually smaller than before because of the toilet repositioning, and live music continued unabated until May. Recalls Darren "It was a pretty stressful time, constantly working in a building site managing the project, at the same time as doing all the promotion work." Work continued apace though and in May it closed again for four days to allow the old building to be knocked through to the new extension, the new entrance and sound desk added and everything readied for the grand re-opening, which also featured a new purple look outside!

Despite some inevitable teething problems, particularly with the sound, and equally inevitable audience nostalgia, the unanimous verdict was that the new Musician was a vast improvement that still retained the character and atmosphere of the old one. The famous mural along one wall has been extended and the feel of the space is the same. The range of artists presented has grown dramatically though, with numerous sold out nights, including a particularly heaving Laura Cantrell gig last year.

Unlike many other venues, the Musician's sole raison d'etre is music. It doesn't open during the day and it's position means that it will never attract passing trade.   Everyone associated with the venue is steeped in music. From Darren and Nicola (both of whom act as sound engineer as required), Malcolm the main sound man, Ken on the door and Dan and Andy behind the bar, everyone is a hard core fan and/or a performer of some sort. Apart from the usual posters advertising forthcoming events, the walls are lined with framed and signed photos of previous performers. Jay Farrar, Eve Selis, Laura Cantrell, Gretchen Peters, the list is endless.

There's still a big focus on local talent though, including the regular Monday night acoustic club sessions (run by Andy from the bar) and opportunities for support slots on the major tours that pass through. And local talent makes good too. Liam Dullaghan, who used to work behind the bar, was there for the Ryan Adams gig and played him one of his songs in what passed for the dressing room in those days. He is now one half of act The Havenots, who are two albums into a critically acclaimed career.

Darren's aim has always been to create "a Borderline for the Midlands", taking as his template Barry Everitt's acclaimed London venue. He sees the Musician as a work in progress. "It's about 80% there now", he says, "the PA and staging are sorted, but I still need to improve the seating, make little tweaks to the facilities, add a bit here and there." Such is his passion for improving the whole Musician experience for performer and audience alike that you suspect he will never actually be finished

Over the years Darren has put on thousands of acts, but some gigs stick in his memory. Ryan Adams is one. "He had a classic rock and roll rider - a bottle of vodka and 40 Marlboro Lights!" he recalls. He'd had his lyric book stolen the previous night and that day he wrote in the venue and performed that night, a song called "Dear Thief" which has never appeared anywhere else. "A unique moment" says Darren. There are still a few holes he'd like to fill though.   "A secret warm-up gig for Emmylou Harris would be nice, or perhaps Richard Thompson."

Venues like the Musician and people like Darren and Nicola play a key role in keeping the music alive, providing a great space for performers and audience alike, giving exposure to new artists, many of whom progress from small support slots to major headliners. Long may it continue to flourish.

Jeremy Searle

Jeremy Searle is a regular contributor to Maverick the U.K's leading monthly, country, roots and Americana magazine. This article was first published in the April 2006 issue of Maverick magazine and is reproduced here with thanks.

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