Musicians’ choice: Duncan Seaman discovers how a Yorkshire social club is rivalling the O2 Arena to be named top music venue.
Paul Clarke, trustee of Hebden Bridge Social Club, is understandably excited. The 90-year-old club, that began life as a union hall for local weavers working in the town’s once-thriving cotton industry, has been nominated for a national award for live music venue of the year.
On Thursday evening The Trades Club Social Club, to give its official name, will take on the likes of the O2 Arena in London at industry journal Music Week’s annual awards ceremony at the glitzy Brewery in central London.
For the intimate, members-run Trades Club, which has a capacity of 200, to be competing with Camden’s The Black Heart, The Leadmill in Sheffield, London’s The Lexington and 20,000-seater O2 Arena is a big deal – and welcome recognition for their artist and customer-friendly policy of recent years.
“There’s a bit of David and Goliath, really, to say the least,” admits Clarke.
He’s quick to credit the work of promoter Mal Campbell, who has been booking acts for the Holme Street venue since 2011. “He really raised our game.”
The job proved a lucky break for Mal, who had been helping out at the club in his spare time.
“I was doing some volunteering at the Trades about three years ago then I got made redundant and the guy who had been booking bands previously resigned. There was a vacancy so I thought I would give it a go.
“I have a background in music – I was a professional musician for 20 years in bands such as My Life Story, who has a bit of success in the Britpop years, and Sophia, who were known in Europe, and I produced people – but I did not have that much experience in promoting, I’d only put on a couple of things.”
His approach to promoting was based on his own experiences as a musician. “Having played at hundreds of different venues, I approached it from an artist perspective – what musicians like from a venue, to see if you could get musicians on side.
“At that time our facilities could not compete with other venues but we could compete in other ways – making sure musicians are looked after. I didn’t know if it would work, there has been a lot of learning along the way. I never had an apprenticeship so I don’t know how other people do it; I had to figure it out for myself as I went along.”
The turning point for Mal – and the club’s reputation – came in 2012 when he managed to book celebrated American punk-poet Patti Smith.
“That was a real leap,” Mal admits. “When I started promoting, one of the first things I did was write a wish list with dozens of bands on. Some were more successful than others. Patti Smith was right at the top.”
Initially fearful of contacting her booking agent – “I didn’t want the rejection” – Mal’s timing actually proved perfect. Smith had recently finished writing her memoir, Just Kids, and was preparing Banga, her first album of original songs in eight years.
In his email to her agent, Mal recounted the history of the Trades Club and cannily mentioned the area’s literary heritage. “I knew she likes a good pilgrimage, so I mentioned the Brontës and Sylvia Plath. A couple of hours later her agent said, ‘I think this might work’. It was a proper drop your sandwich moment.”
When, that summer, Hebden Bridge was hit by floods, Patti decided to donate her concert fee to efforts to repair the town.
“Where she lived with [her late husband] Fred Smith and raised a family was hit by a lot of flooding, she was very aware of what it’s like,” Mal explains.
“She felt a lot of empathy of the town.” The icing on the cake was an “incredible performance” on September 8.
The concert also put the Trades Club on the map, opening doors to artists of the calibre of Edwyn Collins, Martha Wainwright, Julian Cope, The Fall and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Last night they welcomed Ben Watt of Everything But the Girl; tomorrow’s the turn of American singer-songwriter Joan As Policewoman. The Wedding Present are due to play two shows in July.
For a small club, off the conventional rock circuit, that’s still owned by its 1,000 or so members, it’s a remarkable success. Mal admits his ethos was influenced by the Brudenell Social Club, run by Nathan Clark, in Hyde Park, Leeds. A slightly larger venue – with a capacity of 400 – it has also transformed its struggling fortunes from a decade or so ago by paying attention to behind-the-scenes details.
“The level of care that Nathan brings to his shows has been a really good thing to see,” says Mal. “I know Nathan a bit, he’s a real inspiration.”
Last November the Brudenell celebrated its 100th anniversary. On May 3, the Trades Club turns 90. Like the Brudenell, it has had rocky periods – “It did fall into hard times in the 60s and was empty for a number of years” – but is now going from strength to strength, with investment in a new PA, mixing desk and lighting rig. It now attracts concert-goers from all over the country.
For the past two years it has been nominated as best small venue in the NME Awards. Now could well come the ultimate accolade. The Music Week award was nominated by musicians.
“It feels a bit bonkers taking on the O2 Arena head to head,” says Paul Clarke. “I’m not sure we will win it, but you never know.”
“It’s brilliant in terms of the profile of the club,” says Mal. “It’s a fantastic endorsement.” Even if he can’t afford to attend the awards night himself, he smiles: “I’m happy to be through to the final. It’s an amazing achievement.”
• For further details on concerts at Hebden Bridge Trades Club visit http://thetradesclub.com