All’s not well as part of a city’s music scene falls silent

Josephs Well
Josephs Well
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While Leeds might be about to get its own arena, Mark Casci says a fond farewell to another slice of the city’s musical heritage.

Amid all the excitement about the opening acts announced for the new Leeds Arena next year, one other piece of important local musical news was perhaps overlooked.

Located in the construction site’s shadow, less than a mile away, is The Well – a tiny pub-cum-music venue which this month will shut its doors for the last time after decades in business. The venue’s owners have apparently decided that enough is enough for the venue which has hosted a Who’s Who of famous bands over the past two decades.

The Well was always a place you played on the way up, a place where anyone who could start and finish a song and stand upright in the process could get a gig. As such many of the bands which the city holds most dear played their first shows in that dark, dingy back room which could only be accessed through alarmingly steep steps from the main pub.

Kaiser Chiefs have sold millions of records and were an obvious choice for one of the first acts to open the Leeds Arena next year.

But less than a decade ago they were playing The Well fairly regularly, with some band members even working behind the bar to pay the bills. Likewise The Cribs held the launch party for their debut album at The Well.

Despite the illustrious roll call of personnel to play there The Well was never a cash cow. One night it would be packed out for the latest sensation flying in as part of their UK tour, the next it would play host to six of the band’s mates as they gainfully struggled through their set.

It changed owners frequently and it often closed down for several months while refits took place to make it more viable. Respected promoters and pub owners Simon and Sharon Colgan took over in March and had the venue looking fantastic. The schedule for concerts was packed and it seemed as though The Well was finally going to enjoy a sustainable future, something it had long-deserved.

However now it seems it will go the way of the Duchess, another great Leeds venue now consigned to history. Within months the city will boast a state-of-the-art arena which will host concerts in front of thousand-strong audiences, but not one of those headlines acts will have gone straight from rehearsing in garages and bedrooms to the stage. They will all have needed an equivalent of The Well to get their foot on the ladder.

Leeds boasts many other great venues like The Well, run by promoters who work hard and lengthy hours for next to no money so that nascent bands can have a go.

Without them there would be no Kaiser Chiefs, no Arctic Monkeys, no Cribs – none of the million sellers that Yorkshire has produced.

Like all music fans in the city I have many great memories of the place and it has, inadvertently, taught me many lessons over the years.

When I was in my early-20s a band called Shadows Fall from the US were booked for a mid-summer date. At the time they were huge and I had seen them perform in front of thousands just a few weeks earlier at a music festival.

However, a problem with the promotion meant that this rising-giant of a band had to perform in front of only a handful of punters. As I waited for them to start, my friend and I bemoaned the lack of a crowd and how embarrassing it was that so few people were there. We were sure the gig would be a damp squib.

That night Shadows Fall played with the same blazing intensity they had at the festival some weeks earlier, as if in front of thousands once more. The band treated every gig the same, offering whoever was in front of the stage the same first-class professionalism and commitment no matter how many were there.

Perhaps the most indelible memory came some years earlier when the band I was in at university were reluctant to even play there, preferring to perform in clubs rather than established music venues in the mistaken belief it would give us urban credibility.

What made us swallow our pride was the words of Martin, the man who ran the studio we practiced at: “It’s a hole, but it’s a hole everyone has to play. No matter who you are in this city, you have to play there.”

Martin’s words persuaded us to accept the gig we had been offered; it turned out to be a great gig for us and showed me personally that there is no such thing as being “too good” for any part of life.

Another valuable lesson learned. Another of our region’s hidden treasures lost, seemingly forever.