When a musician plays at an RSL club, it can be an indication that their career isn't in the best shape. Yet artists such as You Am I's Tim Rogers, who played at this years AFL grand final, local icon Paul Kelly, Canadian singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright and US roots star Steve Earle are all embracing Victoria's smaller venues, playing intimate gigs alongside their much larger shows.
Music scenes are popping up in Oakleigh, Elsternwick and Gippsland's Meeniyan while, in the city, musicians who can pull a crowd are playing tiny gigs at record stores and tucked-away creperies and backstreet pubs. Jazz acts are a regular event at Collingwood's Ethiopian restaurant The Horn and St Kilda seafood joint Claypots. Patrick Donovan, CEO of Music Victoria, says he's hearing more and more that musicians and music fans prefer intimate venues. "A lot of artists were sick of playing pubs because it's just rowdy, quite often people are drinking in the public bar and it bleeds through to the band room," he says. Bands played at halls, wineries, footy ovals and a renovated substation during a recent Off the Beaten Track tour of the state organised by Music Victoria.
Peter Foley, who runs nights at the Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL under the Caravan Music Club moniker, can boast Tim Rogers, J Mascis, Don Walker and Tony Joe White as just a few of the artists he has pulled to the south-eastern suburb. The club, he says, has "that country hall kind of friendliness. A lot of it's kind of uncool but it resonates with people because they see something real." Here's a dozen quirky venues to try...
Open Studio, 204 High Street, Northcote, openstudio.net.au
The foray of friends Taegen Hannah and Eloise Caleo into hosting live music began with speakeasies under Northcote's Merri Creek bridge. Then in 2006 the pair decided to give their gypsy-jazz nights a permanent home in High Street. From the street, Open Studio could be any other cafe but inside this tiny European-style bar, which sells only drinks and crepes, is a rollicking music venue. Bands play traditional styles of music including tango, flamenco, fado and swing, and it is one of the few places in Melbourne were you can see Serbian, Italian and Greek music outside of community clubs. "Often, after the band has finished, there will be a jam and everyone will bunch around and be singing," Hannah says. "And the quiet girl," Caleo adds, "who was sitting at the bar all night will break out with this amazing voice and have everyone spellbound." Musicians staff the bar and often play instruments between serving drinks.
The Basement Discs, 24 Block Place, city, basementdiscs.com.au
Suzanne Bennett and Rod Jacobs chose the Basement Discs' Block Arcade location especially so it could accommodate their Friday lunchtime gigs as well as their vinyl and CDs for sale. "The natural acoustics of our space with its arches and brick walls and columns promotes great in-house sound without bothering our neighbours needlessly," says Bennett, who was inspired by the Cavern Club, in a Liverpool cellar, where the Beatles famously played. The Basement Discs is cosy and cave-like, down a long flight of stairs. Artists such as Canadian pop singer Feist have lent their time to play free gigs to a crowd of no more than a hundred.
Lyrebird Arts Council Inc, Meeniyan Town Hall, Whitelaw Street, Meeniyan, lyrebirdartscouncil.com.au
Gippsland residents Ian Bevington and his partner, Suzanne Henderson, were frustrated that they had to travel to Melbourne just to see live music. In 1999 they started the Lyrebird Music Council and began hosting gigs at the Meeniyan Town Hall. More than a decade on, the council has drawn international acts such as Martha Wainwright and Nashville's Steve Earle to the 300-person capacity hall. Wainwright, who has played at the hall three times, loves the lifestyle down there, says Bevington. "She loves the fact that people care about her, that people will take her baby off her and go for a walk," he says. Bevington believes the appeal lies in their unpretentious approach. "People like Steve Earle get a lot of response from Melbourne people because they don't want to go to the gigs in town," He says. "We're a little bit corny and have a table-seated cabaret format, and to see Steve Earle in that kind of environment they will come from all over the place - even Darwin."
The Yarraville Club, 135 Stephen Street, Yarraville, cherryrock.com.au
Cherry Rock, the company behind inner-city haunt Cherry Bar, is adding another venue to its line-up - out west. Managing director James Young is teaming up with the Caravan Music Club's Peter Foley to bring live shows to a social club in Yarraville. Young says that, despite the suburb's growing creative community, there are few well-booked venues in the area. "If you've got a mortgage and young kids," says Young, "maybe you can't afford to taxi in to the city for a late night. But if you can book a babysitter for an affordable three-hour burst, and you can see great live music just up the street, then you can go out and feel alive again."
Launching November 3, for the 40th anniversary of the Rolling Stones album Exile On Main Street. Guests include the Wolfgramm Sisters, Ash Naylor and Nick Barker.
Pure Pop Records, 221 Barkly Street, St Kilda, purepop.com.au
St Kilda's Pure Pop Records looks like any other record store - until you reach its courtyard. For the past six years, Dave Stevens, son of AC/DC's Bon Scott, has held gigs in his shop's small garden area. Artists such as Tim Rogers and Kate Miller-Heidke have graced the small, makeshift stage for Stevens' renowned afternoon gigs. Having battled noise complaints and council restrictions for several years, Stevens held a fundraiser at the Prince Bandroom in May to help him soundproof the store's outdoor area, which garnered support from a bevy of local artists including Paul Kelly. There are few places in Melbourne where you can drink a latte or a beer, enjoy live music - and browse for vinyl.
Caravan Music Club, Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL, 95-97 Drummond Street, Oakleigh, caravanmusic.com.au
Starting as mini-gigs in Peter Foley's lounge room, the Caravan Music Club moved to the Oakleigh Bowling Club before finally finding a home in the art deco Oakleigh/Carnegie RSL building. Tickets include dinner (at tables with candles and red-checked cloths) and a show (on a stage with a proscenium arch), and the relaxed vibe means children are welcome. "We try to keep that lounge-room feel but on a bigger scale," Foley says. Hosting four shows a week, the club specialises in rock, roots and blues, bringing Australian artists and international stars to the sleepy neighbourhood. Foley has recently started another venture, the Flying Saucer Club at Caulfield RSL, which is going for more of a jazz vibe and has already hosted acts such as Renee Geyer.
Six more quirky venues …
The Horn Co-owner Peter Harper likes to blow his own horn - literally. From Thursday to Sunday, the jazz musician performs with various bands at the Ethiopian restaurant he runs with his wife, Enushu. 20 Johnston Street, Collingwood 9417 4670
The Gem Rockabilly bands cram into this Americana-style Collingwood pub and tribute nights, which have included covers of Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, go down a treat with the locals. 289 Wellington Street, Collingwood, 9419 5170
Tago Mago As Northcote becomes gentrified, the suburb's large musician population heads north. Hidden away in a still sparse strip of High Street in Thornbury, Tago Mago is a cafe by day and a music venue by night. 744 High Street, Thornbury, 9484 1470
Chaucer Cellars This Glen Iris wine cellar and delicatessen hosts regular Live on the Rug nights which have attracted the likes of talented husky-voiced singer Lisa Miller. Book in advance for dinner and a show. 155 Burke Road, Glen Iris, 9509 7936
Theatre Royal Adding to Castlemaine's ever-growing charm, the 160-year-old Theatre Royal is attracting big acts. Cat Power has played there twice, Henry Wagons is on the bill this month. 30 Hargraves Street, Castlemaine, 5472 1196
The Old Bar This tiny Fitzroy haunt bar has managed to keep true to its unpretentious form in the ever-developing Fitzroy. It is a favourite with up-and-coming rock bands and veterans alike. 74 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, 9417 4155