Historically, Bristol's oldest live music venue was formerly a wool factory, built in the 1830s in the typical Bristol Byzantine style and known as Wool Hall — it is now the 400-capacity venue we know and love as The Fleece. Constructed slightly later, controversially, Colston Hall has since been associated with the slave-trade days. Symptomatically, certain artists have outright refused to play this venue for these reasons (despite the fact that, if we were to delve far enough into the pasts of most buildings - let alone music venues - a colourful history would likely reveal itself - this is true of Bristol's smaller venues such as The Louisiana, a former jail-house, concealing secret tunnels beneath its foundations).
But that hasn't prevented Colston Hall from staying firm to its roots - to bring eclectic musicians and performers to Bristol's hub; and since its establishment in 1867 as a music venue to rival Liverpool's St George's Hall, it has seen acts perform, across three venues, and still rates internationally as a well respected pinnacle of Britain's live music and concert venues.
Don't Panic spoke with Programming Coordinator, Todd Wills who has been in his role at Bristol's Colston Hall since July 2012 and explains that it has been quite a learning curve, to be involved in such a large venue, after his freelance work in London. We spoke about the current and future plans for Colston Hall.
Structurally, possibly in need of repair and refurbishment, there is a clear demarcation between the newer and original parts of the building. Built in the 1860s, a major refit took place, with completion in 2009, with the addition of the glass-fronted atrium, foyer bar and The Lantern. Todd tells us that future plans to the interior design of the building include redevelopment of the Main Hall and expanding the back-stage areas, designed by architects Levitt Bernstein. There are also plans to convert the underground cellars used in the 19th century as part of the customs trade, into educational spaces, studios and workshop space, as well as intimate live performance areas.
"We have a photo exhibition in the Glass Room in the Foyer featuring some of the previous artist that have played."
There are plans soon to emerge in the upcoming months, to unveil an online archive feature which charts the acts to have played at Colston Hall historically (and who knows, maybe even chronologically).
"We’ve been developing an online archive for the last 18 months and hope for it to go live in March of this year. It’s an amazing resource with information on some of the incredible gigs that have happened here over decades and decades."
A significant twist in the future tale of Colston Hall will be to steer it in more of a festival, 'open air' direction — especially after the recent success of the Simple Things festival based in the city. The roof-top DJ sets were a big hit and something that they will be developing further in the summer months:
"The multiple spaces in the venue are what sets us apart really. We’ve found that this is ideal for festivals and was particularly successful during Simple Things when we had gigs on in the main hall, the foyer, in The Lantern and on the roof terrace. In fact the DJs on the roof terrace worked so well we’re going to do a series of live shows up there during the summer this year."
It might be easy to assume that they are trying to replicate clubbier venues such as the 02 Academy and the quirkier venues such as The Thekla and liberal sonic space, The Trinity. But if we were to choose one venue to parallel with Colston Hall, we think it would be St George's Hall just a stone's throw from Park Street. Both Colston Hall and St George's Hall will always have that classical, timeless quality - but let's face it, Bristol's smaller, characterful venues have buckets of charm when it comes to sweat, tears and rock 'n' roll. That's not to say that Colston Hall hasn't had its share of trashed gear, self sabotage and intoxicated musicians, though...
"I guess there is a perception of Colston Hall as being “clean cut” in comparison to other venues but that doesn’t bother me. I’m more interested in creating the best programme we possibly can and knowing we can match any venue for quality and diversity of programming. Furthermore, I’m not ashamed to say I don’t mind the toilets being clean…"
Comparisons aside, it's safe to say that Bristol's live music scene is more mutually supportive than antagonistic. As Todd explains:
"I wouldn’t say St George’s is our biggest rival, no. We get on very well with them and any other venues we cross paths with. Funnily enough, when I started here I was given the impression by people in the industry that Bristol is known for the rivalry between venues but that hasn’t been my experience at all."
What Colston Hall doesn't have in refurbished boats and former jailhouses, it makes up for in its distinctively niche-like programming:
"We’re the only venue in Bristol where you can see a full orchestra. We’ve tried to create a more interesting offer for audiences in the last season by creating our Symphony Project which concentrated on the symphony form and examples by some of the greatest composers such as Beethoven, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak all played by orchestras originating from each of the composer’s home countries. I think this has had a positive effect on audience numbers as we seem to be bucking the national trend for falling classical audiences."
It definitely works hard to build and retain its audiences - and that shows, with its all-encompassing reach out into the community, too. Through the **Bristol Music Trust**, they have been able to offer wide ranging programmes for anyone to get involved:
"There’s all sorts available through our education sessions. What I particularly like about it is that it’s not just about learning an instrument – although there’s plenty of opportunities to develop those skills – but if you’re a budding promoter there are routes through our education programme where you can learn about that and other areas of the industry outside of performance. I would advise anyone to check out our website to see what’s available and sign up!"
Newer community based venues such as The Island and vintage store-come-venue The Birdcage, as well as arts venue The Watershed, all offer something outside of the predominant focus on live music — but as Todd says, Colston Hall's focus will always remain true to the music:
"We may look at dance in the future but our main focus is music and will remain so."
Bristol's live music venues and their doggedness to keep breathing and thriving despite the lulls in economic buoyancy, are proof that this is a city that values music, creativity and innovation above all else. Colston Hall is the prevailing Mother Ship and Todd believes that the development of a fresh programme is just what the old girl needs:
"We'll give Bristol the sort of forward thinking and innovative concert hall it deserves."
Check out Colston Hall's official website for full details of events, listings and training programmes:
Future concerts include: Suzanne Vega, Kathryn Williams, Bonobo and more.
Also, check out the Remix Project, in collaboration with Nokia MixRadio. More info in the video below: