Words: Mike Robbo
It’s been well over a year since construction began on the soon-to-open Hull Venue. From a construction site commented on from across the road on the marina, (often in disparaging terms, as is our nature in Hull,) to a magnificent-looking structure that will put us up there with the big hitters as far as tour circuits are concerned. We did alright last year in terms of large-scale events, moreso because of the City of Culture, but the new space will ensure that Hull will no longer be ignored by touring bands and performers. We’re almost used to having to travel to Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield or even London to see our favourite acts play. It’s something we expect, and when you factor in travel costs, accommodation, and extra spends to accommodate ‘making a weekend of it,’ you’re looking at a few hundred quid just to see a concert. Well, that’s about to change. We’ve got this place on our doorstep, and it’s about fucking time.
Of course, you’ve got your internet complainants, people with nothing better to do with their lives. ‘It’s too big!’, ‘It’s too small!’, ‘No one will ever come to Hull anyway!’ These are the kind of people who rarely leave their houses anyway, but such is the way with the internet, it’s full of idiots howling into the wind, talking loud, saying nothing. About things they don’t really give two fucks about anyway. Until Albert Kelly buys some chicken nuggets when he’s leathered, then they’re on to the next negativity-fest, casting their inadequacies onto a screen. Everyone seems to have preconceived ideas about Hull Venue though; most of the people I know are regular gig-goers, comedy fans or sports enthusiasts, so it’s something that affects them, so their opinions are valid, and I’d listen to their concerns over some spotty little Herbert in a basement on Preston Road, who are just taking a break from PornHub to spew forth his unsolicited observations on something that is of no concern of his. Or indeed hers.
But I defy anyone to have any doubts upon entering the main room for the first time. It’s quite simply breathtaking. On the approach, it’s impressive too. When it was being put up, you got the feeling that it would be boxed in, in between Prinny Quay and Maplins, but if anything, it’s freed up space, and it stands alone, majestically, leaving plenty of space to get excited on the walk up to it. The benches outside are specifically designed, with no sharp edges, to be skateboard-friendly, and there’s a large space in front, which seems to have been designed precisely with this in mind. From the outset, it feels welcoming and inclusive, which is something sorely lacking in the age of soulless, sterile enormodomes. It’s a nice touch, and it feels personal, displaying a come-one-come-all vibe which pulses through the whole venue.
We’re here to meet with Paul Savage, head of Entertainment, Sales and Marketing for the SMG-run venue, who’s giving us a private guided tour around the £36 million building, and his enthusiasm for the new venture is palpable. There’s the occasional lapse into marketing-speak, but as he asserts, he doesn’t need to sell it; it sells itself, and as soon as you walk into the main arena, any doubts you might have had are immediately assuaged, as you’re taken aback by the sheer slickness of the place. It’s an enormous room, with space for 2,500 standing punters, and around 1000 seats. The grey walls and floors are beautifully offset by the plush red seats, and the stage sits resplendently at the front of the room with black drapes as a classy backdrop. You immediately start to imagine it rammed with music filling the place, and smiling punters bouncing up and down in unison. I picture a Liam Gallagher concert in here. Obviously.
Gallagher junior is inextricably linked with the venue already, before it’s even opened its doors. In a dig at his older brother, who dissed Hull from the stage at a show in America, Liam famously offered to play the opening gig at the venue. Mr-Tweet-before-thinking immediately responded, making promises that he can’t possibly keep; it’s difficult to imagine he has any say in his business affairs, but a promise is a promise, and his appearance in the future is still a very distinct possibility. Paul’s poker-face isn’t very convincing, and he’s not promising anything, but crucially, he’s not denying anything either. Liam’s comeback has seen him go from being universally vilified to launching a charm offensive and totally reversing public opinion of him. Pretty much a mirror image of Hull, as a city. A former ‘crap town’ which now everyone wants to visit. So the opening of the venue is timed to perfection.
‘Hull has enjoyed a massive about-turn in terms of how it’s perceived by outsiders, and the aim is to give the developing city a venue to be proud of,’ says Paul. ‘We’re now being involved in conversations to be included on the regular touring circuit. Whereas previously, it’s Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle in the north, we’re now able to compete for arena acts, and being part of SMG gives us access to acts of Liam’s ilk.’
Just reading about this offer to open new venue in HULL send me the dates and if I’m around I’d love to I love HULL as you were LG x
— Liam Gallagher (@liamgallagher) March 8, 2018
I mention that for a space of this size, it somehow manages to feel intimate; the seats are steeply arranged so they’re almost on top of the stage and even though you may be seated at the back, it doesn’t seem too far from the stage despite the large floor area.
‘Absolutely,’ he continues. ‘It’s purpose-built exactly in this way. Wherever you are inside the arena, you feel included; you feel part of the action. There’s a good view wherever you are. There are no pillars, no obstructions, impairing views. Even if you’re seated on the back row in the second tier, because it’s steep, you feel in amongst it all. Everything is facing straight towards the stage, right at the action. It’s not a massive place like Leeds or Manchester Arenas, but it’s not small. In-between is perfect for the live experience. We can also flatten down the seats on the first level to make more floor space for the bigger performances. It’s all cleverly designed with the audience in mind. Bigger acts have the option of doing 2 or 3 nights, so it still retains its intimate feel. It’s perfect for comedy acts too, who tend to prefer intimate places. We’ll cover the floor with seats, so there’s a closeness to the performer. It’s big and intimate if that makes any sense.’ It makes perfect sense, I say.
I ask about some of the acts already booked and the response to them.
‘It’s been mostly positive. Tickets have flown out. We could have sold out George Ezra about ten times over. They all went in 45 minutes. Madness sold out in a week. Jack White sold quickly. Culture Club, and Rick Astley are a few tickets from selling out. The thing is, the ones we’ve announced is about a quarter of what we’ve already booked. We’re sitting on some massive acts, but we can’t announce die to tour embargos, and album release dates, but you’ll be blown away by some of the stuff we’ve got lined up.’ He’s careful to wait until my recorder is switched off before disclosing some of the acts booked. And there are some corkers. Paul’s a music fan, and it shows. He’s visibly excited when enthuses about forthcoming acts. ‘We’re obviously not just a live music venue though, there’s scope to do sporting events. Darts, snooker, basketball and boxing. Tommy Coyle was one of the first people down when we opened the doors to private viewings; he’s really keen to get involved, so the potential is huge. We’ve already got such a diverse variety of events and we’ve not even opened yet. Ideally, we’re looking to do two or three events a week when we’re in full swing.’
Have there been any negative responses?
‘Yeah, of course. The internet, whilst being great as a promotional tool, gives voice to a certain kind of person who just likes to rubbish everything, but generally the response has been mostly positive. We have to appeal to everyone, and of course, there’ll be dissenting voices about things that people don’t like, that’s normal. As well as an entertainment venue, and the fact we’re all huge music fans, it’s a big venue and a big space. There are already some amazing spaces in the city for some of the slightly more obscure stuff.’
Billy, in his basement, would love to see Momus booked, but that’s senseless, and there are plenty of venues in Hull to cater for less renowned acts. Hull Venue straddles the line between the mainstream and the more successful end of cult artists. It’s for the masses essentially. It’s hard to imagine the people of Leeds or Manchester complaining that Strictly on Ice or whatever being booked at their multi-purpose arenas. They know that they exist to appeal to a broader section of the population than just the indie snobs and ‘clued-up’ clubbers. Speaking of which, I mention the venue would be ideal for big-name DJs with the emphasis now on DJs as ‘performers.’ In my day, people in clubs faced each other; the DJ was merely a conduit for their night, providing the soundtrack to future memories. These days, it’s cameras out, crowd facing the DJ while he or she has to put on a show. Hull Venue seems perfectly equipped to cater for these kind of events.
‘Absolutely, we’d love to host some of the bigger DJs. Obviously, your David Guettas and Calvin Harrises of this world are probably too big, but some of the smaller big DJs, such as Fatboy Slim do tours, and we’re more than qualified to accommodate these kinds of events. Some local promoters have already been in touch, and we welcome getting on board with all local acts and existing local events. Also, it’s important to get involved in the community and use it as a space to showcase local talent’
I tell him, I love the idea that the opening night will be a BBC Introducing-curated night, involving four of Hull’s up-and-coming bands.
‘Yes, we’ve got Chiedu, who really gets what we’re trying to do here, Bud Sugar, The Hubbards and La Bête Blooms, so it’s a really diverse bill featuring some of the best local artists. BBC Introducing obviously recognises the need to acknowledge the local scene, as do we, so it was planned to be one of the first events, but to actually open with it feels right. So as well as being on the circuit for more established acts, we’re really keen to work with local promoters, acts, comedians, whatever will work really.’
The name Hull Venue was never meant to be permanent; it was named by the Council and has, in the last few days, been named the Bonus Arena, and enters the realm of the sponsored arena, which, when you strip away the corporate angle, is a good thing, as, like it or not, a branded venue has more clout, and will attract bigger acts. We’ve always moaned that Hull is forgotten when larger acts tour, so it’s a fair trade-off.
Paul takes us on the guided tour, and it’s all quite intoxicating as rooms and different areas are revealed. There is a smaller second room which can operate whilst the main arena is in use, as a soundproofed wall separates the two. Ideal for intimate acoustic gigs or Under the Influence-type events where musicians are invited to talk about their careers. The possibilities are endless. There are function rooms, bar areas, hospitality suites and potential restaurant areas, and I can happily inform you that the seats are comfortable, wide and offer plenty of leg room. It’s all top-notch stuff, and a venue for a Hull to be proud of.
As the success of 2017 proved, people’s perceptions of Hull have changed. Promoters now consider the city as a viable option, whereas before they were nervous that events wouldn’t sell. 2017 proved that we’re more than capable of selling the fuck out of anything. In a way, the City of Culture raised expectations, so now people expect more, and with this latest addition, they can look forward to more. Now we need to keep this new-found positivity going, and this is the job at hand for Paul and his team; to capitalise on the fact that we’ve shed all negative connotations, and use the momentum gained to keep things moving. The timing is perfect. Had it opened last year, it’d have been an unwelcome distraction I think, but now, we go to the next level, and we crack on. It’s great for the area too. It’s ripe for local entrepreneurs to get involved and open up bars and restaurants in the area. Its close proximity to the marina also means that area will continue to grow, which is a win/win for everybody.
It’s time to end our tour of the place, I’ve enjoyed actually talking to Paul, he is genuinely excited about the possibilities in store, and he shares the same passion for music that I do. You can’t fake that. “He understands some of the events won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but when the recorder’s switched off, and he rattles off some of the names that have been booked but not announced, he can’t contain his pride and passion, it’s refreshing. I was expecting rehearsed corporate patter, but I got someone who’s genuinely thrilled to be part of this. And you should be too.
All that remains is for me to get on that stage a pull my best Liam Gallagher pose for the camera. Looking out into the crowd of two, I start to get shivers imagining what it’d be like to perform here. Good shivers. And what it’ll be like to be on the other ride side, as a punter.
Hull Venue’s gonna smash it, our kid.
Tickets for all future events can be found here: https://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/Bonus-Arena-Hull-tickets-Hull/venue/442868