Clint West meets Dawn and Tania of ‘The Hen House Presents’ at their own Otis Gibbs show.
Recently whilst at a Peter Bruntnell gig, a friend handed me a flyer for an Otis Gibbs show in Manchester. Having been a fan of Otis Gibbs for many years and witnessed several great live shows in that time, my interest was immediately stimulated. As I took in the information from the flyer, one of the first things I noticed was the venue – The Veterans Garage Lounge, not in the city centre, but at the City Airport, Barton, on the outer fringes of Manchester. I also noticed that the gig was being put on by ‘The Hen House Presents’ a name which up to that point, I’d not come across before. My friend was able to give me a bit more information as he’d already attended some shows there and I then visited their website which further heightened my interest. ‘The Hen House Presents’ it turned out was the operating name of two remarkable women putting on live, mainly acoustic music, partly for the love of it but also to raise money for charity. Quite apart from the attraction of Otis Gibbs, I needed to find out more.
Tania George and Dawn Saarepuu have been friends for twenty years, then five years ago they decided to play music together. Tania explains “I had just started learning an instrument and Dawn is a whizz on pretty much everything, so we went from “can you teach me a few chords” in May to starting a band and gigging in September”. At the same time the pair were attending gigs together and grew increasingly frustrated and irritated by people being “plain bloody rude” by talking whilst artists performed. As a result they decided that they would organise their own gigs and learnt some basic sound engineering and how to set up a PA. With the help and encouragement of friends and other musicians, they went ahead and did it. Their gigs aim to provide a listening environment for artists and audience alike. Tania made this very clear to the healthy crowd that had turned out to see Otis Gibbs, telling them what was expected and that if anyone felt the need to chat “we reserve the right to tell you to shut the fuck up”. Unsurprisingly, all the artists including two very good support acts in John W Doyle and Mike West, were listened to in complete silence.
As part of his engaging on-stage patter, Otis Gibbs talked about his own outlook “I haven’t a clue what I’m doing but I decided to do it anyway”. This, Tania says is reflective of their own approach “what we didn’t know we decided to just learn on the fly”. It’s clear that Dawn and Tania are either being very modest or are damn quick learners because the whole evening was thoroughly enjoyable and run superbly. The vibe was akin to a folk club, with the audience there to listen in a warm and friendly atmosphere – hell there was even a raffle to boost the money raised by the evening. The venue itself not only lent itself well to a cosy musical evening, it is also integral to the money that Dawn and Tania raise.
The Veterans Garage Lounge is part of The Veterans Garage charity which supports ex-service personnel. As well as hire charges and bar profits raising money, the venue is used as a social hub for a range of community and ex-service groups. The Hen House Presents have put on a succession of gigs (including 30 streamed gigs during lockdown) of which tonight’s appearance by Otis Gibbs was the latest and perhaps most high profile. In addition, Dawn and Tania run regular fortnightly open-mic acoustic nights and a monthly traditional folk session at the venue. They are building up a regular crowd and hope that by putting on artists like Otis Gibbs they will bring in new people to discover the wonderful things that they are doing.
Otis Gibbs’ dry folk humour and meaningful songs were a perfect fit for the evening which an audience split between his own fans and Hen House regulars, thoroughly enjoyed. In a set which lent heavily on his most recent 2020 album ‘Hoosier National’ but also included a smattering of older favourites, Gibbs displayed all his usual unique presence and stage banter. His voice was in fine fettle and his sometimes understated guitar-work was exemplary. We’ve recently started a new feature at AUK called ‘Small Venue Heroes’, if ever an artist was made for such a title, it is surely Otis Gibbs.
So what is the future for The Hen House Presents? Tania told me “Our aim is to provide a platform for the music that we love to an audience which appreciates it. Ultimately, we want our audience to grow and to trust us enough that they will happily just buy tickets because it is an artist that we have booked and they know and trust our choices and the way we run our gigs…For the artists we want to make sure that they remember playing for us for good reasons; that they have been fairly paid, we make them feel valued and we provide the best stage we can with what we have”.
Meeting Tania and Dawn was an absolute pleasure. They clearly love what they do and the music that they promote. Their enthusiasm is totally infectious and is a large factor in what they have already achieved. If you live in the Manchester area, or even the wider north-west, do yourself a favour and pay them a visit. You’ll not only be supporting a good cause, you’re also pretty much guaranteed a great night out.
>>> Please help to support the running costs of Americana UK, run by a dedicated team in our spare time, by donating £2 a month to us - we'll send you an exclusive 20 track curated playlist every month plus the opportunity to win our monthly giveaway. Click here for more information.