Today AUK launches a new feature about those small local venues that are the heart and soul of our music. Often run on a hand to mouth basis by dedicated individuals, sometimes at their own cost, and all for nothing more than a love of the music. Hopefully, in the coming months, you will read about somewhere nearby and be tempted to pop along for a night of entertainment at a modest price. You will most likely pay on the door and won’t have to worry about being scalped on the internet for tickets at inflated prices. If, like me, standing is not something that comes easy these days then most likely you will be able to sit in comfort and share a place at the bar and buy some signed merchandise from the very hands of your hero/heroine.
AUK writer Clint West summed it up well thus in his review of his 2019 gig-going:
“In an age when we can access our favourite music in so many ways and so many forms, for me the best way remains – live. I’m not talking massive stadium or arena gigs, but small and medium-sized venues with character and intimacy. With only a handful of exceptions, these are the places where most Americana artists will ply their trade in the UK. Luckily for me, there are a number of such venues in Manchester providing the opportunity to see top acts for relatively small amounts of money’’.
So let me start with my local favourite, ‘Biddulph Up in Arms’ run by Craig Pickering but started in 1986 by Eric Cox as the Biddulph Folk Club. Biddulph is a small town, but not one of the five, on the outskirts of Stoke on Trent. It has a mining heritage and edges onto the Staffordshire Moorlands.
Craig felt that the title ‘Folk Club’ was potentially limiting and decided to substitute ‘Up in Arms’ on the basis that it was upstairs at the Biddulph Arms (a pub now sadly shut). Whatever the style of music or title he feels that the bottom line is that it is about songwriting. Over the years he has been able to attract artists of the calibre of Seth Lakeman, Cara Dillon, Eddie Reeder and Kate Rusby Craig feels that perhaps his greatest coup and his favourite band have been Hot Club of Cowtown (and I can attest to their popularity and sheer musicianship).
In recent times after the closing of the Biddulph Arms venues have been the Town Hall and nearby St Lawrence Church. There have been a small number of recent events at the Hartshill Tap (midway between Newcastle under Lyme and Stoke) and the Foxlowe Arts Centre in Leek. Craig is visibly proud of the church as a venue and recounts tales of the dropping of artistic jaws as musicians come through the door for the first time. Another venue occasionally used has been the Clonter Opera Theatre, based on a farm in a rural setting near to Congleton. If you are familiar with the film Fitzcarraldo then you should really check this place out!
Craig puts on a programme of quality, well-known artists. My highlights over recent years have been Slaid Cleaves (probably my all-time favourite and ‘second to none’ according to Mrs Sharpe) Diana Jones, Hot Club of Cowtown and Rod Picott. You will rarely if ever pay more than £15 for the pleasure.
Before I ever spoke to Craig I felt I had the measure of the man who limited his introductions to “Great artist or band / Lucky to have them here / Give them a big hand”. Not one of those who once with a microphone in hand needs to be crowbarred away. Everything is focused on the act and not the promoter.
If you need further proof of his approach then the free bar at the last gig before Christmas and the warm round of applause for his last years work later in the evening speak for themselves. He is clearly well-liked, refreshingly self-deprecating and the feeling is almost that of a family gathering. Craig is quick to pay tribute to the band of helpers (they know who they are) who help keep the show on the road.
It’s highly likely over all that time that there would be amusing moments and one relayed to me and printable was about the night at the Biddulph Arms when Dyno-Rod turned up to clean out the drains. They were not the most sympathetic of backing bands but did cease operations when asked.