The San Francisco Bath House

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 13:03 14/02/2013

Last weekend I saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor up at The Hunter Lounge. It was a good gig - I liked it. But I was wondering why it had been moved to the Hunter Lounge. It was supposed to be up at The San Francisco Bath House

I mention the San Fran Bath House often; it's my go-to; it's Wellington's best venue for gigs - and as a reviewer it's become something of my third home; the place I go to when I'm not at home or work. Well, it probably shares third-equal with Slow Boat Records, but anyway...

Why was the Godspeed gig at The Hunter Lounge? I knew the San Fran Bath House had moved it there. But I wanted to know more. I needed to know more. There had to be more to the story, right?

So I met with San Fran Bath House owners Tim Ward and Clinton den Heyer. I wanted to hear their side to the story. There seemed like there had to be a story....

Ward remembers being a 12 year old skateboarding down Cuba St ("back in the days when you could fire a gun and not hit anyone"). He saw the entrance to what is now known as the San Francisco Bath House and wondered what was up there.

Twenty years later he is the co-owner of one of the country's great small/mid-sized music venues.

And den Heyer had been the drummer in Weta. He and Ward formed a partnership and in 2006 they bought the business that now trades as The San Francisco Bath House; bought as a going concern - to their knowledge they were buying a venue with a capacity of 500. They would host gigs, they would create "a community hub", den Heyer enthuses.

"All it needed", Ward tells me, "was a decent PA, a good bar and a good stage - we knew we had something".

From 2006 to 2012 the San Fran Bath House traded fairly, as far as it was aware. They have been responsible for hosting so many memorable nights. I've seen many of their very best gigs: M. Ward, Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh (solo), Ween, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Phoenix Foundation, Leila Adu, Wanda Jackson, Dirty Projectors and so very many more - including, most recently, a superb return from Bailterspace but I did not see Godspeed You! Black Emperor there. And there's a reason - I found out why the gig was moved.

In late January of 2013 - a month ago, or so, the owners of the Bath House received a letter from the Compliance Team of the Wellington City Council, acting on behalf of the fire department, this was follow up to a complaint questioning the capacity of the venue.

It turns out the bar has a maximum capacity far smaller than the 500 it was sure it was able to operate at; almost half that number in fact.

In the six years that the San Francisco Bath House has been trading, building up a brand that has seen it as one of the great venues in this country - a reason that Wellington has been home to some of the great national and international shows in recent years - there have been two fire evacuations. Both were during gigs; both resulted in the venue managing to remove everyone from the venue in a safe and timely manner; the report from the fire department gave a big tick, no trouble.

Tim and Clinton are committed to trading - they have met with fire engineers and understand that there is a way to work through this; there is a way that they can comply, regain the capacity they had been trading at; the reduced capacity is a huge ask - a tough business model.

Ward says, "we've got the ultimate problem right now - what we don't have is the ultimate solution". But they're keen to find it. Because, as den Heyer says, "we have, throughout the years, always endeavoured to do the right thing, we have always worked hard to run successful, compliant businesses that add, rather than detract".

Promoters, booking agents and musicians have stood by the venue in the wake of this news, the venue continues to take bookings and will host comedy festival gigs - I should mention that along with all the great music there have been some amazing comedians hosted at the San Fran Bath House, Janey Godley and the remarkable Terry Alderton immediately stand out as people I've seen (more than once) in that venue.

So the Godspeed gig was moved - as it was the responsible thing to do - but there will be other gigs at the San Fran Bath House. Earlier this week I mentioned DJ Yoda - which is on tomorrow night.

And all bookings that are currently in place - up to April and May at this stage - will continue.

But what will happen next? And what will happen to gigs in Wellington if we lose the Bath House; if we lose a great venue, home to so many great nights; so many wonderful gigs? 

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