In praise of Puppies
Wellington's newest music venue isn't all that new - just new to me. Puppies (and yes, I hate the name - but that really doesn't matter) used to be called Happy. And then Happy fell on sad times and closed up so Ian Jorgensen - better known to most as Blink - reopened the bar as Puppies, reimagining it as a venue.
Happy/Puppies always had the stumbling block of a big pillar in the way (what is it with those and Wellington venues?). So Happy went from having a stage that nobody could see to making the stage the dance-floor/bar-floor and pushing everyone up on to the stage. It was cosy - but it made getting a drink difficult and meant you were part of the show whether you wanted to be or not.
So, first thing Blink has done with Puppies is put the stage back where it should be, angling it, putting it in the back corner so that the visibility is as good as can be - given those pesky poles.
The commitment is to making a venue - rather than a bar first and foremost. You can still get a drink and some food but you are there, hopefully, to see - and hear - the music.
So Blink kicked off the venue last year with the selling point being affordable gigs that started on time. A standard annoyance is turning up for 8 or 9pm for a gig that starts at 11 or midnight.
It's fine for the elegantly wasted but when you have a (real) job to get to the next day and a babysitter to pay (in kindness, or otherwise) the last thing you want is to be out for six hours to hear 90 minutes of music.
I've only made it to Puppies in the last month or two. And so far I've seen three excellent gigs.
First up was David Kilgour - a reminder of why the nonchalant phenomenon is always worth seeing. Always different, always the same...
And then I saw The Bads and Craig Terris Band - a shame about the woeful under-attendance but both bands played great sets.
The following night I was lucky to get along to see Lawrence Arabia's Man Alone show; just James Milne with guitar, piano, voice.
These shows were cheap. Two of them were well attended. All of them were great value for money - superb sets from great artists.
The venue was never oversold or uncomfortable, the audience was respectful, engaged, interested. People were drinking, buying drinks while the show was happening, all of that. But the annoying tyre-kickers weren't around. It was all about the music; what a novelty! People in a bar - at a venue - to see and hear music.
The early playing times have shifted, I've noticed. Earlier shows at 8 and 9pm presumably were not working and it seems the headliners are now hitting the stage for 10.30 but the marketing remains: all playing times are strictly adhered to. So the poster and the gig listing tells you what time to expect both the opening act and the main show - and both acts will go on stage at the time advertised. No waiting for more people to turn up, no whim of the performer, no waiting to sell more drinks. When it's show time - it's show time.
I love this.
It's obviously what a lot of people have been asking for.
Blink has some great ideas - I wrote about his DIY Touring the World book last year. And he's working on another book currently. He's also the mastermind behind Camp A Low Hum. He's a tireless worker/campaigner for music - he's a dab hand with the old camera too.
But with Puppies he's offering a wonderful service - gigs that happen when they are supposed to, at a price that is affordable and there's great talent, great quality. All three shows I've seen - and I hope to get to many more - have featured decent opening acts too; in most cases you could argue that the shows are double bills, a showcase for local, emerging talent.
One of the artists that performed at Puppies early on praised the fact that Blink had supplied paper to the Green Room so the band could write a set-list. It was just there. They didn't have to ask for it. This might not sound like much, but it's the little touches. Things that show the venue is there for the music first and foremost. It might not be the smartest business plan but in the idealistic world of gig-going and music-writing, I just wanted to praise Puppies.
I think they're doing it right.
Have you been to Puppies? Have you played there? What do you think of the venue - or the concept of the venue? And do you agree we need more places prepared to take a stand and put the music first? Or is this commercial suicide? And does that even matter?
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.