I love you, James Cabaret

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 12:01 31/01/2014

On Tuesday night I was out to review a hip-hop gig that featured Run The Jewels, Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt. It was the day after the Auckland Laneway Festival and these three acts had been on the bill - so it was like a little treat version for Wellington, a standalone show too, being all hip-hop. And it was - mostly - a really great show. But a part of the happiness and the magic of the show - particularly in terms of the energy from the first two acts - was being back at The James Cabaret.James Cabaret

It's one of my all-time favourite venues. One of Wellington's best chances to keep great music happening...

The venues are dropping like flies. The Town Hall (actually the best venue in Wellington, but that's for bigger shows I guess) is shut down for extensive re-strengthening, we said farewell to the Bath House on New Year's Eve, Mighty Mighty is set to close in a couple of months, as is Puppies.

Where do the children pa-lay-hey?

Late last year it was a great thrill to see Neutral Milk Hotel (also at the James Cab) and though it's opened and closed over the years, been renamed, with attempts to rebrand, it'll always be the James Cabaret to me. That's how I first came to know it.

And it's one of those places where whatever gig I'm at I'm instantly thinking back - in the spaces of the evening, between bands - to the other great gigs I saw within those walls. Instantly reminded of so many good times, so many excellent shows.

Yes, it's a sweatbox, no windows, and it's in a residential space - so no all-nighters, but it has the one thing that almost no other venue in Wellington has going for it: it's a dedicated performance space. Drinking is secondary. This is not a bar hoping to house a few acts on the side. This is a performance space - it's adaptable too - I've seen variety shows comedy there, theatre and talks and lectures, solo performers and bands across dance and blues and hip-hop and jazz and rock and pop genres. The sound is excellent - never had a dud show there. (And obviously a part of that comes down to who is behind the desk, absolutely - but again, it's a dedicated performance space!)

You can get a beer there - and quite reasonably priced I thought, too. And the staff are friendly. But when the show starts it's (usually) all about the show. As a fan of music I like this very much.

Okay, so you have to go upstairs to spend a penny (well, guys do). And the smoking area perhaps isn't the best - I don't really know/care though, I gave up on that form of self-sabotage so long ago now (took up blogging instead).

But I like the fact that it becomes a sweaty little club - that's part of why you go to a gig: to get soaked up in the atmosphere of the event, not to hope that you can hear enough over the beer-hounds and boozers talking and toking, smoking and joking. So what that there's no open-air balcony? So what that there's no windows. There's also no pillar! That, when it comes to gig going in Wellington, is a major attraction.

I can't remember the first gig I saw at the James Cabaret - but I've seen some rippers. In fact I'm not sure I've even - ever - seen what I would call a bad gig there. Well, there was probably one...

Some of the blinders have included a wonderful set from Neil and Tim Finn, in support of that wonderful Finn album; still just about the best thing either of them has done. The best of the wave of reunion/comeback shows from Head Like A Hole (perhaps because it was closest in spirit to the band's back-in-the-day peak?). I've seen Tony Joe White there a couple of times, the first time was one of my favourite concert experiences. It wasn't packed and, from memory, Barry Saunders was the opening act. A great opening act too I should say. And most of the crowd was just parked up on the carpet, sitting, sprawling, relaxed. When the Swamp Fox sauntered to the stage a few people started to stand - he recommended we stay seated. He took requests right from the opening number, improvising a blues about flying into Wellington and then just taking the show from there...that drawl, that snake of guitar, big, big drums in back of him.

It was also the scene of my infamous Paul Kelly story (that's going way back in the blog archives).

And I saw The Angels there - because I won a ticket in a phone-in competition back in the days of Pirate FM (R.I.P you mad, brilliant loon). I wasn't any kind of massive Angels fan but damn that was a good show. Even pinched the setlist as I was right up the front, one of my first times heading along to a gig on my own.

One time at the James Cabaret I saw Tanya Donnelly finish her set with a spot-on cover of Time of The Season by The Zombies. Another time I sat, mouth agape, watching two sets by The Necks. They've been one of my favourite bands ever since. I was front row. Nothing else in the world mattered but the sound those three musicians made.James Cab

And Suzi Ibarra, whose playing just blows me away whenever I hear her - ever since I got hooked on The David S. Ware Quartet album, Wisdom of Uncertainty - played a set with her Electric Kulintang project. Then The Black Keys back when they weren't slut-shaming their best material and greasing up the pop kids.

So many great gigs there.

(And also one by Steve Smith and Vital Information).

There'll be some great shows at the upcoming International Arts Festival, Neko Case is playing the cab, so is Charles Bradley. The Brel show as mentioned in my recent Jon Toogood interview will be at the James Cabaret and the double bill to kill all double bills: Ugly Kid Joe and Skid Row. You heard it here second!

But, where was I, so many good gigs...

Ah, I love you James Cabaret - and I want you to stick around.

Anyone else got good older memories of this place? And anyone else agree it's Wellington's best (only?) purpose-built music venue right now?

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You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts

Postscript: If you're not from Wellington and don't particlarly care about Wellington's venues and venue-issues then here's some news you might enjoy if you've read this far. David Mulcahy has a new album out under his Mulchzoid name, and you should check it out - it's really great. He's making a lot of great music (still).

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