Church venues alter vibe of live gig


Hallowed interiors tend to shift punters into worship mode, which is at odds with bopping till you drop

What is it that people are looking for when they go to a gig? Good music and a chance to let their hair down at the very least? We all know venues that deliver on that promise. But lately punters have been lured to churches masquerading as music venues – with very mixed results.

I blame Philip King and Dingle’s Church of St James. Ever since Other Voices took up residence in this intimate setting, there’s been a slow, steady rise in the range of events being programmed in these (sometimes former) hallowed settings. In December alone, we’ve had The Gloaming and Beth Orton, both in St Stephen’s Church (better known as The Pepper Canister). Then we’ve had Róisín Ó’s performance in St Stephen’s Green’s Unitarian Church, not to mention an entire summer season of trad sessions in the same venue, most of which, it should be said, were exceedingly well attended.

All these gigs in sacred settings might be all well and good if you rate highly the prospect of spending a cold winter’s night seated ramrod straight on a church pew, while your artist of choice delivers the goods. Truth is, people tend to adopt a hushed reverence upon entering a church, which isn’t quite the laid back, chilled out vibe that’s needed to enjoy live music – even if you do idolise the performer. And as for the often dodgy acoustics – ideal for choral music but often ill suited to any alternatives – and the deathly cold – some of these gigs bear closer kinship to penitential rites than they do to celebrations of the “devil’s music”.

There’s no doubting that sometimes this marriage works. The Gloaming’s meditative music sat comfortably within the hallowed walls of The Pepper Canister, but Beth Orton all but acknowledged the po-faced quality of the same venue at her recent Dublin gig. Somehow all that effete, law-abiding applause didn’t sit easily with an artist in the business of flogging a new album. After politely complimenting the beauty of her surrounds, Orton exhorted her audience to let rip and not to be stymied by the setting. But whooping and hollering is hardly the behaviour most of us have been raised to associate with a church setting, unless we’ve spent our formative years in an evangelical faith where unfettered expression is a precondition of membership.

A brief glance around many of these church settings reveals an average punter age that strongly correlates with greying hair and sensible shoes.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that demographic: truth be told, I belong to it myself – but one of the things I’ve always relished about live music, especially in Ireland, is its ability to lure punters of every age to its doors, and there’s a curious narrowing of the demographic in these settings. On top of all that, church venues have a tendency to shift punters into worship mode, clearly at odds with bopping til you drop.

And then there’s the small matter of the dry venue. With ne’er a sign of a bar, there’s little point in an interval (often the opportunity for the melting pot of punters to swap salty opinions on the performance), so gigs are spit-polished, done and dusted long before the witching hour with punters filing home obediently, without a bead of sweat between them.

We may have empty churches for a variety of reasons, but since when was it the job of the music business to find a new use for them? Church venues are in danger of bleeding the life out of great live music. Then again, maybe some of us have too much baggage attached to those institutions to be able to really relax in a pew, facing an altar, no matter what musical genius serenades us.