Jeff Buckley ... David Gray ... Dan Deacon ... Whelan’s of Wexford Street has hosted some great gigs over the past 20 years. As the venue celebrates its birthday, Jim Carroll finds out how a Dublin pub in the wrong part of town became an institution
WHEN Whelan’s opened as a gig venue in 1989, Dublin’s Wexford Street was a row of bars full of hard-chaws, and music fans were thin on the ground. But what Whelan’s had in its favour then is still its trump card two decades on: an amazing room for live music. Hundreds, nay thousands, of acts have played in Whelan’s over the years, each one leaving their mark on the four walls and the memories of some classic gigs.
The venue was originally owned by Ballykissangel and Eastenders actor Gary Whelan and his business partner Ian Keith. Dave Allen (no, not that one) began working in Whelan’s as the venue sound engineer before taking over as booker, a job he did 1991 to 1999.
“You wouldn’t recognise the place back then,” he says. “There wasn’t a proper stage for a start, and the PA was just suitable for casual music. There was no dividing wall between the venue and the front bar. Most of the acts were along the lines of the Mary Stokes Blues Band or the International Blues Band.”
To attract punters, Allen went searching for new bands. “The Baggot Inn and The Underground were our competitors, so we robbed a lot of bands who were playing The Baggot, like The Frames and Engine Alley.
“The acts did take a lot of convincing and one of the biggest things we had to do to accelerate the growth of the venue was to build a proper stage. I mean, it was a lovely room and the toilets were, believe it or not, immaculate, but putting in a stage transformed the venue.
“Now it’s a prime street, but back then, there was nothing else to draw you up Aungier Street. It was quite hairy around here and wouldn’t have been considered a good area.”
Allen can still clearly recall a visit from Jeff Buckley. “That was just him on his own on a Monday night and it wasn’t packed out. It was a great gig, probably better than the one he did later with a band. It was the first time I saw groupies at a gig in Whelan’s. He wasn’t very well known then, but you had these fans acting like groupies afterwards.”
Other shows Allen remembers include David Gray (“after his first album, he couldn’t fill a toilet outside of Ireland, but he could stuff Whelan’s), Jonathan Richman, Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook (“amazing atmosphere at his gig”), the Tragically Hip (“no-one knew them in Ireland, but the gig was stuffed with 400 Canadians”) and Crash Test Dummies.
Then, there were the shows which are remembered for different reasons. “There was an Amps gig with Kim Deal, which went crazy,” recalls Allen. “Someone tried to rob the bass guitar and security had to chase someone down Wexford Street to get it back.”
In the late 1990s, the venue became known as the place to see emerging Irish singer-songwriters. “We put on all types of music back then, but the singer-songwriters all hit at the same time and the venue became known for that,” explains Allen. “We used to have a lot of them on because, in fairness, they were popular, but the venue even then didn’t just do singer-songwriters.”
The venue has changed hands twice. In 1991, it was taken over by Liam Hanlon (“a lot of the credit for Whelan’s lasting so long has to go to him,” says Allen) and he subsequently sold it to Frank Gleeson in March 1999.
For the past couple of years, Leagues O’Toole has been the venue booker. “I came in at a time when the singer-songwriter stuff was dying out. The Glen Hansards, Mundys and Josh Ritters had been the staple of Whelan’s for a long time and had probably made the venue quite famous. But the indie thing was really exploding, which made it a really good time for me because I knew that scene very well.”
That said, O’Toole quickly found out that you couldn’t rely on one scene. “Diversity is the key. Jazz, traditional music, older singer-songwriter gigs, they’re all important. You can’t programme five American indie bands a week because the venue will just die on its arse.”
“People still have this image of Whelan’s as some sort of clubhouse for hippie singer-songwriters ... but Biz Markie played here last week, Candi Staton played here, Lightning Bolt were here, Dan Deacon blew the roof off this place, Girl Talk played here and had girls and boys with their tops off dancing on the stage with him. Everything happens here – be it improv jazz, thrash metal, 1960s hippie legends or electro experimentalists.”
The long-term success of the venue comes down to a few things. Dave Allen notes that “there’s always a special atmosphere in the room because it’s the right size to get a stonking gig going.”
“When an artist arrives at this place, the first thing they get a sense of is ‘the room’,” adds Leagues O’Toole. “Then they start browsing the pictures on the wall, they meet Alastair Foley, the production guy, who’ll yap away all night about what bands played through the years. Then you’ve got Joe Nicholson on the door, whose music credentials are second to none. Even the bar staff will talk all night about music. I don’t know if this is the case at other venues these guys are playing around the world but at Whelan’s, it’s all about music.”
In the coming months, there will be a number of special gigs to mark the venue’s 20th birthday and there are also plans for a book. “We’re compiling a book on Whelan’s at the moment and would like to hear from people who have posters or memorabilia from the early days,” says O’Toole.
He believes the venue’s past will more than stand to it for the next 20 years. “Sure, people want to play Vicar Street because it’s a beautiful venue and has a great atmosphere and it’s programmed so well. But Whelan’s has a different appeal and the proof of the pudding is all the artists who want to come back time and time again.”
Readers' Whelan's moments
Readers have been recalling their favourite Whelan's gigs on our On The Recordblog. Here are some of the comments.
Townes Van Zandt on a weekday night back in 94 or 95. He made me and my mate miss our last bus home. We had to walk and we didn't mind one bit. - Q
Watching Katell Keineg from the balcony dedicating her new single to her friend Jeff Buckley who died a few weeks before. The crowd sang the song beautifully. Perfect moment. - Peter N
The irish debut (in Whelans of course!) by David Gray was sublime. - James D
Some great ones over the years. Sebadoh, The National, The Shins, Built to Spill, The Dirtbombs. - overfriendly concierge
The National in November 05 was tops for me. - RH
So many to choose from! I've probably forgotten heaps. Vic Chesnutt, October '94. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, month, '97. Mogwai, January '98. Jad Fair Teenage Fanclub, April (?) '02. The National, November '05. Grizzly Bear, May '07. Okkervil River, December '07. Daniel Johnston and Friends, July '08 - Fiona
Arctic Monkeys in August 05 was fairly special as well, stood beside chattin to jamie cook's parents all the way thru. - andy
I saw JJ72 on my 18th birthday. The support band blew them away. Yes, it was when Snow Patrol still rocked hard live. - ciaran
The Redneck Manifesto supported by Dirty Projectors. Greg Proops did a two hour comedy set about 12 years ago which was incredible. - Conor
Ringing in the new year with the Chalets, Ham Sandwich Boss Volenti. - the Decline
This makes me feel really young, but the Fight Like Apes EP launch in 2007 was the first gig I went to in Whelans and still one of the best. - gabbagabbahey
The first time Dan Deacon played there ... pure drunken chaos and silly fun. - Spacey
Mundy plays Whelan’s tonight and tomorrow as part of the venue’s 20th anniversary celebrations. www.whelanslive.com