Fans get first taste of venue improvements as Esquires welcomes back gig-goers
It’s been a busy few weeks of socially distanced shows at the Bedford music venue with fans now able to see how some of the Crowdfunding money has been spent.
As you walk towards the entrance of Esquires, it’s instantly obvious the team which run the acclaimed music venue has been using time during lockdown when it was closed to spend some of the money donated through last year's Crowdfunder appeal.
Gone is the ‘Let Us Entertain You’ sign under its name, replaced with a classy ‘cinema style’ board to display acts playing.
The venue has had a fresh coat of paint inside and out and there’s a converted shipping container in the car park, new toilets and even a neon cloakroom sign. And these are just some of the improvements you can see.
Lockdown has had a devastating impact on the music industry, culture and the arts and it’s been no different for Esquires.
In recent weeks, musicians have finally returned to its main stage for socially distanced seated gigs.
However, what a prolonged period of closure allowed was for owner Gareth Barber and the team at Esquires to undertake a laundry list of jobs a music venue would normally never have the luxury of being able to tackle.
“We've never been in a position where we've been able to shut for a period of time to actually do some of the maintenance,” explains Mr Barber, “We’re normally open five nights a week.
“Replacing the toilets for example, that took a month from start to finish.”
Before the Government announced details of grants for music, theatre and arts venues, Mr Barber says he was worried there wasn’t going to be any help. “Nothing was on the table initially,” he explains.
“We tried to raise £20,000 to cover our costs and when we raised £50,000 we had a bit of time to think about what people really want out of the venue.
“Covid has been absolutely awful and devastating for venues up and down the country, but it gave us time to really take stock of what's important and the Crowdfunder gave us the confidence that people really love what we do.
“I didn't really realise that before because you're so engrossed in what you're doing.
“You go from show to show to show and you don't have time to sit back and think.
“People believed in Esquires so much they were willing to donate money to make it survive so we had to think about what we could do to make it better.”
As well as the improvements outside of the venue and new toilets inside, walls have been painted, new floors have been put down, air-conditioning has been installed, the load in and out area for musicians has been overhauled and work done on the roof.
“We've spent the excess crowdfunding money on making the venue better, which we felt we had to do,” Mr Barber explains.
“The plan, when I took Esquires on five years ago, was to make this the best - or try and make it the best - independent venue in the country.
“There’s so many good little venues out there, but if I didn't have that goal, there was no point.
“It’s a constant goal to work towards, we just want to make this the best place it can be for people.”
The building which Esquires occupies is an old church which dates back to the 1800s and with that, as Mr Barber explains, comes regular maintenance.
“There were some issues which have been long-standing,” he explains.
“We needed to fix a bit of roof, we completely dug up and have re-done the load out area, there’s a new smoking area which is a shipping container and we’ve updated the main signage on the front.
“It’s now a cinema style sign which was something I’ve always wanted.”
Regardless of whether or not the Government lifts coronavirus restrictions on June 21, at some point in the near future, fans will return in larger numbers to venues.
However, it’s not the end of the improvements Mr Barber has planned for the venue.
Regulars will know of the false ceiling in the main room on the first floor.
Returning to his aspiration of making Esquires the best independent venue in the country, he adds: “The three year plan is to take the ceiling off the main stage, get rid of the grid, take it out completely and expose the old church above.
“I think from going to places like the Paradiso (in Amsterdam) which is amazing, it would turn the main room into an incredible space.
“We’d have a lot to change, but that’s a longer term plan.”
Sunday marked the end of another week of socially distanced gigs at Esquires.
Since re-opening in June, it’s hosted a raft of familiar names including Tom Hingley from Inspiral Carpets, Mark Chadwick from Levellers and Spike from The Quireboys as well as shows by emerging talent in the form of Low Girl and Viddy.
Talking about having fans back inside he said: “On paper, most of the gigs have been sold out and we’ve only had a few no-shows which I think is understandable.
“It’s been OK, just a bit strange. Forget everything you think you knew about a gig because it's so different but I think people have been getting used to it.
“I think people have been generally excited to be back at shows and excited to see live music again because it's been such a long time.
“Viddy who played with Low Girl said it was her first gig in 16 months.
“I can't imagine what that must feel like for an artist to actually get in front of people again.”
Esquires is part of the national #ReviveLive campaign, launched by the Music Venue Trust, to help safely bring back live music to venues across the country.
If social distancing measures are lifted on June 21 it would mean Esquires could hold regular ‘standing’ shows.
However, Mr Barber said safety was still more important to him and the team which run the venue rather than racing to fill it to capacity.
He said: “Venues that are part of Revive Live have agreed to follow strict guidance in terms of how they run their shows.
“We don't want anything to go wrong at a show, or for someone to be able to turn around and say, ‘the show did that’.
“We haven’t gone out there and posted, a ‘biggest party in the world’ type event for the 21st of June.
“We just want to see what happens over the coming weeks and do things safely.”
For more information about all forthcoming gigs at Esquires, visit www.bedfordesquires.co.uk