The Seel Street Renaissance: Bido Lito! introduces the learned gentlemen of the EAST VILLAGE ARTS CLUB.
In the early nineteenth century, Liverpool’s esteemed writer, historian and all-round academic polymath William Roscoe was appointed president of a new learned society, the Liverpool Royal Institution. The organisation took root within an imposing, neo-classical building at the intersection of Colquitt Street and Seel Street, which was speedily inhabited by the city’s devoted exponents of literature, science, and the arts. As the first Royal Institution outside of the capital, the poetic quirks of the rich of mind were offered sanctuary, a breeding ground for brilliance of academia, self-expression and philosophy. It is even said that celebrated Victorian novelist Charles Dickens once shared an affiliation with the building, giving one of his many public readings within its hallowed amphitheatre.
You may find this historic prologue laborious, for which you would be forgiven; however, consider the startling juxtaposition of the context in which the building resided during its most recent past, in which, for the most part, it has been known under its affectionately held moniker, The Masque.
This writer remembers vividly how the stained ceilings would throb and perspire with the fluids of countless years of drunkenness, serotonin deprivation, and other forms of general insobriety – and how you’d shuffle through the logistical mine-field of narrow corridors to gain access to the ailing theatre room, where you’d suddenly melt into your two best friends, creating a sweaty, amorphous puddle of addled minds that would swill around upon a stamps-worth of space. It was great – if you consider a dilapidated, loveable hovel with insufficient facilities and haphazard infrastructure to be your stimulus – but it had its charms and, for many of Liverpool’s weekend thrill-seekers, it was home.
However, in November 2011, The Masque’s operators were forced to decommission it due to financial instability, and the future of the popular venue looked to be in grave peril. The loss was felt across our music community and a turbulent period ensued as the promoters behind Liverpool club-night heavyweights Chibuku and Circus were delegated as caretakers by default, taking the keys for sporadic events; but in the long-term the venue looked to be lost, another casualty of economic austerity.
Rich McGuiness, founder of Chibuku and Circus was one of first promoters to become conscious of the venue’s rough-around-the-edges potential and utilise the space for events. He recalls his initial scepticism about booking events in the venue and his first impressions of the Theatre. “The Theatre was full of chairs – it was an actual theatre – and I remember looking over from Largo (which was booming) and I remember thinking, ‘what nutter would want to put on a gig in that place.’” What nutter indeed; little did he know then he would spend thirteen years putting on events at the venue that’s recognised as Chibuku and Circus’s spiritual home. He continues: “I remember sitting on the edge of the stage in the theatre and thinking, ‘what would happen if we threw a Chibuku party in here?’”
Rich struggled to find a permanent slot at an alternative venue to host his club-nights and fill the insurmountable void that The Masque had left in its wake. So, in the latter stages of 2012, he sought to secure the future of the Seel Street venue and called upon revered music organisation MAMA Group to register their interest. After a period of negotiation, it was decided that a sea change would be set in motion and MAMA Group agreed to invest in the revitalisation of the entire building from the ground upwards. The rotund sum of £1.5million was promised and a complete overhaul of the structural interior, events programming and (most controversially) the name was to be implemented. The second renaissance of Seel Street had begun – and the new East Village Arts Club had been initiated.
David Laing, Managing Director of MAMA Group, has close family ties to Liverpool and, when Bido Lito! meet him, calls the renovation his ‘pet project’ – he even maintains it’s his most favourite project, ahead of all he’s been involved with. “Doing that building justice and giving it a future that’s sustainable is the key impetuous behind its renovation. It has to expand, it has to do more, otherwise it’s just going to sit there and be unloved.” David’s track record speaks for itself, with one of his most notable accolades being successfully revamping The Ritz in Manchester. His vested interest in Liverpool and its culture is as prevalent as his passion, which is only preceded by his aspiration. “We want to be more entrenched into the creative communities so we’re introducing so many other elements of programming that haven’t really happened in here before. The whole idea behind that from the food to the arts, culture, and music events is about utilising the building on a Monday afternoon to a Saturday night at 2am in the morning.”
The modernisation of every aspect of the venue will include the installation of a new bar and kitchen area and investment in sound and light amenities that will seek to complement the city’s already thriving creative arts scene. No cost has been spared and, with experienced local booker Revo, aka Steven Miller (Club Evol), appointed as the driving force in expanding the Arts Club’s live events programming, a new remit has been assumed to recapture the essence of Liverpool’s eclectic music scene. “We want to bring the pinnacle of every genre to Liverpool and re-establish the city as a category A city for touring bands rather than category B, which is where we sit in this current moment in time,” declares Revo. “Evol has brought acts from all over the world to Liverpool that would’ve otherwise missed playing the city.” Live events announced thus far include Kate Nash, Mystery Jets, CSS and Ghostpoet with Liverpool Sound City also set to utilise the venue to host events during the festival from 2nd-4th May.
The Seel Street area will always be regarded as a burgeoning district of the city – and the building itself is surely a presiding bastion of this Capital of Counter Culture, a relic for posterity and a fixture that’s enlisted in the dichotomy of culture that makes this city such an interesting place to live in and engage with. As Rich puts it, “The energy that was behind that venue at its peak was formidable. We’re at home in that building – and with it coming back with the new investment, it feels like a new beginning for us.”
David alludes to a reformed mission statement of increased interaction with Liverpool’s creative scene, diverse programming, and high quality culinary produce as the intrinsic link between the building’s noble lineage and its new function as a space for live music, comedy, artistry, poetry and culinary delights. This only goes to augment the distinctions of its usage – and, perhaps in a metaphorical sense, acts as an emblem of Liverpool’s cultural ethos: aspiration borne out of degradation and creative flair summoned from necessity.
Opinion may be polarised, but David’s self-assured enthusiasm and unquestionable experience in handling venues confirms that MAMA are more than capable of returning the venue to its former glory – and, with the assembly of an A-Team of Liverpool’s shrewdest promoters, I for one have every faith in him. As David concludes, “There’s an undefinable atmosphere that some venues have and some venues don’t; money can’t buy it, you can’t design it, and you can’t even plan it. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a venue that you can spot, but it never quite has that soul to it. That building does. And that’s something we’ve tried to be respectful of. We’ve improved some of the things that were drastically wrong, which hopefully gives the venue a new lease of life.”