Thursday, 24 September 2020

The Pyramids Plaza: Memories of a Venue

There was a story in yesterday's local (to me) newspaper regarding a local swimming pool/fitness centre called The Pyramids. The reason for the story is that it is going to get a major refurbish to turn it into a leisure centre which has a "state-of-the-art gym" alongside a trampoline and soft play park. This refurbishment will mean that there will no longer be a swimming pool there, which to me seems short sighted. However, the story has one throwaway sentence which has bummed me out, which is that the gig venue that is there will become part of the gym, thus meaning (one assumes) no more gig venue. Portsmouth isn't exactly blessed with gig venues, and losing this one will be a significant blow to live music in the city (if indeed, live music as we used to know it returns in any real way). Just thinking of Portsmouth as it is now, I don't see where a replacement 800-1000 standing capacity venue could go. 

The venue was never one of my favourites (a view seemingly shared with others, looking at the comments on the Wedgewood Rooms Facebook page post about the story), but I am still sad to see it go. Pre-pandemic (or rather, just before lock down), I had my eye on 3 gigs there in quick succession, The Subways, Ash and Stiff Little Fingers. All 3 got postponed to this month, and subsequently pushed back again to 2021 (Ash and SLF March 2021, The Subways October 2021). Does this mean they won't go ahead? One has to assume they will either be cancelled or moved. I'll keep an eye on them still as I'd like to go to them all still. 

I went over my old gig tickets and according to my records, I've been to 15 gigs there. I'm sure there are several I didn't go to for a number of reasons (money, not getting round to buying a ticket etc) but there was never a case where I didn't go to a gig there because it was at the Pyramids (or if there was, I have chosen to forget it!). What I thought I would do with this post is take a walk down memory lane and see what I can remember. 

Fear Factory - April 2006. This was the first gig I went to under my own steam (I had been to gigs with my parents before, but not many and I would imagine none were my choice of headline act). I recall buying tickets with a mate and there being rumours that the gig was moved to a different night, so the mate I bought tickets with ended up not going and told me to give the ticket away to someone else (because he was convinced the gig wasn't happening, if memory serves). That aside, I recall being quite pissed when I went in for this gig (rounds of a pint of fosters and a shot of tequila will make a fool of anyone). A quick bit of research has led me to believe I missed the opening band and don't recall much of Breed 77 when I got in (to the point that for some time after thinking I had seen a different band). Fear Factory were, from what I remember, pretty good. At the time I was a regular at a club night called Delight which regularly played one of their songs (Linchpin) so when they played it, I jumped in the pit and had a lovely time. 

Lacuna Coil - October 2006. I saw this band at Download 2006, and I assume that is what sold me a ticket to see them when they played the Pyramids later that year (thus, the Download set did its job). I recall very much enjoying this gig, including their wonderful cover of Enjoy The Silence. This gig still occasionally comes up in conversation with one of the people I went to it with, because the support band were a band called Poisonblack. None of us enjoyed them so we decided to get a drink and stand towards the back. At the back was someone sat on the floor, leaning against a wall, reading a the dark. You have to really not enjoy a band to properly strain your eyes to read a book rather than pay them any attention (he says, knowing he has avoided seeing support bands by going outside to smoke). 

Reel Big Fish - March 2008. My only memories of this gig are that Reel Big Fish are incredibly fun live (a fact I was reminded of when seeing them live last year at Download 2019) and this gig was unbelievably hot. It was one of those where you get so hot in the gig, then walk out into the winter night and cool down rapidly! 

Rancid - November 2008. This gig has taken a fond place in my memory as I really want to see Rancid live again, but the chance has yet to materialise (in a way I can afford at least - they supported Green Day at Hyde Park at a gig I sadly couldn't justify buying a ticket for). I only knew a handful of Rancid songs going in - I remember being impressed/amused at how short some of their songs were. At one point, I went to get a beer while they were on, and they played at least 4 songs while I was queuing for a beer - and I wasn't gone long!

Apocalyptica - December 2008. My only memory of this gig was leaving and being really happy with how many of their Metallica covers they played. They played I'm Not Jesus as well, but didn't have Corey Taylor on tour with them to sing it, which I seem to recall at the time being disappointed about but on reflection...I mean could you imagine?! 

Soulfly - February 2009. I've never been one to get right down the front at gigs, normally because I'm worried about my glasses breaking. However, I did at this gig and for the first 3-4 songs it was hectic down there. I was so close to the front at one point, Max Cavalera started throwing water from his bottle at people and I got a faceful of it! The pit started to get a bit hectic for my glasses fearing mind and I headed slightly further back. Good fun though. 

Black Stone Cherry - October 2009. This gig was meant to be at the Guildhall. I saw Black Stone Cherry at the Wedgewood Rooms in 2007, and decided to give this one a miss because I wasn't hot on their second album, which they were touring (I'm still not, really). However, the gig got downgraded from Guildhall to Pyramids and I decided that was enough to sell me a ticket. I'm not sure now why that was enough, but this is a Pyramids memory blog, so I'll just leave it at that! Black Stone Cherry were good live, because they always are. This was one of the gigs I went to when BSC were on their way towards becoming a bonafide arena act in this country. 

The Answer - December 2009. I remember giving one of my mates shit for years for liking The Answer, and for the life of me I cannot remember why - there was no malice behind it, but I remember it happening. Turned out when I listened to them properly, I also liked them. Weird that. Anyway, I must confess not remembering too much of this gig. 

Trivium - March 2010. I saw Trivium 3 years prior at the Guildhall and they smashed it (I still regret not getting in earlier to see all the bands on the bill that day. You win again, booze). I remember seeing this getting announced and wanting to go because the last gig I had been to where Trivium were at (Black Crusade tour), they were fine...and that is it. I wanted to go because I hoped they would be ace...and they were. Chimaira in support as well, and they were also good. 

Billy Talent - November 2012. Bit of a break between gigs at the venue this time. Billy Talent were superb live. Went with a group of mates and we were close to the front, but slightly off to the side. This was a really good gig, which if you have seen Billy Talent live won't come as a surprise. I wore a hoodie which had the Ginger Wildheart 555% cassette artwork on it. This is relevant only because it feeds into the next story. 

Opeth - November 2012. This gig was the day after the Billy Talent one, and one of those times where I showed my varied tastes in music (especially at this point because Opeth hadn't gone entirely prog at this point). The same security team were working the doors as the night before and I was again wearing my 555% cassette hoodie, which was clocked by the security team, one of who expressed their surprise that someone from the Billy Talent gig was also a punter at the Opeth gig. I suspect there weren't many who bought a ticket for both. As for the gig itself, I don't remember much about it, sorry Opeth! I recall being nonplussed when I saw them twice at festivals in 2008, but really enjoyed them when they were the main support for Dream Theater at Wembley in 2009. That is probably what sold me a ticket...I can't remember though so it'll do!  

Airbourne - November 2013. Similar to Trivium, I saw this band play the Guildhall and have a superb gig there. Them in a smaller room was a no-brainer (same again when they played the Wedge). I think this was the loudest gig I ever went to at the Pyramids. I recall The Treatment supporting them and they were so loud it hurt. Airbourne weren't exactly quieter either. Lovely. 

Volbeat - November 2014. Volbeat owed me a Portsmouth show after cancelling their Wedgewood Rooms show in 2010, and they finally came back to town and played the Pyramids. 2 years prior, I had watched them headline Wacken, and the year after that I saw them play to a possibly not even half full Brixton Academy (I could talk about that at length but not the time). Anyhow, they announced this tour with Hatebreed in support (lovely) and it was bloody great. Volbeat are incredible live - I would probably go so far to say this is my favourite gig I saw there. They had Barney from Napalm Death come out to do Evelyn as well, which I loved. I've seen him do that quite a few times now, which is ace. 

Stiff Little Fingers - March 2019. Huge gap in gigs - not sure why now in all honesty. This one almost didn't happen, because I got close to South Parade Pier and realised my ticket had fallen out my pocket. Dejected, I started the walk home, annoyed with myself that this had happened. I was quite close to home, walking along the seafront when I saw off in the distance a folded up piece of paper. I walked over and picked it up, hoping it was my ticket...and it was. So I then hurried back to the venue to actually go. Thankfully for me, Stiff Little Fingers were really good and justified the faff it ended up being just getting to the gig. I am glad to have seen them live as it was one I saw scheduled regularly at the Pyramids and never getting a ticket, despite wanting to. 

Bury Tomorrow - December 2019. The final (perhaps) gig I will go to at the Pyramids. Bury Tomorrow supported by a band I can't remember who were fine, but more importantly, also supported by Employed to Serve, who I bloody love. I was always going to enjoy this gig with Employed to Serve on the just so happens that Bury Tomorrow playing their then latest album Black Flame (a banger, by the way) in full was lovely. A good night was had. If it is the last time I'll go there for a gig, it was a good way to go out. 

And that, as they say, is that. As I said up top. I'll miss the Pyramids. It wasn't my favourite venue, certainly. But I saw some great bands there, and it is a shame if it isn't replaced by anything similar because it means there is a pretty sizey gap in Portsmouth for a venue for bands that are too big to play the Wedge, but too small to play the Guildhall. This means they won't come to Portsmouth, which is just a shame. Of course, this is somewhat dependant on there being a live music industry post-Covid. I am rapidly losing faith in this being the case, particularly today with an economic statement from the Chancellor that did little to nothing to support the industry. It would be an absolute tragedy if we emerge from this pandemic to find there is no live music industry on the other side. 

Farewell Pyramids, if this is goodbye. You will be missed. 

Friday, 4 September 2020

A (Socially Distant) Night At The Theatre

Last weekend, I went to the first gig I’ve been to since Friday 6th March this year. I wrote in my last post that “I am all but certain I won’t be going to a gig in the conventional sense for the rest of the year”. I wrote that before it was confirmed I was going to this socially distant test event, but I had requested tickets for it at that point. It was confirmed shortly after posting that I was on the list (if you’re not on the list, you’re not getting in etc…slightly niche reference). Even with that in mind, I wouldn’t call this a gig in the conventional sense. This gig as said was a socially distant, all seated test event at the Kings Theatre in Southsea, Portsmouth. From what I gathered, the staff had been trained in how to cope with events running under new socially distant guidelines, but with no crowd in. This event (and a comedy show the night before) were to test that training in practice before events resume.

How did it work? We were advised that the show started at 7pm, but we were asked to arrive 60 minutes before the start time. The ticket stated that late arrivals may not be permitted entry. We  (me and a friend) arrived just before 6pm at the door advised on the ticket (which was not a usual one for stalls entrance for the Kings, as far as I am aware anyway). While approaching the door, I walked past a member of staff who I heard say “twenty past six”. I wasn’t sure at the time if this was in reference to what time we would actually be entering or not - but I now know that it was. We loitered outside the door for the 20 minutes or so until it was time to go in. When going in, I put my face covering on and was given a temperature check (which incidentally, was the first time I’ve had that done). Having passed that, I went on to get my ticket checked, which was done contactlessly. It was then a case of following the one way system round to the seats - which in this case was circling the entire stalls before cutting up through the middle and to a set of seats, one being an aisle seat (there is a long standing joke between myself and Dave, who I was with, about my buying tickets and randomly being assigned aisle seats...and just how often it happens). 

When in the seat, a video package played, explaining the changes and how you go about ordering drinks. This was done three ways, at the bar (I’m still not sure which bar was open, as the main one wasn’t), via an app or via in-seat service from a member of staff. If it was either of the latter two options, the drinks would be delivered to your seat. I did this first by ordering from a member of staff, and the service was very quick - I ordered two cans of beer which were delivered in a paper bag along with two plastic cups. It all seemed very efficient. Dave ordered via the app and again, that was also equally as efficient. 

One note about seating, we were sat in the 3rd row, row E (my guess is that, normally, rows A and B are temporary seating as the front row was row C). Rows C and D on the right hand side were empty, and the row we were in had us at one end, a couple in the middle (think it was just the two of them) and a small group at the other end. This appeared to be replicated elsewhere in the theatre as well (aside from the front row on the other side which was almost full - one big group I assume). This was a surprise to me as I would have assumed the middle of rows wouldn’t be used because it would have meant if they needed to get out, social distancing would be thrown out the window (this did happen a couple of times). I don’t think any of the higher levels were open - I am not sure if there are plans to open them at the moment (I would assume yes for circles, maybe no for gallery).

The show itself was The Spoils, a local band that performed cover songs. It was to be divided into two 20-25 minute sets with an interval in the middle. The show itself started with an introduction by two of the people that run the Kings, welcoming us all to the show, discussing the changes, and announcing that the Kings would be the only theatre on the south coast to be holding a pantomime this Christmas - which is quite something! One of the people on stage (I have forgotten both of their names, sorry!) said in passing that there were 48 people in the crowd. This, if the case, was interesting. There were plenty of rows further back in the stalls not being used, and this was a test event - but I would guess crowd sizes of 150-200 in the stalls at most when shows start back. After the introduction, the (socially distant) band played the first half of their set and it was really good. I think I would have (within reason) enjoyed any live music on offer, but The Spoils genuinely were really good. The strangest thing for me initially was not being able to sing along (we weren’t expressly told not to, but it was almost an unspoken rule). The third song was 9-5 by Dolly Parton, which I won’t lie had me grinning under the mask. 

The interval was going to be an interesting time. The Kings (much like many theatres in the UK I am sure) has pretty small toilets. The crowd was pretty small, but I wondered how social distancing would be managed in the toilets. In short, it wasn’t. I followed the one-way system as advised, and ended up in the toilets on the other side of the stalls. The facilities I was in had 4 urinals, with the 2nd from the left being used (information I am sure you are desperate to know). This meant for me using the 4th from the left, or violating social distancing. I opted to use that one, but realised quickly this meant I was blocking the sink - to me, it would have made sense to have 1st and 3rd from the left open, and 2nd and 4th closed, which would mean some form of distancing would be adhered to without blocking the sink. Anyway, the person that was there before me stepped back and waited for me to get out the way, which I did after I had washed my hands. He said “I’m just waiting to wash my hands” - I had gathered that (although imagine if I was in his shoes, I probably would have said something similar to justify why I was still there). This did throw up a question of social etiquette in my mind - should I have stepped away from the urinals (and sink) and queue to use the sink I was just next to? This may have been better served if there was someone on each door (less of an issue in the ladies toilets I would assume where there are set cubicles. I washed my hands and made a quick exit back to my seat. 

There isn’t much more to add really. There were a couple of the issues mentioned earlier about people in the middle of the row needing to get in and out, which somewhat made the effort taken to socially distance almost void. The second half of the show was very good (same as the first). At the end of the show, we were asked to leave row by row, which made sense. And that was that - back out into the quiet Albert road, though I did note someone a bit worse for wear on the sobriety front did charge across the road after seeing a friend to give them a hug - booze and social distancing proving themselves to not always be compatible. 

Overall, I am glad I went, but it was a bit weird (I am sure that was inevitable really). I thought the staff at the Kings were brilliant, and the show was great. Hearing live music after so long without was just ace. My only concerns would be the social distancing issues for those in the middle of the rows, and the toilets. The main concern though is not about something that happened on the night, but more the financial viability of running shows with these restrictions in place. That show surely would have made a loss if it wasn’t a test event, and I assume more shows will be the same. I personally would not be comfortable if social distancing were to be done away with tomorrow, but accept that until it is, gigs and shows as we once knew them won’t be able to go back to normal. It is a difficult balance to strike, for sure.