Escobar: An Obituary

This article was originally published on the old Rhubarb Blog in May 2010. When Rhubarb Bomb published it’s five year retrospective in 2012 it contacted the former owners to ask for their own insight into the difficulties they faced keeping the venue going but they did not respond. After this article was published, the venue was known as Velvet for a number of years but the building is now a dentist. 

Photography by Dan Barber

Escobar was a music venue in the city of Wakefield. At its height it was responsible for bringing to the city the most exciting Indie bands on the cusp of major success, whilst also supporting the growing local scene. It has now closed down, with operations being moved to its former sister venue, in Leeds.

Escobar began hosting live music June 22nd, 2004. By the time i finished University in 2005 it had already become a central part of a thriving scene in Wakefield. Buoyed by the growing success of The Cribs, then onto their (relatively) breakthrough 2nd album ‘The New Fellas’, and emergent future hopefuls such as ‘The Research’, in the process of creating their fantastic debut ‘Breaking Up’, aswell as the post-Libertines explosion of young guitar bands, Escobar was at the that time one of the only places in Wakefield where you could hear Indie music of pretty much any variety.

Its success was primarily two fold and was due in great amount to the hard work of the promoters there who began hosting nights under the ‘Louder Than Bombs’ title, and had pretty much free reign to do as they pleased. This meant DJs playing Pavement and The Pixies, The Rapture and Radiohead, Sonic Youth & The Strokes; unheard of in a city consisting of Stag and Hen party friendly horroshows, lined up along the main street Westgate like speakeasys in a Western.

It also meant some astounding live shows. I will never forget Morsey telling me to make sure i got down one night, because the band on were gonna be massive. It was Arctic Monkeys. The next day there were footprints on the ceiling. It was just one in a line of emergent stars that we were lucky enough to have come visit; Kate Nash charmed us all, Glasvegas blew our heads off and others such as The Enemy, Frightened Rabbit, Reverend & The Makers, Carl Barat, The Pigeon Detectives, all came down to say hello.

But the second element to Escobar’s success was its support of, and support from Grassroots artists and musicians. It offered one of the first venues in the city dedicated to giving the bands centre stage. Partly due to the odd architectural layout, you were forced to watch, or at least listen from round the corner to whatever was on that night. It wasn’t the back room of a dingy pub, or the upstairs function room; it was taking up half the floor space, and it was in your face.

This meant it drew a crowd of enthusiastic, supportive people, who would often come, regardless of whether they knew who the bands were, because it was a unique opportunity to see live music in the city, in a friendly environment. Landing a gig there was a major achievement for a band just starting out. But, most importantly, it felt like it was ours. There would always be someone in there you knew, someone to talk with about the latest music, knowledgeable people who cared and supported the scene without question. That’s the kind of dedication money cant buy.

The initial success of the Louder than Bombs nights had led to Escobar being bought out by a new owner. It was refurbished and, it seemed, a positive effort was made to ‘grow’ the Escobar ideal. A Mythology was begun; professional, framed photos of the most famous bands that had played began to spread around the walls. Signed posters and T-Shirts with lovely personal messages also appeared. ‘Louder than Bombs’ expanded to become a record label, releasing excellent ‘Wakefield compilations’ and records by local bands. There were also legendary sets by The Cribs. They even managed to remove the ridiculous pillar that once sat in the middle of the stage, meaning for the first time in its history, the bassist in a band would be visible (though obviously for some bands this was a disadvantage).

But the tide had started to turn. One of the major problems was that Escobar was never really a place you would go for a quiet pint. So entangled with the idea of Live Music was its image, that if no bands were on (which they often weren’t Sun-Thurs), no one would go in. Attempts were made to get nights going on Sundays and Mondays, but there was a sense it was beginning to spread itself too thin. The closure of local Club ‘Buzz’ effectively put an end to ‘student night’, killing off a lot of the Monday Night Trade in the city. The effect of the closure of Bretton Hall as part of Leeds University in summer 2007 cannot be underestimated; the campus, in the grounds of Bretton itself, was a major provider of young enthusiastic music lovers to Wakefield, as well as income.

Behind the scenes, finance became the driving issue at Escobar, as owner and promoter began to see different futures for the venue. Though the effects of the 24 hour licensing had initially being rather minimal, Escobar was the first to establish itself as THE place to go after all the other bars and clubs had shut, and maintained this reputation until its closure. Often, bands would play between 8 and half 11, then the venue would be near empty until 2/3am when it began to fill again. A quick look at the money taken in the second half of the evening, compared to the first must have spelt out clearly where its financial future lay.

Money issues began to creep into other areas of business too. The owner decided to stop serving pints, only bottles and cans, at £3 a go; pretty steep for a venue supposedly catering for your average Indie fan – but this was ‘business’ after all. Entrance fees began to shoot up too. And where support bands playing used to get at least get a few beers paid on… nothing – not a penny for appearing. Further stories of the owner insisting the DJs play more ‘Killers and Kooks’, resulted in said DJs walking out. And the owners insistence that it wasn’t against the law to refuse you tap water and charge you £2 for a bottle…

All these elements grew to push out the grassroots support it had gathered over the years and gain it a reputation of been mean-spirited and against the music. Which perhaps would not have mattered when it was the only venue in town. But it no longer was. Others had started ‘band’ and ‘Indie’ nights, some cynical and short lived, but others genuinely inspired by what Escobar had set out to achieve. And so the grassroots moved on. Newer bands, just starting out didn’t feel the connection to it (in part because, against the promoters best advice, the owner did not want underage people in, even just to watch the music).

The decline had well and truly set in. Whilst quality bands would still appear sporadically and great nights still be occasionally had, the idea of ‘poppin down to see what’s on’ had vanished. It had lost the trust of its supporters. Often a band would play just to the friends they had brought down, or to just the other bands. The pictures and memorabilia on the wall suddenly made it feel like a museum, one that existed purely for the amusement of the ‘pissed up at 4am’ demographic. It was a perfect demonstration of how to squeeze the life and soul out of a once unique venue. The sense of frustration felt by the promoters, who had started the whole exciting adventure in the first place, was starting to spread…

The recent economic problems of the UK as a whole hit Wakefield hard, yet against all odds it seemed that Escobar had ridden this wave with the announcement that it was opening a second venue in Leeds. But only at the very end did it become clear it wasn’t an expansion of the original Escobar; it was its replacement. Promoter Chris Morse’s last act working with Escobar was to book The Fall to play, over at Balne Lane Working Men’s club. As a major Fall fan, it was a great scoop, not just for him, but for the city. However, he was advised by the owner of Escobar that finances dictated he couldn’t afford to be kept on. In a bitter last twist of the knife, come the night of the gig, Chris was told he wouldn’t be allowed entry to the gig. That night, a sign had appeared in the white washed windows of Escobar stating it had been closed due to non payment of rent. On May 26th a Facebook announcement confirmed that after 6 and a half years Wakefield Escobar had shut its doors for the last time.

For a few years, Escobar was an essential venue in Wakefield; as Indie lovers it was all we had. It helped the city develop past its once traditional Punk and Metal origins into something more diverse. It inspired musicians by giving them somewhere to play and somewhere to meet like-minded individuals. It was part of a city wide awakening, another off shoot of which was the creation of your very own ‘Rhubarb Bomb’.

But it only happened despite itself. Begun almost as an experiment, the owner failed to realise what he had in his hands. It saw itself as a success, but failed to understand why it had become successful in the first place. Cultural significance was of no importance, used only as a promotional commodity, an approach that can only ever lead to ever diminishing returns.

The attitude was driven totally by money; the initial supporting of the local scene – though it was not clear at the time – was pure coincidence. It was the hard work of the promoters that made the difference, and grew its reputation. Eventually the hard-line, risk free, money above all else strategy pushed away everyone who had ever cared about it. In the end, it was just another of the non-descript bars on Westgate that it had stood up against in the first place.

So in the end, the ‘spirit’ and the legacy of Escobar is not with the owner and his profit driven vision. It is with the bands that played, the promoters who booked those amazing bands, the punters who came in, rain or shine to support the scene and make friends. That is something that lives on strong in Wakefield. And whilst that ideal was once housed within the confines of one small side-street venue, it has now spread its wings and covers the city as a whole. So thanks for the memories, but I’d rather remember the people that actually made it happen. And look with them to the future. Oh, and Escobar Leeds? Well, Leeds is welcome to it.

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