As the revamped venue prepares to open its doors for the first time in five years, Artistic Director Todd Wills reflects on programming its long-awaited return.
For over half a decade now Bristol has been without one of its major music venues, but thankfully that’s all about to change. At long last, the much loved and now newly reinvigorated Bristol Beacon is ready to open its doors.
Having closed in June 2018 to undertake a pioneering five-year programme of works on the Victorian building, Bristol now proudly plays host to one of the most accessible venues in the UK for visitors, performers and artists alike.
While the venue itself has been unable to host events of its own throughout its redevelopment, this hasn’t stopped the Bristol Music Trust (BMT) who operate it from programming satellite events across the city. BMT’s ambition is for Bristol Beacon to act as a support network for artists as their profile grows and it’s a mission that is set to continue with the Beacon’s imminent reopening, as Artistic Director Todd Wills explains.
“Prior to closing, we worked with venues like Crofters and the Louisiana with a view to working with an artist as their profile grows – going from a venue like the Louisiana to, hopefully, the main hall. But it was also about thinking in preparation for the closing. Doing the shows outside has meant we’ve kept relationships with agents, artists, and the audience.”
Having been with BMT since July 2012, Wills has seen both the venue and the trust itself go through various changes. Perhaps the most notable is its new identity, which was announced in September 2020, finally ending its association with the name of slave-trader Edward Colston.
With the Beacon readying itself for its next chapter, an exciting lineup of acts is already taking shape. The likes of Fever Ray, Thundercat and King Gizzard will play the main hall in the first half of 2024 alone. So how do you go about programming a venue of this scale – not least one that’s been closed for half a decade?
“We try to make sure that we are serving as wide a demographic in the city as possible, but always ensuring that there is quality across the board,” Wills states. A lot of the main hall will be shows that come through via national promoters. We then have a say on which goes into the program and doesn’t. The Lantern is mostly our own program, because we have more access to those artists that are the lower profile.”
In the hands of Bristol Music Trust, Bristol Beacon benefits from a curatorial process that sets it apart from many other venues in the country.
“Unusually for a concert hall, we try to make sure there’s a 50/50 balance in the programme of what we promote and what comes into the diary as hires,” Wills adds. “Say King Gizzard comes to us and the promoter says, ‘Have you got avails for this artist?’ We’re going to say, ‘Yes, of course we have.’ But there might be other things that come through and they’re not quite right for our programme and a lot of concert halls actually don’t do that.”
While the Beacon’s 2,000+ capacity main hall is arguably the draw for big name touring artists, the 500 capacity Lantern and the 200 capacity Weston Stage in the hall’s vaulted cellar each open up a wealth of exciting programming possibilities of their own.
“The Lantern was never really designed as a music venue,” Wills explains. “It was the bar for years, so having had it completely refurbished and properly done out so that it is acoustically sound – it’s going to be brilliant. It’s the same for the cellars. It’s going to be really interesting for us to program and I think that’s going to be a fantastic club space. We’re not putting very much down yet, just because we kind of want to get our hands on it and see how it works.”
The venue’s sound has also benefited from the expertise of acoustician Bob Essert, whose work on the main hall has ensured that the space can accommodate the sonic requirements of virtually every type of music imaginable.
“Ultimately, we want audiences to want to come back and we want artists to want to come back, so that sort of sonic experience is absolutely crucial.”
Away from hosting gigs and concerts, Bristol Beacon also benefits from brand new educational facilities, which will aim to further the city’s reputation as a hub for emerging creative talent.
“We’ve got a whole arm of work that we do around talent development, working with cohorts of young artists. We’ve been working with this cohort for 18 months now, but when we reopen, we’ve got all of the cellar complex with recording facilities and rehearsal spaces to start working with young people again. Having them here, situated in the hall, means they have more of a connection with the venue and it’s going to be great to have people coming in, hanging out here, creating and producing new work.”
With opening night nearly upon us, the main hall is readying itself for ‘Trip the Light Fantastic’, a celebratory collaboration between Paraorchestra, electronic composer Surgeons Girl and the AV experts at Limbic Cinema that will see the space reborn anew. That’s followed by the Housewarming party on Saturday (December 1st), which is set to bring together an eclectic lineup of talent from across the city.
Both events feel like a statement of intent for things to come and while it will be brilliant to see the city playing host to a line-up of big names, the likes of which have been absent from Bristol for many years, it’s the venue’s keen focus on the wants and needs of its audience that continue to set it apart from other concert halls.
“You obviously have to think about your audience here – specifically around the festivals that we do, like Bristol New Music, a contemporary music festival,” Wills muses. The first year that we did it, in 2014, it felt a little bit too much like more established festivals. It was about thinking about what the audiences here want. We are adventurous in Bristol. I always use the phrase “punches well above its weight” in terms of Bristol being a sort of a cultural hub. You do have to think about what Bristolians are interested in. It’s always a consideration.”
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Words: Paul Weedon