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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 22 November, 2014

Behind the scenes at Whelan’s: Bands, backstage antics and unforgettable gigs

Whelan’s will hold a number of events throughout the year to celebrate this big anniversary – and will open its own record store.

THE LIST OF greats that have played on its stage is a long one, and includes Townes Van Zandt; Low; the Jawhawks; Cat Power; and Jeff Buckley.

The list of new and upcoming bands that want to play in one of its rooms is similarly long; and the love gig-goers have for it is great.

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Welcome to Whelan’s, the Dublin music venue celebrating 25 years in business in 2014, and a quarter of a century helping to make Ireland’s reputation for live music a solid one.

Dave Allen, bookings manager for Whelans, brought TheJournal.ie on a tour of the venue last week, giving us a look into the areas that usually only the staff or visiting bands get to see.

“It’s hard to believe it’s 25 years to start off with,” said Allen of the anniversary, amid the noise and clatter of a pub beginning to fill up with punters.

He began working with Whelan’s in the year it opened, 1989, and took a break of a few years off before coming back to the pub again in 2010.

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Upstairs at Whelan’s

He’s seen it change from a pub where music was an after-thought to one where gigs are its lifeblood.

It really doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. It has been a fun ride though. 25 years young, that’s the way we like to look at it.

If you’re more used to seeing Whelan’s heaving with sweaty bodies, it can be jarring to be there when it’s almost empty.

Every room, surface and beam carries with it a memory, and Allen points out new elements that have been added on, others that have been transformed, and the parts that defiantly remain the same.

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Each room has its own rock n’roll story, some of which will never make it to print to protect the guilty parties.

There was the time when a bouncer nearly refused Morrissey entry to the pub (he didn’t recognise the Smiths frontman); and the night one of Jeff Buckley’s jetlagged bandmates slept in a bed that was kept upstairs for some reason.

Another anecdote sees Phil Collins being photographed by the Douglas Brothers in the venue for a mooted album cover that never materialised.

Then there was the lunchtime (back when Whelan’s served food), when Van Morrison appeared. The waitresses put on a Van Morrison record… which started skipping.

A new face

Despite the changes, the new face of Whelan’s feels very natural. The sculpture of a man leaning on its bar seems to sum the situation up: he’s the third such sculpture of the same man, but you’d never know he had been replaced.

He’s just a better version of himself.

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“The capacity of the main venue was changed about eight years ago,” outlined Allen.

“An extra 100 capacity went in there and the upstairs venue was added on at the same time, the front bar was expanded in size. About two years ago we added on the Parlour Room.”

The Parlour Room is an upstairs bar outfitted in a retro fashion, with mid-century furniture and psychedelic patterns. It was from there that Phantom FM broadcast its shows during its pirate radio days.

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This year, Whelan’s will hold a big celebratory gig every month to mark its 25th anniversary. It’s also due to open its own record store.

Why are people so drawn to Whelan’s? “The bands can feel the history in the place at this stage and that means a lot to bands, to have a bit of heritage in the place,” said Allen.

He also thinks the relatively small size of the venue works in its favours.

I think the way the balcony works in there and the stage size – it’s great. It must feel great for the bands when they’re starting to break and they’ve just released an album, and they see the audience recognising the lyrics and the songs. It must be great to be that close to the audience and see them singing the words back to them.

“I think that’s part of the atmosphere, is the closeness you get to an act, you really are on top of them almost. It’s intimate – 450 [capacity] but it feels like 150 – I think that’s part of the secret.”

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Niall Jackson of the band Swimmers taking to the stage in Whelan’s

Whelan’s was called Bourke’s before it was bought and done up in 1989. Its first stage was about 6 inches in height.

“Initially, good music wasn’t a priority – it would have been just local cover bands or whatever for the first year or so,” remembered Allen.

“But slowly and surely the stage was made higher and a full PA was put in, and people started paying in to all the gigs – the initial gigs would have been free gigs.”

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Whelan’s started attracting a lot of bands that used to play the Olympia, helping to solidify its reputation.

“They found that instead of playing the Olympia once a year they could play here four or five times a year, so it worked out well for them and it helped bring the profile of the venue up,” said Allen.

He had started off as a sound engineer before becoming a booking agent, and said with a wry smile that the bands passing through have been “mostly well behaved”.

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When Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds played, Brenda Fricker and Jim Sheridan were spotted in the audience. At a Selector gig, here was a stage invasion; it was “mayhem” when Kim Deal played an impromptu gig with The Amps.

By 1994, Whelan’s had almost established itself on the international circuit. “At that stage you didn’t get that many international acts coming through, but once you did they played here,” said Allen.

In fact, he can pinpoint the very month that Whelan’s felt like it was becoming more than just a local pub venue: August, 1994.

Ted Hawkins, Jeff Buckley, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and they were all playing Tuesday nights to full houses, and I thought, this is pretty good, you know. That year, that August, from around that time it was filling almost every night the place was, it was great. You could feel the momentum in the bookings.



Twenty years on, it’s not a struggle to get bands to play at Whelan’s. On the night TheJournal.ie visits, Bernie McGrath is looking after production for the Ones to Watch festival, which showcased new Irish bands.

“We are lucky – we get most of the people we want,” said a proud Allen. “It’s always a great feeling when you get a band.”

He’d love to see someone like David Byrne, of Talking Heads, or even U2, who have never played the venue, grace its stage.

Dreaming big: it’s the Whelan’s way.

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- Videos & photographs by Michelle Hennessy.

Do you have a favourite memory of a night out at Whelan’s? Favourite gig? Meet your other half there? Share your memories in the comments.

Read: 10 defining characteristics of an Irish audience>

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