Music and Melbourne Venues

The Tote goes on. This iconic music venue in Collingwood, previously closed and now re-opened, is celebrating thirty years of live music. On the other hand, the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda was sold and so another live venue has a future under threat. But as former Age journalist and now Executive Officer of Music Victoria Patrick Donavan said, a protest movement is not going to save The Prince Bandroom; a financial ledger that demonstrates the owners can get a return on their investment will. Don’t set up a picket-line; get in the ticket line (don’t blame Paddy for that one – made it up myself). Get along and see some live music.


With footy season gone and forgotten(!!), and spring racing carnival done for another year, a bit of extra time has allowed me to get back to seeing some music. And it is not just the variety of available music, but the range of venues that makes it so attractive. Over a couple of weeks I have had the good fortune to experience a few on offer.


Fridays in November sees a show at the Bella Union – The Last Gig in Melbourne. Written and performed by Geraldine Quinn, the show is directed by Casey Bennetto (writer and performer in Keating the Musical) who is also keyboardist in the backing band. While the label of “Female Tim Minchin” is perhaps overly generous, Geraldine has a wonderful voice and a great stage presence. The storyline is a little thin, but does provide some narrative thread. The songs are amusing and full of local Melbourne references. The backing band is more than competent with guitarist Martin Lubran (Hunters and Collectors) a highlight. As a venue, the Bella Union Bar is excellent. On the first level of Trades Hall, the room, with a multiplicity of old union banners and notices around the walls, and a large picture of Gough (replete with lipstick kiss marks) at the entrance, was set up semi-cabaret with small wobbly round tables up the front plus standing room up the back. A good bar, with Coopers green on tap and expensive cider for the groovy ones is serviced by friendly staff. The night I was there wasn’t overly crowded but even on busy nights, it all functions well. Your last chance to see this show is this Friday 25 November.


Sunday 13 November had me at The Melbourne Recital Centre to see Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake. Summary: this was one of my best music experiences for years. This show originated in the UK and was put together by former Nick Drake producer and biographer Joe Boyd. He has brought together some extraordinary musicians and vocalists. The core of overseas performers from the UK, Northern Island and the US was supplemented by some local guests for the Australian shows including Shane Nicholson (a fine performer in his own right but now sometimes known as Kasey Chambers’ husband)and Luluc (Zoe Randall and Steve Hassett – Steve used to be part of Wagons). You may not be familiar with the Nick Drake story, and I wasn’t until recently, but he died in 1974, aged 26, an overdose of anti-depressant drugs, having recorded and released three poor-selling albums. His fame and legend has come posthumously. With a band/orchestra of a dozen musicians, including bass player Danny Thompson from Drake’s original band, and a rotating roster of maybe ten vocalists performing solo or as duets or ensembles, each song was performed according to the original arrangement or as arranged by the show’s musical director (and oboe, clarinet, piano accordion player and vocalist) Kate St John. My personal highlight was a solo by the androgynous Krystal Warren, a Kansas-born-more-recently-Paris-based singer said to be admired by Rufus Wainwright (whom she can sound like at times) and kd Lang. What a voice and what emotion! To highlight one, however risks injustice to others – all the singers were wonderful. The formal theatre experience of The Recital Centre is not my first choice for music listening, but it was perfect for this performance as it delivered the required reverential silence from the audience.


The Thornbury Theatre in High Street re-opened several years ago as a music and event venue. It is a beautiful room. The capacity is governed by how many of the large round tables are laid out. I have been there on a hot Sunday afternoon when the room was packed for Women of Letters (highly recommend this monthly event) and also on a Friday evening a few years ago when the audience rattled around the room. When the room is full there is additional space upstairs on the balcony. A good bar is located up the back in the ante room and usually there is an additional small outlet up the front stage left. Last Friday night I saw Kinfolk – Indie Symphony. The event was curated by Charles Jenkins and each of the three acts was backed by Orchestre Nouveau, a 17-piece local orchestra. The room was nearly full but when we arrived Helen and I were happy to join some friends who had occupied a table in the back corner. Even from there, there were excellent sight lines and very good sound. The first act was Skipping Girl Vinegar front-man Mark Lang with a couple of his band members, followed by the very impressive Autumn Gray, who twelve months earlier had put out a video and CD of a previous performance with the orchestra. The main act was Charles Jenkins and the Zhivagos. Starting with the beautiful Shelley Winters and then Trees of Brisbane, both from the 2009 Blue Atlas album, the set comprised their more melodic and laid back songs; the choices probably governed by the absence of regular lead guitarist Davie Lane (absent on You Am I duties touring with Cold Chisel) and what was most appropriate for an orchestral backing. Having rehearsed a finite number of songs, on completion of the set there was no opportunity to respond to the enthusiastic calls for an encore.


Sunday afternoons drinking beer and listening to live music is a recommended pursuit – there should be more of it. The Australasian World Music Expo has been on in Melbourne the last four days with various venues hosting a wide variety of the acts that get categorised under the World Music label. We arrived at one of my favourite venues, the Toff in Town, 2nd floor of Curtin House in Swanston St just as the first act, Iwantja, an indigenous act from the Indulkana Community of northwest South Australia opened the afternoon’s entertainment. A bit of reggae-influenced rock ensued, with some amusing and enlightening between-song commentary from the lead singer on his impressions of the big city of Melbourne and the comparisons with his home environment. Second act was Richard Mogu from Amazon Bay on the south coast of Papua New Guinea. Backed by a band of traditional and non-traditional instruments such as bamboo flute and garamut (a type of drum), we were treated to forty-five minutes contemporary and indigenous music. Last act for the afternoon was Vika and Linda Bull. Vika and Linda have been performing for more than twenty-five years and came to prominence in the late ‘80s as singers with Joe Camilleri and The Black Sorrows. Of Australian and Tongan heritage, the sisters’ harmonies are magnificent and their relaxed stage presence perfect for this late afternoon performance. They were supported by an excellent backing band, including Ash Naylor on acoustic and electric guitar. I have to compliment Ash on his choice of white electric guitar adorned with a Collingwood logo.


The Toff is a smallish venue with the front two thirds taken up with small round tables and chairs and the back third accommodating the bar and mainly standing room, with an excellent view of the stage from this elevated tier. On the downside, the proximity of this section to the smokers’ balcony doesn’t always lend itself to pure listening. I had previously attended at night so it was pleasant to experience the venue in daylight. And I was home in time to cook dinner.


Melbourne has a wonderful array of music venues, and an even wider variety of performers and performances. You can still get your nights on the sticky carpet if that is what you like, but there are alternatives. I plan to continue to take advantage of what the Melbourne music scene has to offer. Feel free to join me.

About Andrew Fithall

Probably the most rational, level-headed Collingwood supporter in existence. Not a lot of competition mind you.


  1. Thanks for the read (and inspiration to get to a few gigs), Andrew.

    I see the East Brunswick Club is the latest venue threatened to close.

    Would be a great shame – have seen some cracking shows there.

  2. Good write-up Mr Fithall, I especially wanted to see the Nick Drake show. Sounds like it was a great show. I believe Krystal Warren will be at Port Fairy so I’ll see her there.

    Yes The Thornbury Theatre is an excellent venue and not just for music concerts. I have taken my son to several Melbourne City Wrestling shows and the place goes off.

    Can I add another great venue? The Union Hotel in Brunswick. A country pub in the city. We saw The Cartridge Family (Suzannah Espie, Sarah Carroll & Rusty Berther) there a few weeks ago.


  3. John Butler says

    AF, the Thornbury Theatre sounds a little like an old (long gone) fave of mine and many- The Old Greek Theatre. Must check it out.

  4. Andrew Starkie says

    The Retreat on Sydney Road does all types of live music very, very well. The front bar on Saturday night, from 7.30pm, does a country rock, bluesy session. It’s all over nice and early for those of us who like their sleep.

    I saw possibly the greatest gig of my life on Saty night at The Corner, Richmond. 84 year old Big Jay McNeeley mesmerized for over two hours on his sax, pumping out soul, blues, gospel numbers that dated back to the 1940s. Management had to drag him off the stage. Beautiful. Inspirational.

    Rick, love Suz Espy.

    I’m addicted to PBS at the moment. Their Gospel, Soul and Funk Sundays are sensational.

  5. Andrew Fithall says

    Rick – there are a couple of acts at Port Fairy who I wouldn’t mind seeing – Abigail Washburn being one. However, not enough to sacrifice a spot at Golden Plains where the camping is included, the drinks are BYO and the deck chairs are up the back where they belong.

    Living across town as I do, Andrew S, I am envious of the large number of venues in the inner North. I have been reading good reports of the newly opened Phoenix Public House, also in Sydney Rd.

    A venue you should try and get to is The Buffalo Club In the city, it looks like a former lodge (of the Fred Flinstone variety) with banners on the wall in honour of probably long-dead prize bulls. We went there one night several weeks ago and it took a bit of finding – off Latrobe St, down a lane, down another (unlit) lane and then up some narrow stairs. Saw Brous, who was disappointing, but Magic Siver White and Pikelet (Evelyn Morris) in solo mode were good.

    I saw in the Sunday Age that they gave some obscure award of Venue of the Year, or something like that, to The Tote. I am not sure what their criteria were, but I would struggle to name that venue as better than all its competitors. It is good for the nostalgia value. A friend of mine was the first band booker there thirty years ago.

  6. David Downer says


    I can’t believe Beat magazine are yet to knock on the door.

    And in this piece, I can at least acknowledge knowing Vika and Linda Bull!


  7. Good work, Andrew.

    This piece brought to mind all the venues I have been at over the years.

    The most frightening: the old Tarmac Hotel (now Westside), Laverton. When I was 16, 17, 18
    it was the only place in the western suburbs to see famous Aussie bands. I saw the Oils,
    Redgum, Wendy & the Rockets, Mental as Anything etc etc. at that place. But, similar to the old
    Werribee Cup meets, there were always massive brawls in the crowd.

    One of the best was when Australian Crawl were on stage…only three songs in, the customary
    fight broke out and James Reyne was absolutely sh1tting himself (and I don’t blame him). The band stopped, and Reyne announced “We are not coming back until you all stop fighting!” This made the
    crowd stop brawling, but they got even more angry with Aussie Crawl, who promptly re-appeared
    on stage, probably fearing the repercussions if they did not.

    Ah…a wonderful introduction to gigging.

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