(Lead Pic: Mark Seymour and the Undertow – Archies Creek Hotel Outdoor – Photo Rob Miles)
It’s a travelling tale that seems quite the anomaly in the Australian music industry right now.
Early last year Melbourne’s well-regarded, long-established venue, The Caravan Music Club, moved to regional Victoria to the tiny town of Archies Creek. No-one could have foreseen what was to transpire next, but regardless the Caravan has survived. How?
As luck would have it, the Caravan’s new permanent home is officially in ‘Regional Victoria,’ not metropolitan Melbourne (coincidentally, about three miles down the road from my recording studio, The Mill.) It’s remoteness from the city alone was probably the difference between the Caravan going under or staying afloat in 2020. While Melbourne suffered from appallingly lengthy lockdowns during large periods of last year, the regions outside the metropolitan area were less impacted.
But there’s been far more to The Caravan Music Club’s survival than that.
Behind the scenes, in the summer before COVID really took hold, and throughout the darkest parts of last winter, the new owners of the Archie’s Creek Hotel, Peter Foley and Mary Howlett, who had for the 15 years prior run the Caravan in three separate Oakleigh venues, physically moved their entire business lock, stock and Midas Heritage to the unsuspecting town of Archies Creek (actually, the Midas, which had been the central ingredient of the all-analogue Caravan system, is owned by Brett Doig.) Who would have guessed that the word ‘caravan’ would eventually become so prophetic in their business name.
Peter and Mary also took with them the Meyer Sound speakers, the tables and chairs, the curtains and signage, and all the looms and power distro, unloading it into their recently acquired pub and the Community Hall next door before they’d quite had time to digest what it was they’d really done.
Cool To Cold
For a business model that thrived on being ‘cool,’ as well as renowned for its quality boutique shows and long-established relationships with bands and their managers (musicians seem to treat Peter and Mary like long-lost relatives) the switch to a one-horse town in the middle of what was (for them at least) ‘nowhere,’ must have, at times, felt like utter madness. In their darkest hours Peter and Mary surely mused; ‘What the hell were we thinking? Who on earth is going to come all the way out here to see a gig?’
But loyalty goes a long way in the music industry it would seem, even amongst the patrons of certain venues. So as circumstance would have it, in some kind of twisted way, the horrendous combination of COVID lockdowns, a decimated music industry, and desperate musicians eager for a chance to play and earn a dollar, meant that when things finally opened up again last summer (remember that?) punters flocked to the Archies Creek iteration of The Caravan Music Club in droves, desperate as they were for live entertainment. It quickly became, statistically speaking, the most successful venue in Victoria, featuring acts like Mark Seymour, The Black Sorrows, Ella Hooper, Tex Perkins, The Jazz Party, Kutcha Edwards and Kate Ceberano to name but a few. This statistic may seem like a somewhat disingenuous fact, given that most places in Victoria were locked down or closed during last year, but nevertheless according to Premier Artists at least, the Caravan topped the charts!
Since then, of course, the Australian music industry, and society in general, has lurched from lockdown to ‘open,’ from 50 per cent occupancy with mask wearing, back to snap lockdown. It’s been a diabolically unpredictable time for everyone; an anxiety inducing, hyper-stressful prolonged period of quasi exile, where no-one has been able to see each other consistently, and even when they have, there have been no handshakes, no mouths visible, no hugs. It’s been bizarre.
But rather than dwell on all that, here’s a snapshot of what has taken place in the last 18 months or so in one very small regional town with its new group of ‘muso’ residents.
Backing up to 2019 momentarily, the local pub down the street from me, known simply as ‘Archie’s Couch’ at the time, was being run by a younger couple, John Reid and Ami Wallace. However, no sooner had they established the place as a vibrant pub where you could eat, drink and see live music, than they suddenly pulled the pin! John and Ami’s focus had changed to looking after their growing family, so the place went on the market, which disappointed many locals for whom the pub had become their second lounge.
A few months later, some ‘townies’ took over: a guy in a hat, his wife and some ‘extras’, whose relationship to the new owners no-one could quite work out. But very quickly all was revealed, and names finally stuck to the new faces in town. Jon von Goes of RRR fame moved into the street (there’s only one), from where he has since broadcast most of his RRR shows during lockdown. Singer Tracey Miller (mother of The Jazz Party front woman, Loretta Miller, and sister-in-law of Lisa Miller) bought the house two doors up, Peter Gow the house across the road, and so on. Music industry types were suddenly flocking to Archies in droves. The sleepy hollow was awake!
Last winter, with the aid of Victorian Government funding, a new outdoor stage was built in the beer garden of the Archie’s Creek Pub, predominantly by Peter Gow on hammers and saws, Jon von Goes steering wheelbarrows and Peter Foley pointing out things that weren’t quite right, in an outdoor area that can accommodate several hundred people, either sitting or standing.
The outdoor stage, which closes up at night locking securely away, has a new Meyer Sound PA comprised of two Ultra X40 wide-coverage loudspeakers aside, and two 900 LFC single 18-inch subs. A dbx Driverack 260 deals with time alignment duties of the speakers and 32 channels of Allen and Heath DX-168 converters send all the stage signals digitally via Cat5 to an Allen and Heath SQ7. There’s also a permanent and comprehensive lighting system setup (that we may detail in a future article).
The outdoor system, which was all set up by Brett Doig, sounds exquisite, and both myself and James Wilkinson have mostly run the venue sound in the last year or so. There have been lots of great gigs at Archies Creek, nearly all of them sold out, and for my part it’s been quite surreal to see queues of people lined up in the street outside the pub waiting to get in. For the 15 years I’ve lived here, I can say with some certainty that there has never been a queue in the street down at Archies, ever! During COVID it’s been doubly unbelievable to witness.
Somewhat remarkably for the town, and as if one new venue in a hamlet with only one horse wasn’t remarkable enough, a similar PA and lighting setup has been installed next door at the Archies Creek Community Hall, again with the aid of Government funding. Combined with the acoustic treatment that yours truly put on its walls about five years ago to improve the sound of local gigs that took place there from time to time, the space now includes a decent sized stage (albeit a temporary one that was kindly donated by Peter Foley), two Meyer Sound CQ1 wide-coverage loudspeakers, with USW1P double-15 subs, and a pair of UPA-2C narrow coverage in-fills. An identical combination of two Allen and Heath DX-168 converter boxes and an SQ7 console complete the system. This mirror-imaging of the digital elements of the neighboring systems effectively provides both venues with redundancy, should one or other venue suffer a sudden catastrophic failure. With no shop within cooee of the two venues, identical systems make for safety in numbers. They also sound great.
So now here we are again. Like some demented Groundhog Day, Regional Victoria is enduring substantial COVID restrictions (this week at least – who knows what will happen next week!), and Metropolitan Melbourne is in severe lockdown once again. NSW is in total disarray and most of the rest of the country seems destined to follow suit unless a dead-set miracle occurs. Countless gigs at Archies Creek Hall and the hotel next door have been postponed or cancelled, in many cases repeatedly. And the story is the same nationwide.
The future of the Australian entertainment industry, which looked somewhat positive last summer, is now once again cloaked in a cloud of uncertainty. This time around though, there’s a strange sense of deja vu mixed with a vastly diminished tolerance (or economic resilience) for lockdowns. How much longer individuals and businesses within the wider entertainment industry can endure this biological fiasco without going to the wall or choosing a different path altogether, no-one quite knows.
But endure we must.
* Vale Frank Guillen, a close family friend of my wife’s, who died of COVID in California literally while I was writing this article.
Rest in peace, sir.
Andy Stewart owns and operates The Mill studio in Victoria, a world-class production, mixing and mastering facility. He’s happy to respond to any pleas for pro audio help… contact him at:
email@example.com or visit:
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