4 February 2021

Why The Abbey is giving a voice to live music in Canberra

| Michael Weaver
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Stu Thompson, Katherine Fisher and Josh Williams

The team behind the scenes at The Abbey: Stu Thompson, Katherine Fisher and Josh Williams. Photos: Michael Weaver.

The carved oak organ case that creates an ethereal atmosphere at The Abbey at Gold Creek is part of the venue’s old-world charm, but it’s in the modern world of contemporary live performances where the new managers are carving out a niche that will give a voice to local musicians while bringing more touring acts to the capital.

Managers Katherine Fisher and husband Stu Thompson say there is a reason many touring acts bypass Canberra – there is simply nowhere viable for them to perform, and the economics are simple.

“Canberra doesn’t have the luxury of having these big-name venues like the other bigger cities do,” Stu tells Region Media during a visit there this week.

“If you wanted to bring a 500-people capacity show to Canberra, you might be hiring the Bicentennial Hall in Queanbeyan or Albert Hall in Canberra, and you’ve got to bring all this production that will cost you $20,000 before you sell a ticket.

“So we’ve identified that Canberra needed something that could support the technical requirements for artists, but also showcase artists correctly so that they’re not standing in the corner of a bar playing music.”

Hands Like Houses

Canberra’s own Hands Like Houses during the first of their two sold-out shows at The Abbey last weekend.

Stu, an audio technician, appreciates the experience of having a complete audio and visual show. He has all of the gear and lots of ideas and has not been sitting idle while waiting for the pandemic to pass.

“We want to put on shows, not just gigs,” he says.

“To be able to properly showcase an artist when they perform by having a great front-of-house mix and proper lighting makes so much difference.

“We have places like The Basement in Belconnen, which is an amazing venue, but we don’t have anything where you come to a venue and it’s all there ready for you to go.”

Canberra’s finest rock export, Hands Like Houses, brought the house down during two sold-out shows at The Abbey last weekend. The band had cancelled almost 100 shows in the wake of COVID-19, but took to the stage, seated at first before standing up and letting loose.

Shannon Noll will be the next renowned musician to perform there on 26 February, supported by two local artists. Others who have graced the stage include The Black Sorrows, energetic trio 19 Twenty and local rising star Lucy Sugerman.

Cabaret shows are also on their way later in the year.

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Stu says he also wants to give local musicians a bigger voice after so many live music venues in Canberra have struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic, noise complaints in the Civic precinct and a lack of support from the public.

He’ll be offering the venue to local bands who want to get a feel for performing with professional sound and lighting, do a video shoot, or simply want to rehearse with one of the venue’s in-house technicians on a proper stage.

“It’s really about building a legacy that people start knowing about and start putting live shows back on the map for touring and local artists,” Stu says.

“We’re hoping to teach and help artists to get the support they need because there’s a huge gap between the technical aspects of a show and the performance, so we’re trying to help people bridge that gap.

“Also, when we book with bigger artists touring through Canberra, we only give them the option of booking local bands in support.

“Two or three times a year, we’ll put on a locals-only show with one largish Canberra band and a few other Canberra bands to showcase what the local scene really has to offer.”

Managers at The Abbey, Katherine Fisher and Stu Thompson.

Managers at The Abbey, Katherine Fisher and Stu Thompson with the venue’s historic organ case.

For all the developments at The Abbey, some things won’t change; namely, it’s pièce de résistance – the carved oak organ case that was transferred there when the venue was a function and conference centre in the mid-1990s. The Norman and Beard organ was originally housed in a church in London at the beginning of the last century but now calls The Abbey home.

“The venue has been around for 30 years and has seen some changes,” says Stu. “I just want people to know it’s not the same place where their parents were married. It’s a very different venue and a very beautiful venue and we’re really keen to see more live shows come through.”

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