Once upon three years ago, I was quite proud of this blog. I blogged like it was a verb, not an afterthought. Problem is, I don’t live abroad any more (living abroad turning even the most pen-shy westerners into valiantly prolific correspondents), meaning I no longer write. Now, I read. I read friends’ dispatches from Korea, Bolivia, Thailand, Hong Kong: exotic backdrops for exotic adventures I am categorically not having. However, as the man I just googled said: “if you’re good at making excuses you’re rarely good for anything else.” So, here goes. This is a love letter to/from exotic Ancoats, heart of (darkness) Manchester.
The Northern Quarter
The wits refer to the Northern Quarter by comparison: ‘Manchester’s Williamsburg,’ ‘Camden of the North,’ etc. It’s better. Fewer twats and more redbrick. A proper hive of bars, restaurants, gig venues, vinyl stores and converted mills circa-1900, it’s currently enjoying its Goldilocks era. The area’s not outrageously pricey (yet), but is a far cry from the rundown stab-happy Ancoats of two decades ago. Or so I’m told by my boss, who’s as Old Manchester as it comes. It also has plenty of ‘character,’ but despite the bespectacled hipstery hordes, it hasn’t disappeared entirely up its own arse. For now…
Tucked away on a Northern Quarter side street is the Whiskey Jar. It’s a bar, my favourite bar, occupying the ground floor of an old textile mill between Piccadilly and Stevenson Square. Outside, you often find film crews bustling about on period shoots. The first ‘Captain America’ was shot here as, apparently, nothing looks more like 1940’s New York than 2010’s Manchester. Fun fact: the streets are only a quarter-mile long, meaning a car chase scene had to loop background footage for length. Cap’ chases Thorin Oakenshield past the same buildings, over and over, like the monsters in an old Scooby Doo cartoon.
A band is blowing Dixie
To get the proper Northern Quarter experience, walk this way on Tuesday evening. Head out at double-four time, dodge the boom operators on Dale, scoot up Tariff, and you’ll suddenly hear the familiar clang of acoustic guitars. As the music rings and you step inside, you’ll come in out of the rain to a sea of rapt faces. In winter, your glasses steam up and in summer, the aircon makes you shiver (in the dark), but as your eyes adjust you’ll suddenly find yourself in a room so packed you can barely move. Even so, it’s so quiet you can actually hear the bar staff, apologetically, stirring drinks. All eyes are on the performer up under the lights doing their thing, and that’s when you start to realise the Tuesday open-mic at the Whiskey Jar is something really rather special.
Whiskey Jar open-mics are not like other open-mics. Most open-mics* aren’t worthy of licking WJ’s bootlaces. Most open-mics are one of four things:
- The Rehearsal: it’s just you. And the bar staff. You play your heart out to an empty room and die a little inside.
- The Jukebox: someone’s yelling “Wonderwall,” the bartender is demanding Guns N’ Roses and the girls up front are squawking for Taylor Swift.
- The Double Booking: it’s the United/City derby. The organisers saw no problem with this clash. The pub’s full of fans, no-one’s listening; someone chucks a glass at you when you play during a penalty shoot-out.
- The Collective: the average age is 63, Arran sweaters abound, you’re allocated time for one song each (preferably from 1874) and old Deirdre will accompany you on recorder. You contract arthritis by proxy.
Ring dum a doo dum a da…
I was a battle-scarred veteran of these tortuous, tumbleweed-infested dives when I first heard the words ‘Whiskey Jar’ mentioned in hushed, reverent tones. ‘Microphone stands that stay up,’ they muttered. ‘PA speakers built after 1983,’ they whispered. ‘Audiences (cross thyselves) that listen,’ they hissed, all agog. When I found out there was a 3-week waiting list of musicians wanting to play, I knew I was onto a really good thing.
Whack for my daddy-o…
The video above is probably the neatest way to sum the night up. This song used to be the host’s solo opener, but as the weeks went by, one by one, the regulars (I’m one of the shadowy figures looming tall in the background) started jumping up to add backing vocals. The chorus ended up as a huge Crosby/Stills/Nash/Young-esque ensemble. There’s a lot of that. The night attracts everyone: singer-songwriters, hip-hop groups, poets, bands, a capella folk, loop-pedallers. The lot. The ethos is fairly independent and DIY, but to give you a meaningless benchmark for the quality passing through our creaky doors, try this. We have people currently supporting Ed Sheeran’s arena tour mixing indistinguishably with Glastonbury festival regulars, RNCM savants, X-Factor contestants (who, I take great satisfaction in adding, are always hopelessly outclassed) and idiots like me.
Puppet-stringed by compère-without-compare Joe ‘Shut the Fuck Up’ McAdam, the open-mic has over the last 18 months taken on a life of its own. The schtick is surprisingly simple: Joe sets it all up, plays a couple of songs to start, lets the bar chat during changeovers then quietens everyone down (with trademark profanity, which is part of the fun) before introducing each act, of which there’s maybe eight per night. Newbies get two songs; returnees get three. And it is amazing. Seriously amazing. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere crackles, and the one-two combo of an incredible host and a respectful audience pulls in the highest calibre of musicians I’ve ever played with.
“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!”
It’s just a joy. An utter, magical, life-affirming, soul-replenishing joy. Because of it, I’ve had the huge privilege of consorting with the most unbelievably talented bunch of people I’ve ever met. People like Sobi, Lee Parry, Jamie Lawson, The Travelling Band, Rachel Ferguson, Seamus McCloughlin, Josh Goddard, Lennie Hammersley, Finch and the Moon, Clockwork Radio, Hannah Ashcroft, Jonny Woodhead, Andy Adams, Claire Northey, Grim Fawkner and countless, countless others whose names I have temporarily forgotten. A crime for which I am surely destined for a specially-created tenth circle of hell.
I have no idea how long such a thing can last. It’ll probably, almost certainly, sputter out like all brilliantly finite things do, but while whatever confluence of talent, willpower and magic sustaining the night persists, I’ll be there. Every Tuesday night at 8pm. If you’re ever in Manchester round about this witching hour: come join the sorcery. We go ’til 12.
*But not all: special mention to Alley at The Venue in Lymm village for standing true.