Twenty years of The Stables
Twenty years has been a long time in rock’n’roll. Bands have come and gone; genres have changed, rearranged, and enlightened us how; there’s been different names, different games, and manifestos that change; we’ve sang through the worst of times, the best of times and, once again, the worst of times. The way we bought music, listened to it and shared it has changed irrevocably. It’s fair to say that when it comes to the music business very little is the way it once was and our vinyl, cassettes and cds now seem like relics of a bygone musical era. Even the iPod in your pocket is yesterday’s news. But through it all, live music has somehow survived, almost unscathed, and one of the greatest survivors of them all is the venerable, award-winning music venue that is The Stables in Mullingar.
On Sunday, December 20, this midlands institution will commence its 20th birthday celebrations as only it can, with a full day and a long night of music. Dozens of acts drawn from The Stables illustrious back catalogue are set to return to the stage for this musical marathon, which is the first in a series of anniversary concerts to be held Christmas (and next year).
Established in 1989 by Tommy and Miriam MacManus, The Stables is one of the longest-surviving venues in a country which thrives and pitches itself as a great lover of music. But it’s a fickle country, and countless venues have come and gone since Tommy and Miriam decided to turn their unused horse stables at the back of their pub, The Yukon Bar, into a live music venue. Tommy had promoted a couple of big outdoor gigs, and was a massive music fan. It was with ease and with graciousness that he channelled that love into The Stables. Since day one, he has welcomed promoters and bookers with open arms, and he handed the night-to-night running of the venue to a small number of promoters.
There were more than a few arched eyebrows when the first band was booked to play – a Cajun outfit called The Big Mistake.
“We had a few in,” recalls Tommy of that first night. “Not as many as we thought we’d get; in fact there was very few. I remember standing there with Noel O’Farrell (one of the original bookers) and we kind of looked at each other. And then Miriam looked at me. And we scratched our heads and wondered if the name of the band was prophetic! But thankfully it wasn’t. Miriam and I haven’t looked back since.”
From the first night, the intimate and friendly vibe of the venue was apparent, and the decision to stray slightly to the left of centre in terms of musical ‘policy’ was deemed to be the right way. And twenty years later the vibe is still evident the moment you walk into the place. This is a musical room.
In its early days, the venue earned a reputation as being one of the foremost blues clubs outside of the capital. If there was a great rhythm and blues player in Dublin, then chances were that he (or she) would also be showing up at The Stables. Soon there was live music most nights of the week. Monday nights at the venue became legendary as a thriving local blues scene began to evolve. Several bands spun off from a core Stables Blues Band to achieve success all over the world. Thursdays gave songwriters a chance to air their latest creations, whilst the weekends were packed tight with visiting bands, comedians, and solo acts. Sunday nights were the preserve of Noel O’Farrell and his brother Declan.
“A couple of years ago, we’d be out playing five or six nights a week, but we always looked forward to Sunday night. Even though it was still a gig, it was unlike any other gig. It’s such a great room to play,” recalls Noel.
As genres came and went during the 1990s, The Stables remained constant. Every musical act was welcome, no matter if they were a metal act turning the amps up to eleven, a folk act who wanted the bar closed so they whisper their way through a set, or a major label indie act worried about how the red stage lights would affect their hair. In the late 1990’s a boom in Irish music saw the venue cement its reputation as being one of Ireland’s greatest. National Awards from IMRO and Hot Press followed several years of hard graft at the coalface of the Irish scene for promoters Ronan Casey and Declan Murray and engineer Frank Byrne.
“There was a serious scene beginning to bubble up at the end of the 90s,” recalls Byrne. “But it seemed to be centred on Whelans in Dublin and no place else. The boys just helped that little scene explode nationally. You name any act of that era, and they played The Stables.”
For every touring act since the 90s, a gig at The Stables was essential. There was no audience in the country like a Stables audience and there was certainly no venue in Ireland like it.
But as it evolved from blues shack to an award-winning multi-genre venue one thing has remained constant – The Stables is a place where fostering talent is as important, if not more important, than trying to attract the big names in.
The venue has served as a breeding ground for hundreds of acts. As well as giving established and up-and-coming acts a chance to gig to an appreciative audience outside of the main cities, many of the gigs give local acts a chance to play support, thus encouraging and growing the local music scene. The Blizzards played their first gigs there, and were signed on the strength of a Stables show. The Aftermath honed their live show here, before going on to grab three Top 20 singles in a year, Paddy Casey used the venue early in his career as did Damien Dempsey, who returned time and again to try out material in his early days; Republic of Loose couldn’t get a gig outside of Doran’s, but they could fill the Stables; Mick Flannery’s first gigs outside Cork were in Mullingar; Duffy even played her first Irish gig there! But it was the part the venue played in the rise of Damien Rice that most regulars will remember.
When the now multi-multi-Platinum selling artist was starting his solo career upon leaving Juniper (the band that went onto become Bell X1) Rice made The Stables his ‘home’ venue, and he was immediately made feel at home by the appreciative Stables crowd. He couldn’t get more than a handful of people into any venue in Ireland, but he was selling out The Stables month-in, month-out. For over a year he was The Stables’ best-kept secret, and when he did hit the big time he didn’t forget the venue where it all began, returning to play even when his new port of call was the great concert halls and theatres of America and the UK.
“For a good while, it seemed that no-one outside of Mullingar had heard of Rice, he wouldn’t fill a toilet, but here he was playing multiple-night stands at The Stables, with the venue set up differently each time. They were amazing gigs,” recalls Tommy MacManus.
Hundreds of other acts who have plugged into the Stables stage before going onto greater things owe a little something to the Mullingar venue. “We’ve met a few of them on the way back down again!” laughs MacManus.
But, as the case of Rice illustrated, for those who have hit the big time, the intimate venue still holds a certain magic. Even though there could be bigger pay-days in bigger venues on the table, a show in The Stables was often the only decision. Acts such as Des Bishop, Glen Hansard (both as a solo act and with The Frames), Duffy, The D’Unbelievables, Mundy, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Hayseed Dixie, Eric Bell, Sharon Shannon, 808 State, Lisa Hannigan, Bell X1, David Kitt, The Walls, Saxon, The Saw Doctors, Joseph Arthur, Luka Bloom, Mary Coughlan, Therapy?, Hothouse Flowers, Ronnie Drew, John Martyn, Josh Ritter, PJ Gallagher, Tommy Tiernan, Stables favourites Kíla, and even a few moonlighting members of Dire Straits have all played storming shows in the Dominick Street stronghold. Most of them have made return visits. REM, U2’s Adam Clayton, Sinead O’Connor, Bloc Party, J.P. Donleavy, Joe Dolan, Editors and Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary have been just some of the familiar faces who have enjoyed watching a gig there over the past twenty years.
But for Tommy and the guys who have promoted gigs, it’s the ordinary music fan that matters most. There’s no VIP room, no special treatment, just plain old musical service from the stage.
The Stables rock’n’roll credentials were seemingly set in stone from night one, as the venue has undergone only minor physical changes over the past twenty years. It is still a perfect musical room – rectangular, straight and narrow. Candle-lit and fancy-free its benches and tables are in – even when taking them out would increase the capacity. Intimacy is – and always has been – the name of the game for those who have ran gigs here.
The venue has been booked and managed by just a few dedicated people over the years. The current man taking phone calls from practically every band, guitar-slinger and impresario in Ireland is David McGlynn, and he follows in the footsteps of Andrew MacManus, Noel O’Farrell, Marty Mulligan and, steering the venue through the millennium, Declan Murray and Ronan Casey. A constant for over a decade has been sound engineer Frank Byrne.
All the staff who have served there — on the door, on stage or behind the bar — have their own special memories of magical nights. Stop any of them for a moment, and you’ll be chatting for hours about who has played there. You’ll be pointed to the walls and the ceiling, both adorned with decades of musical history.
When asked what gig stands out the most, the man behind the sound-desk Frank Byrne modestly replies: “They’ve all been good.”
It’s answers like that which have ensured The Stables has stood the test of time, and although it’s a cliché to raise a toast to another twenty years at the end of an anniversary piece, there can be absolutely no denying that The Stables will be around for another twenty years.
*The Stables Anniversary Jam takes place this Sunday, December 20th. Due to the amount of confirmed acts and special guests there will be two stages – the main one being in The Stables itself, with a second, informal stage in The Yukon Bar. The music kicks off at 4pm. Admission is free, and complimentary food and drink will be served all night. A series of anniversary gigs includes a welcome return by Mick Flannery on December 19th, Innate with special guests Autofly on December 23rd and a host of special gigs all next year. Log onto www.stableslive.com for more info and http://www.stableslive.com/stables_gallery/index.html for some pics*