At Cypress Avenue they're preparing to open the doors to gigs, at last

As the city slowly re-emerges from the depths of the Covid-19 crisis, the city’s venues are beginning to make plans for the post-pandemic picture. Cyprus Avenue on Caroline Street is among the handful of Cork venues selling tickets for gigs this autumn - we speak with owner Ger Kiely and booker Eoin Aher about what lies ahead.
At Cypress Avenue they're preparing to open the doors to gigs, at last

Microdisney on stage at Cypress Avenue, Cork City. Pic: Gavin Browne

It’s been difficult to see a way past the immediate urgency of the Covid-19 crisis for many of us —dealing with the impact of lockdown, social distancing, and other restrictions as a collective required a new kind of attention to the little details in every aspect of our daily lives.

Planning for a time after the crisis has been difficult on a personal basis, because at one stage it was nearly impossible to see how things would play out. For businesses like retail and pubs, however, keeping the headlights on through the fog has been crucial.

Perched at the intersections of Oliver Plunkett Street, Caroline Street and Winthrop Street, the building that plays host to the Cyprus Avenue gig venue and the Old Oak pub/venue was in the process of a dramatic expansion, pre-pandemic — doubling the upstairs venue’s standing capacity, opening a third stage in the Winthrop Avenue bar, and opening a late-running cafe, One One Five.

Cyprus Avenue, part of the Old Oak complex.
Cyprus Avenue, part of the Old Oak complex.

The crew behind the venue were just getting into the swing of an extended programming offering, while further improvements and expansions were in the cards, says venue owner Ger Kiely.

“We just kept working and we got it done”, he says, in reference to the long period of planning and preparation that preceded works on the building.

“Our thing is music. We’ve been doing music for, coming on to 30 years now. That’s what we’re proud of.

“Most places don’t do music, they don’t see a return on music. But we see the value in it, and we acquired the property next door for that specific purpose, to accommodate and build a state-of-the-art music venue.

“And we think we got [that value], and we spent a lot of money, on lighting, on sound, accessibility etc to make it as good a venue as we possibly could.”

Eoin Aher, Cyprus Avenue. Picture: David Keane
Eoin Aher, Cyprus Avenue. Picture: David Keane

Then, on March 12, 2020, as the spread of Covid-19 was happening all over the world and the first cases were diagnosed here in Ireland, the decree came to restrict gatherings to 100 or less indoors, which turned into a complete shutdown later that week.

For venue booker Eoin Aher, it brought a hectic schedule of booking, promoting and running gigs to an almighty halt.

“The rumours started rumbling that morning, that with immediate effect, there’d be gatherings of no more than 100 people,” he recalls.

“About lunchtime, we had a call with [Northern Irish post-rockers] And So I Watch You From Afar. The decision was pretty much taken out of our hands, then, when they made the announcement, officially.

“The band were on the road from Belfast, and had to turn around halfway to Cork and go back.

“There was no ‘ah yeah, we’ll try the show again in a few days’ — this was a live situation. The rest of that week we had to cancel everything, because they were also all over the limit in terms of capacity for indoor gatherings.

“There were a couple of club nights that we would have been allowed 100 people at, but the news changed again the following day. Everything from there on had to be cancelled.”

At first, the idea was that this was a public health precaution — there was no idea of the scale of the issue, or just how long it would take for politicians and society to get a handle on the developing crisis, much less begin to get past it.

The nature of the crisis became apparent when bookings had to be postponed to later in 2020, and again to 2021, if not entirely cancelled. Kiely talks about getting on top of the circumstances.

“We thought it’d all be over in two, three weeks,” he says.

“I suppose through ignorance, or through wishful thinking or whatever, I’m not sure which, but we never envisaged it would be 15, 16, or 18 months without another gig. It didn’t even occur to us, being truthful.

“And in the last year for the large part, we’ve been busy fools, in booking and rebooking, rescheduling and moving dates. I think a lot of us in the industry — agents, managers, bands ... everyone, did not realise we would still be talking about this, a year, a year and a quarter later.

“I don’t think it really hit us until December, when we were shut again for lockdown number three. Up to then, we thought: ‘next month, next month, next month’, and continued on our merry, ignorant way.”

By December, funding from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht had slowly become available to venues to keep the lights on, and plan for small-scale live events that ended up not transpiring, owing to the ongoing circumstances.

Kila performing. Pic: Sean de Faoite
Kila performing. Pic: Sean de Faoite

Venues instead recorded and streamed gigs for online consumption in late December and throughout January. Kiely talks about the funding, and weighs up the stresses of the situation with the efforts of people in the arts department in helping venues grapple with it.

“Government guidance as to what we can and can’t do, when we will be told — that has been very poor, and very disheartening, and leaves you just floundering in the dark. That’s one thing we will be critical of.

“On the other side, and in fairness to Minister Catherine Martin and the Government, they have never supported the arts more. They’ve never supported live music, or anything of that nature, ever.

“And in particular, the people we dealt with in the department, we found to be excellent. They were available all hours of the day and night, including weekends, to answer any questions or queries we had, because none of us knew what the whole idea was.”

Cyprus Avenue’s streaming offering, Winter Songs, pulled together 32 different artists, across the spectrum of performance genres, filmed and recorded them in an empty venue, including Cork trio Happyalone, trad legend Andy Irvine, and folk globetrotters Kila.

It functioned as a test for in-house recording equipment into the future, as well as creating employment for sound engineers, lighting technicians, artist liaisons, and film crews — a lesson in how mixed-consumption live music might shape up after the crisis is over, according to Aher.

“It was a very, very short turnaround, and we were hoping that there would be a limited audience available,” he says.

Things changed drastically after the spectre of lockdown 2, and the spectre of new variants on the horizon

“But again, things changed drastically after the spectre of lockdown 2, and the spectre of new variants on the horizon, so they ended up being streaming-only events, but we managed to create 1,200 man-hours over 32 streams that we recorded in 12 days.

Tolu Makay: Performing.
Tolu Makay: Performing.

“There’s a great benefit to it, for local acts specifically, to have a facility like that in the venue is really good because they wouldn’t normally have access to multitrack recording facilities, and five- or six-camera setups. So there’s definitely the benefit there for the local scene in terms of getting content for bands.

“Where the problems come in is on the larger scale. We might be dealing with labels’ copyright, geo-blocking, which, in layman’s speak, if a band is doing an Irish tour, streaming that content could be problematic because it might affect dates elsewhere, in other markets, so the whole issue there has to be ironed out as well.”

The Love Buzz: Making inroads.
The Love Buzz: Making inroads.

The winter programme at the venue has slowly been announced over the past few weeks, reflecting an overall caution in the gig-going public to snag tickets immediately for fear of further postponements, but also mirroring public confidence, and a hope of getting back inside the walls of gig venues as the vaccine programme rolls out.

The make-up of it, featuring a mix of established Irish bands like The Frank and Walters and The Stunning, as well as emerging quantities like singer Tolu Makay, Gaelgoir rappers Kneecap, and young blues-rock trio Dea Matrona (at Winthrop Avenue), also reflects heavily on the renewed mainstream prominence of homegrown artists in the wake of lockdown-era streaming shows and media appearances.

Ger Kiely, owner, Olk Oak. Picture: Gerard McCarthy
Ger Kiely, owner, Olk Oak. Picture: Gerard McCarthy

Dublin punks Pillow Queens have appeared on the US’ Late Late Show with James Corden Villagers’ Cyprus-promoted appearance at the Opera House is a hot ticket as part of a post-pandemic tour, and local acts like The Love Buzz have made inroads with US indie media, and are starting to regain their momentum in terms of live bookings.

Kiely talks about the role of live music in helping make domestic stars in recent years, as national television and radio continues to catch up with happenings closer to home.

“There’s a couple of people in the industry who are booking acts, and have been doing for a while, and recognise that you have to nurture and grow homegrown talent, and the pandemic has shown us the vital necessity of that.

“It’s also shown us the amount of talent, the huge amount of people that are out there.

“Think about the amount of venues that put in for Government funding to stream Irish acts, and mostly not duplicating people. That shows you the number of Irish artists that are there.

“On the other side, there are places like us, places like Dolan’s in Limerick ... and Denis Desmond, of MCD, in fairness to him, has kept all his people on, where others have left everyone go.

“And people in there will be more aware of Irish acts, and booking them, and using their contacts abroad as well. So, it’s of double-benefit.

“[Live booker/music journalist] Leagues O’Toole is back out by himself. He knows the music industry, has a grá for the music industry, which most people don’t have, and Leagues will do very well.

“You have Singular Artists, who have three people who know the music industry in this country like the back of their hand. They will know how to help out and promote Irish artists. There’s some very, very strong groupings, and that’ll make a difference.”

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