How Cotherstone attracted the best and brightest acts
Colin Robinson is the man behind former local music event Club Cotherstone which he ran with wife Claire and music technician Ian Heddle. The event ran for 12 years – wrapping up prior to Covid-19 – and featured BAFTA and Ivor Novello Award winners, Mercury Music Prize nominees and even a headliner who travelled from New York just to play here in Teesdale.
How did Club Cotherstone come about?
I’ve loved live music my whole life. Thinking back to my teenage years, I’d sneak into 18-plus venues in Newcastle to see my favourite bands and arrive back on the train in the early hours of the morning tired and ready to be picked up from Darlington Station by my long suffering parents.
I remember one occasion very well where I’d been to gigs in Newcastle two nights running and managed to not only sleep in the next day and be late for school, but to actually wake up around 4.00pm when school had already finished, not my finest hour.
Back when Club Cotherstone began I had no idea that I’d be creating a regular music event, I just wanted to put on a one-off gig in my home village and raise some money for the local school. The thing sold out though, received overwhelming feedback and spurred me on.
What do you remember about the first show you organised?
Our first headliner was RJ Thompson from Newcastle, someone I’d seen before and knew was excellent live. Right from the off and throughout the years we ran the event we were determined that we’d only run gigs with high quality headliners and he was perfect. I remember even on the night worrying how someone that good wouldn’t come to play our little village hall and that feeling was followed by relief and elation when I saw him actually walk through the door.
People’s reaction and feedback as well I remember very much. Time and time again the same thing would happen over the years. People would be really surprised at just how good our bands and artists were.
There’s a certain stigma attached to live music in a village hall. It’s all too easy to picture something of average quality and a crowd going to “support” and it’s an image that isn’t easy to shift.
Over 12 years, more than 50 artists performed in Cotherstone. How did you choose the performers?
Choosing the performers was always the easy part. There are so many incredible bands and musicians out there under the radar and I only wished we could have run the nights more often and given more artists an opportunity. Our policy, as I mentioned earlier, was always one of strictly only booking someone we thought was of the highest quality but who we also thought our crowd would take to their hearts.
It was always humbling that a good section of our crowd trusted me to put someone in front of them that they were likely to end up buying the CD of and loving. I used to get a real buzz hearing about people then going off to see the same artists elsewhere and asking if we could get them back to play again. The most famous headliner was King Creosote. If you don’t know his music he’s kind of a ‘big deal’. He was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize the same year he played for us and was selling out the Sage in Gateshead the night before he played for us in Cotherstone.
You chose a diverse range of artists – did you have difficulty “selling” them to an audience who were not familiar with them, or did the audience come to trust your judgement when it came to performers?
A good portion of our audience trusted us and we were able bring them bands and artists they’d never heard of, many wouldn’t even check out the music in advance.
This was possible partly because they’d loved previous artists who had played for us and partly because the nights became more than just the music. We didn’t have a bar so always made things “bring your own booze and nibbles” and people tended to make that part of the night. The other thing you quickly learn is that there’s no such thing as the perfect night that absolutely everybody loves, ultimately you need to accept that and not take it personally or feel that you’ve done something wrong if someone isn’t a big fan.
Do you have a favourite show/performer of those you organised?
One that really sticks in my mind though was the 10th anniversary show when Paul Mosley and the Red Meat Orchestra brought their full ‘Butcher’ show featuring multiple musicians with support from former headliner Boss Caine. Wow. The album itself is a real favourite and even contained a duet with former number 1 selling artist Jamie Lawson and the live show was absolutely incredible. A few weeks after the show I bumped into one of our regulars who had brought a friend of his along to the night who was a touring musician.
Their feedback was that it wasn’t just their favourite Club Cotherstone but that both had agreed it was the best gig they’d ever been to. Another highlight was New York singer-songwriter Ben Arthur telling me that his sold out show for us had been his favourite show he’d ever played. Given that he’d played all over the world and supported some pretty big names that really meant a lot.
The King Creosote show too, I remember on the night feeling like I couldn’t actually believe that I’d made the night happen. One of my absolute favourite artists had been to my house and played my own village hall – people still don’t believe me when I tell them about it now.
What was the best thing about organising a Club Cotherstone show?
The best thing without question was the night itself after the lights went down and the music started. It was always such a stressful time worrying about ticket sales and bringing everything together in the run up, but once the night properly started with the musician repaying your faith by really delivering on stage you could sit back and think, we did this’ and then just enjoy the music itself.
... and what was the worst/most difficult aspect?
The hardest part was the stress of worrying we’d get a decent crowd on the night.
No amount of being assured by someone that they were coming, or them asking for tickets, ever meant anything concrete until whoever it was had actually handed over the money to commit to coming, I don’t think people realise how difficult that part is to deal with. Losing money wasn’t the worry either – we made a bit or we lost a little each time – the worry was that I had worked hard on persuading whoever it was to play and stressed to them how fabulous the crowd would be so I needed the crowd to back up my words and make the night a success.
Sometimes you’d feel like a broken record to keep mentioning whatever night you had coming up and it was hard not take it personally anytime someone local didn’t come for whatever reason. I’d always say that the best way to help would be to buy your tickets early and to persuade friends along. I’d stress that too now once things open up again – if you’re going to something local then buy your tickets in advance if you can, it really helps the organisers.
How do you look back on Club Cotherstone?
With a great deal of fondness and pride. In the end it was just so much worry and that’s what made me decide to stop but prior to that I’d had a few moments of thinking I’d stop then having such a great night at the next one that I’d thought, ‘Maybe one more’. It brought the community together, people discovered new music and musicians played a gig that they loved more than most on their tours so I definitely still get a great feeling from knowing I had a big part in that.
Live music has been off the agenda for almost a year – what was the last gig you went to (and was it a good one)?
Definitely not the kind of thing we’d ever have at Club Cotherstone but I went to see a band called Riskee and the Ridicule the week before lockdown started, although in truth that was more about the venue and meeting up with some friends than being a huge fan of the band. I’d always heard about Nambucca in London, a legendary venue in the DIY scene, so I finally dived in with an extravagant treat for myself taking the train down. All these months later there’s no sign of gigs returning any time soon so that trip feels like money very well spent. It was a great gig and has a special place for me being the only gig I’ve been to in so long.
With Club Cotherstone no longer operating, is there room for more live music in the dale, Covid notwithstanding – and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of organising something?
I’d say that putting on a gig is an incredibly rewarding thing to do, it really is. On the negative side, there’s no shortage of people willing to ‘support’ cover bands in a pub and that has its place of course, but if your plan is to put on original music then it takes a lot of work to persuade people out to support that.
It is possible with work and by far the hardest part is gathering the audience but it’s an incredible feeling seeing a room full of people listening to cool music that you made happen.