The Whanganui Musicians' Club has been in operation for about six years and next step is taking ownership of the Savage Club Hall. Zaryd Wilson talks to co-chair John Keating about the club's first years.

IT WAS CREATED to fill a void in the Whanganui music scene.

A decline in live music venues in Whanganui through the 1990s and 2000s meant the city was lacking a place for local musicians to play regularly and musician John Keating was finding it frustrating.

"There were very few venues for a start off and a lot of musicians and bands had just folded up," Keating says.

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It hadn't always been that way. Keating remembers the glory years of the 1970s and 1980s fondly. "Whanganui was a slightly younger demographic back then.

"It had a good scene in the 80s and there were lots of bands and lots of venues so it had a good healthy music scene. But then that sort of died away by the late 90s.

"Back in those days there were half a dozen venues in town, all the pubs had bands and it was actually a good earner. You could earn $400 for a gig back in those days and now you're lucky to make that today. It's ridiculous how it's gone but you could actually do okay making music back in the 80s."

But what hadn't been lost was the people and their collective desire to be playing music live together.

"I was sitting there with a bunch of musicians and I said 'mate, we need the musicians club here'.

That was 2009 and Keating and his mates looked around for a venue and ended up speaking to members of the Savage Cub.

"It was a pretty good call for them to let us in," Keating says.

They then set about assembling a club and running club gigs.

"We got in there and in the early days it was my PA system and whatever other gear we could borrow, other people's drums and bass amps and so on.

"We were basically pulling crowds straight off."

Since then the Whanganui Musicians' Club has evolved into a sort of monthly meeting point for up-and-comers, professional musicians and music fans.

"You've got 40 or 50 people in the mosh pit basically in front of you, that's what lifts the old soul for the musicians, so getting that feedback off the crowd is what it's all about."

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The first Friday of the month has become club night where, starting at about 7pm, local musicians are able to get up and play before the headline touring band.

"The touring bands started to flow pretty much halfway through the first year," Keating said.

"We had Billy TK Senior very early on and he drew a big crowd that first show we did. And from then on he sees and meets a lot of people and then it's just word of mouth."

The club started with about 25 members. "But it has grown pretty rapidly."

Keating reckons there's been about 400 different members over the years. "All sorts of people," Keating says.

"Not just musos. There's farmers come in from up in the hills, there's river Maori come in, there's lawyers, school teachers, drunks and unemployed, and kids."

Whanganui Musicians' Club co-chairs Fred Frederikse and John Keating Photo/ Stuart Munro
Whanganui Musicians' Club co-chairs Fred Frederikse and John Keating Photo/ Stuart Munro

The club's monthly Friday gig attracts and capacity 160 people on most occasions.

Some of the big names to play over the years include Lawrence Arabia, Jol Mullholland, Eden Mullholland, Billy TK senior and Junior, The Eastern, Marlon Williams, Delany Davidson, Amiria Grenell and Eb & Sparrow.

"You've got 40 or 50 people in the mosh pit basically in front of you, that's what lifts the old soul for the musicians, so getting that feedback off the crowd is what it's all about."

The aesthetic the Savage Club Hall provides is another unique aspects of the Whanganui Musicians' Club.

"That's the comment," Keating says. "It's just the visual. It was of course originally Whanganui's first museum. Those murals were painted back in the 1920s, they're historical really."

Six years later the club has grown up and is about to begin a new chapter with the expected transfer of the Savage Club Hall from the Savage Club.

"If all things go to plan" Keating says. "The Savage Club is going to recess in October and they hand the building back to the district council."

"I'm envious of kids that are growing up these days in Whanganui."

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When that is done the Musicians' Club will take it over and Keating says planning for the future can begin. "We need another rig really," he says.

"And we want to hard wire the PA. At the moment it's like an eight hour day on the club night [with setting up and packing down].

"We'll be looking to have other users coming in, dance groups and theatre groups. We've got a green room out the back which we're setting up for band practices which people can hire, it's got a small PA and a mic and a drum kit, you just need to be a member."

The new relationship with the Savage Club may surprise a few.

Two years ago a changing of the guard at the famous Savage Club Hall may have seemed a bit out of reach when Savage Club served eviction notices on the musicians' club in 2014.

"There was no real incident," Keating says. "They saw things or heard rumours, unsubstantiated rumours, and found a bottle top or something.

"(But) it was encouraging responsible and healthy entertainment and social interaction. So they really didn't have anything to complain about."

Things were smoothed out fairly quickly with Musicians' Club co-chairs Keating and Fred Frederikse able to bridge the gap, being committee members of the Savage Club as well.

The club has helped foster the development of musicians. It's something Keating emphasises.

"The one thing I've noticed is the kids have grown up," Keating said.

"As teenagers they've played at the club and have now disappeared. Some of them have gone off to jazz school or there's a couple of them working in the recording industry in Auckland.

"These were 12 and 13-year-olds and now they're 20 and 21, 23 and that's the proudest thing for me is to watch how they've grown and how when they do come home at Christmas and they call in it's awesome to see them get up and play or perform and just see how they've progresses. It's fabulous."

One of the those is Micah Livesay.

The former Wanganui High School student was in his teens and was one of those kids to take the stage in the early days.

He's now a sound engineer in Auckland and recently worked for the now defunct York

Street Studios where he assisted on Shihad's 2014 album FVEY.

Livesay says the club was important for the city's upcoming musicians.

"You'll be sharing the stage with musicians of different levels and different ages," Livesay says.

He remembers Keating had always been keen to provide space to young musicians to play and often used his house.

"I think for him it was sort of a natural extension," Livesay says.

"In terms of playing in a venue there wasn't really anything."

Livesay has watched the club grow from afar, but does return when he's in Whanganui.

"You see Whanganui Musicians Club up on all the tour posters. It's got a name for itself. It's pretty cool," he says.

"What I've always loved seeing going back to the Musicians Club is there's always young musicians up there. I'm envious of kids that are growing up these days in Whanganui."

Keating hopes the club will continue to provide opportunities for the city's young musos at it enters a new era.

"We said from the start that it's going to be a family, all-inclusive sort of thing," Keating says.

"We had those kids up on stage at the first few gigs and that was great, it was a buzz to see that. It's learning stage-craft for them and confidence and standing up in front of your peers or you Mums and Dad or whatever and performing.

"They've gone on to bigger and better things. We haven't found a Lorde yet but, who knows, one day, you never know."