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This Town...Is Not A Ghost Town....

The return of big music events to the magnificent Piece Hall in Halifax has given a welcome boost to the tills of local bars and restaurants, as well as giving the town a huge lift. Here's some reflections, plus some other news....

Halifax has been buzzing this last few weeks, with big events originally scheduled at the Piece Hall for last year but then postponed due the pandemic finally taking place. And with each event, the town's pubs and bars have been full of gig-goers having a few before and/or after drinks and maybe a bite to eat. And as an gig-goer and part-time bar keep I have seen it from both sides.

Artists ranging from Shed Seven, The Specials, The Orielles, Lounge Society, The Cribs, John Grant, and the Kaiser Chiefs were all re-scheduled, while in a recently-announced development, Manchester electro-giants New Order were hastily slotted in and are due to play this week, supported by the excellent Lonelady. And further gigs scheduled for 2022 will see Doves, Nadine Shah, Nile Rodgers and Chic, amongst others, play this iconic location which has been praised by fans and performers alike.

I managed to get a ticket for The Specials this time, having been too late for last year, so I assume they must have had some cancellations. I'd had a ticket to see them previously, around 40 years ago I guess, when they were due to play at Unity Hall in Wakefield, but for some long-forgotten reason I never made it to the gig. So, having heard some of their new album recently, I was looking forward to going back to a proper gig and hearing both these new songs and some of the old Two Tone stuff.

But first I met up with the gang at the Grayston Unity, where they were pouring a 5.6% West Coast IPA on keg from one of the country's newest but most anticipated breweries, the Lakes Brew Co from Kendal. It was wonderful, a superbly balanced glass of haze with citrus, tropical pine notes, and it was so good that I made several return trips to the bar. The Grayston, along with its sister bar across town, the Meandering Bear, where I had tried and really enjoyed their 3.5% session Pale Ale on cask a few days earlier, was one of the first places outside of Cumbria to get hold of them. The brewery staff include several of the brewing team from Hawkshead, who had been made redundant by parent company Halewood International, and clearly they have set out to make a statement. If their beers are all to this standard, lovers of good beer have a lot to look forward to.

Lakes Brew Co Pale Ale

We arrived at the Piece Hall, and were ushered in unexpectedly quickly. The final support band, The Rifles, were doing the last few of their set. The place looked magnificent, with the upper levels of the 18th century former cloth hall bathed in a wash of coloured lighting. It was busy, though not too busy that I was able to get down to the front when I had inevitably got separated from my mates! The atmosphere was fantastic, the communal sense of #wearegladtobeback palpable. The claps and stamping in anticipation, each roadies move on stage to check a mic or move a guitar drawing a cheer. The lights dimmed, shadowy figures appeared on stage, the lights came on, a huge communal cheering broke out, and the band launched into Freedom Highway, one of the tracks off the upcoming new album, Protest Songs 1924 - 2012. The band are down to three of their original line-up, Terry Hall, Horace Panter, and Lynval Golding, but included in the band for this tour are guitarist Steve Craddock and Bradford-born singer Hannah Hu, and they got better as the night wore on. They played several tracks from the new album, but amongst the old favourites we were treated to were Gangsters, Rat Race, A Message To You, Rudi, and Monkey Man. It was a wonderful night: the band, the crowd, the venue, the spectacle were all superb. 

The Specials, live at the Piece Hall, Halifax

This last weekend I was scheduled to work at the Meandering Bear whilst a short distance away Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley was the main event, with the brilliant John Grant who I saw several years ago in the Halifax Minster the main support. I called in to a busy Dukes Bar beforehand for a quick pint, and was pleased to see Long White Cloud from the excellent Tempest Brewery on the board, so I went for that. As a sign of things to come, Ellie, who runs the bar with her husband Shaun, said they had been busy all day. I walked on to the Bear. It was full, so no time to relax and have a quick half before starting, and it was straight behind the bar. The place got busier, the pints were pulled, the gin and Fevertrees dispensed, the wines were poured. The glass washer was on non-stop, the newly-steaming glasses soon to be used again. And then to add to all of this, the card machine went down for a time, and we had to tell customers we could only take cash. A few customers left to see John Grant, replaced by more Richard Hawley fans. And then, as the appointed hour arrived, the place pretty much emptied and for an hour or so we were strangely quiet. The lull after and before the storm, as it turned out.

Enjoying a post-gig at the Meandering Bear

The gig ended, the fans returned, and suddenly we were facing a sea of desperate faces, each one wanting to grab a drink to help drink in what they had just witnessed. It was relentless, one face replaced by another, each appreciative, grateful they'd made it to their goal. It eventually subsided, last orders called and executed, and the crowd began to disperse. We had tried to get as much closedown preparation done in advance as we could, but there were still tables to clear and wipe, glasses to wash and put away, toilets to clean, gas to switch off, shutters to lower, grills to put on the doors. Time to get a taxi home, and as I was ferried back home, I realised that Richard Hawley had not come in for a post-gig pint....

And now, unfortunately, some sad news to report. Tony Allen, the founder of Heywood-based Phoenix Brewery, one of the first of the modern micro breweries, passed away a few days ago. He was one of the pioneers, originally setting up as Oak Brewery in Ellesmere Port in 1982. Oak used to supply the Barge and Barrel in Elland when it was under the ownership of the West Riding Brewery, and I met Tony several times in those days as he used to deliver the beer himself. One of the beers in the Oak portfolio was a strong ale which is still in the range today called Wobbly Bob, which in those days clocked in at a higher ABV than the 6% it is today. It soon developed a cult following, and on at least one occasion one of the beer's devotees fell off his bike into the canal while riding home to Brighouse! The brewery moved into a empty former brewery in Heywood a few years later, and changed their name to Phoenix after the former incumbents. 

The Pheonix range grew in size and style, though with a bias towards pale and blonde beers like Arizona, Thirsty Moon, Spotland Gold, and White Monk. With regular seasonal beers such as Tennis Elbow, Snowbound, and Last Leaf augmenting the core offer, Phoenix became one of the first breweries to adopt this approach. The beers soon became a regular sight on the bars of Greater Manchester and frequent visitors to West Yorkshire, where Tony had been based for many years. He had settled in Halifax and was well known at the Big Six in King Cross. With Mike Field, of the West Riding Refreshment Rooms in Dewsbury, whose passing I wrote about in a recent blog, the industry has lost another of its true pioneers.

Tony Allen, founder Phoenix Brewery

Opening picture courtesy of See Tickets

Follow me on twitter: @realalemusic


  1. Most beer bloggers bemoan the lack of real ale they see being pulled when they visit pubs. Has your perception of the ratio between real ale versus other drinks changed now that you are behind the bar?

  2. Great read, Chris.

    I always expected Halifax to bounce back, it was busy when I popped in the Upper George last month. I expect I'd prefer the music in the Grayston though.

    And a lovely tribute to Tony. Wobbly Bob in Ye Cracke in Liverpool was a benchmark.


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