Celebrating 10 years of acoustic showcases with the release of a compilation of MELLOWTONE graduates, Maurice Stewart speaks to Dave McTague from Liverpool’s champions of folk, blues and roots about Mellowtone’s origins, and speaks to Dave’s contemporaries about the most pleasant man in Merseyside music.
“No way are you getting me to do that!”
“No” isn’t a word that I’ve heard very often from the mouth of Dave McTague, a man who has been heavily involved in music in this city for some time. From the early days of Another Late Night Magazine, through publicity and marketing for the likes of Africa Oyé and Threshold Festival, and artist management for Nordic chanteuse Ragz, McTague has been there and done pretty much everything there is to do in this old town. The constant throughout this myriad of projects has been MELLOWTONE, McTague’s own acoustic showcase, which celebrates ten years of soothing sounds this month, and is the basis for this jovial outburst. McTague is adamant he couldn’t calculate how many Mellowtone shows there have been in total, despite spending days sifting through boxes of old flyers while compiling this retrospective. “All I know for sure is it’s in the hundreds!” he tells me, laughing at the prospect. By way of celebration of a decade of promoting shows, McTague has compiled a commemorative release: Mellowtone: 10 Years is a CD of 18 songs by former Mellowtone alumni that soundtrack not only their timeline, but a rather pleasant evening in.
For those of us who have been so wrapped up in musical goings on in the city over recent years, it’s difficult to think of a live music scene in Liverpool without Mellowtone; but it wasn’t ever thus. Having relocated from Leeds to study at John Moores University, McTague found himself promoting for a few local club nights back in 2004, where he met with future Mellowtone conspirator Richie Vegas. However, his experiences as a punter led to him creating a night of his own: “When we started, guitar bands were still influenced by 90s Britpop. I was sick of gigs with a few lads huddled at the back. There was very little acoustic music in Liverpool that wasn’t open mic nights, which is normally a different standard to what you’d want at a folk night. So we tried to take that music and put it on a proper stage”. The word “proper” relates in this instance more to the perceptions of the audience than the dimensions of the playing area.
The idea had formed, but wasn’t firm until a chance encounter at the View Two Gallery on Mathew Street gave them the perfect launch pad. “Finding a good space was very important,” Dave explains. “Mellowtone only became a reality once Richie and I stumbled across the View Two. Instantly we knew: ‘this is the place – this is happening now!’.” The View Two may be their spiritual home, but it’s far from their only home. Over the years, Mellowtone have hosted events at over 40 different Liverpool venues, as well as curating stages at many of our major festivals – Sound City, Liverpool Music Week and Liverpool International Music Festival. McTague explains: “I’ve made a point of trying to keep it nomadic – different venues, different nights of the week. I wanted it to be regular, but in a way that people would still have to pay attention, and seek us out”. A bold strategy, but one that certainly worked on this enthusiastic music fan new to the city ten years ago.
My early memories of Mellowtone centre on the friendly face of one of the most well-known and admired people working in Liverpool music. Dave always had time to chat even when he didn’t, ready with a flyer to thrust into your hand as he left, each one a promise of interesting acts in exciting new places. “We try to use intimate venues – galleries, cafés, the small room in a pub,” explains McTague. “Even in the times we’ve progressed to bigger venues and bigger artists, we’ve maintained that intimacy through booking smaller shows alongside.” There was a certain thrill in discovering where they would pop up next, but it was always clear the music was most important – a fact not lost on the musicians themselves. Long-time Mellowtone performer Ragz Nordset vividly recalls “the intense silence filling the View Two at every gig once an artist had started”, a sure sign of the respect the audience held for both artist and promoter. “The audience can trust the artists to be worth seeing,” concurs Kaya Carney, who has also played at dozens of incarnations of the Mellowtone night. “There’s a good mix of undiscovered gems from all over alongside more established local acts; acoustic in its core, but not scared of making big noises.” That trust is also built on a strong supporting cast. Resident DJs Vegas and Johnnie O’Hare – known under the moniker of their grassroots music festival Above the Beaten Track – have been integral since day one, helping “to turn each gig into an event,” according to Vegas. “Dave had that concept – an actual event rather than just a gig – from the start. We try and play sympathetically in terms of tempo and mood, but also contrast with the band’s sound. Present people with something they may enjoy but have never heard before or wouldn’t otherwise listen to.”
Comedian Sam Avery was an accomplished compère throughout the early years, before passing the baton to another lively local luminary, DJ/promoter Monkey. Avery believes this attention to detail, which is often an afterthought for most people, helps set them apart: “Dave is totally on the ball with every minor and major part of a gig without being a tit about it, so Mellowtone is always very professionally run, but retains that laidback vibe that it wouldn’t work without.”
It’s an infectious vibe that invites collaboration – another key component of their framework. Every carefully crafted Mellowtone flyer features the logos of countless other partners, local and national. In an industry where friendship is often fabricated, McTague is not shy of working with his peers and competitors, having combined with Harvest Sun, Cheap Thrills, Evol and many others where necessary to put on a good show. “Mutually beneficial” is a phrase to which McTague returns frequently, including when discussing the desire to produce the compilation. “We want more people to hear these great musicians we’re booking, so maybe they come along next time we book them. It’s a testament to how many good songwriters there are here that I really struggled with who to leave out. Some of the artists are no longer active or have gone on to other things, so it acts as a document of a period in Liverpool’s musical history.” A decade is the perfect juncture at which to take stock.
Everyone I spoke to has different theories, but personally I believe the mix of a tight and trusted crew allied to a perpetual addition of new ideas, people and places is the secret to Mellowtone’s longevity. “It certainly keeps it interesting for me,” McTague admits. “I try to book shows that I’d want to go to myself.”
Fitting last words – almost as good as the fresh flyer in my hand that accompanies them.
Mellowtone:10 Years is available to buy at Mellowtone live shows, and online at mellowtone.bandcamp.com