Sam Rkaina takes a look around legendary Bristol music venue The Fleece with its new owner, musician Chris Sharp, to find out how much it’s changed since its wilderness years of the 2000s
You only have to look above the bar to see the calibre of bands that have played at The Fleece. From Radiohead to The White Stripes, the Manics to the late Amy Winehouse, the very best of the last 20 years have cut their teeth in St Thomas Street.
But any music fans who moved to the city in the last few years might find this hard to believe. For much of the late 2000s, The Fleece was best known for a seemingly endless parade of covers bands.
Frankly it couldn’t have been further away from the cutting edge.
One man has made it his mission to change all that, though, and 15 months after he took on the challenge the hard work seems to be paying off.
Because if there’s one venue in the city that has been given a new lease of life in the last year, it’s The Fleece.
Chris Sharp, bass player with Bristol indie band The Blue Aeroplanes, wanted to return his favourite local haunt to it’s glory days.
So he decided to put his money where his mouth is and buy it. Even the most casual of observers will have noticed the difference.
Instead of the tedious karaoke “tributes” it was attracting before, now The Fleece has the kind of gigs people actually get excited about. A quick glance at the acts booked for 2011 show a mix of punk legends and new talent, and young Bristol bands rubbing shoulders with critically claimed groups from home and abroad.
Erasure, Shonen Knife, Wire and The Cave Singers have all turned in storming performances this year.
And there’s more to come, with the likes of The Black Lips, Wilko Johnson and Sons and Daughters all coming up before Christmas.
And it all came about because of a conversation – appropriately enough – on an aeroplane.
“The Blue Aeroplanes were playing South by South West [an American music festival] and on the plane I was sat next to Rich, the sound engineer at The Fleece,” explains Chris.
“I’ve known him for 20 years, and he was saying it was frustrating it had become a tribute venue.
“I said ‘Can’t somebody just buy it?’ and he said it was for sale.
“When I got back I went to the estate agents and the following May I had the keys.”
Chris had two rules to get the venue back on track: it should be open every night, and no covers bands.
The first big change, though, was a makeover.
He says: “It looked like an old man’s pub, so we painted it all black. It used to only open three nights a week. Apart from one night in August, we’re now booked every night until Christmas.
“I’d like to think we’re the only venue in Bristol that does that.”
Chris says he’s pleased with the reaction he’s had from people in the city. “A lot of people said to me it would take three years to get the reputation back. I think we had it back by Christmas.
“This year it’s the first place people talk about. We’ve already gone from an also-ran to the leading venue.”
One of the things Chris is keen to do is support local bands and other venues to help the Bristol scene develop.
With a logo that was “influenced” by the promotional poster for the Reading Festival, The Best of Bristol season has run throughout the summer, with dozens of local bands playing The Fleece.
Scarlet Rascal, Goan Dogs and Schnauser are just a few of the 88 local up-and-comers who have performed during the three-month event.
Chris says: “That was our way of getting through the summer. We’re looking at a Christmas edition that has the best over 10 days. But it won’t have the Reading logo – we had a very nice letter from their solicitors asking us not to use it again.”
As a member of a Bristol band himself, Chris knows what it’s like to be part of an exciting local music scene.
He won’t be giving that up any time soon either. The Blue Aeroplanes have just released a new album – Anti Gravity – and will be playing their annual Christmas gig at The Fleece on December 9.
Chris says: “The Blue Aeroplanes doesn’t take up too much time, but I still gig.
“I made a career playing covers – funnily enough – in bars. I used to gig six nights a week, now I do two a month, and I really enjoy them.”
Due to the increased number of bookings the venue has had, The Fleece is now putting on a number of gigs at other venues in the city, including The Louisiana and The Croft.
Chris explains: “We’re really friendly with the other venues. If there’s an explosion of music in a city it’s usually tied to a venue.
“What the Hacienda did for Manchester, I’d love for that to happen with The Fleece.”
The Fleece 12 St Thomas St, Bristol, BS1 6JJ. Tel 0117 929 9008 or visit www.thefleece.co.uk.