DOUGLAS Robertson has hosted hundreds of musical acts in his city flat but will a council ruling spell the end of his unconventional venue?
In Douglas Robertson’s living room, tonight’s band are sound-checking. Finger-picked guitar and mellow flute drift from the speakers, while downstairs in the kitchen, his girlfriend Jane-Anne provides ersatz percussion – chopping leeks for soup to feed the musicians. “At what point,” muses Robertson, philosophically, standing on the arm of a sofa and tinkering with the lights for the gig, “does a house become a venue and a venue become a house?”
Since 2003, Robertson, a 59-year-old freelance photographer, has been staging concerts in his flat, 42 Royal Park Terrace in the Abbeyhill area of Edinburgh. Actually, “staging” is the wrong word. There is no stage as such. Musicians play in the living room in front of a red curtain pulled across a window which, otherwise, would give views over the back green and the main line to London. Those members of the audience with the foresight to turn up early can enjoy the gig from the comfort of couches; everyone else makes do with an extraordinary variety of stools and chairs which appear, as if by magic, from every corner of the flat and are set out by Jason Stein, a young and rather earnest Canadian musician who is the closest thing the flat has to a roadie.
This evening’s concert, by the folk/jazz duo Fraser Fifield and Graeme Stephen, is the 105th gig of the year, the final show of 2012, and may very well be the last ever. Edinburgh City Council, on the grounds that a home in a residential area is being used as a live music venue and thus contravening planning regulations, has instructed Robertson that he must stage no further concerts after a Hogmanay deadline. To do so could result in him being charged with a criminal offence.
The stand-off has fuelled front page headlines in the local press, and strong opinions on both sides. The house concerts are vital to the music scene, say those in favour, and banning them is jobsworth nonsense. Those against, however, insist that it’s just not on to hold regular gigs in a tenement flat. But, until now, no one has reported what these evenings are actually like.
The flat is unusual, a converted Co-op, covering ground and basement levels. The main living areas are open-plan, with exposed steel pillars, a metal walkway as a mezzanine, and vintage advertising posters on the walls.
Robertson is tall and gently spoken with a white Zappa-ish beard. He is confused and saddened by the whole situation with the council, and it is clear he is pretty angry too. He doesn’t care for authority and seems unimpressed by conciliatory noises coming from the council about helping to find him an alternative venue.
This is his home, he insists, and if he wants to allow some people in to play music and others to listen to it then he should have that right. “Honestly,” he says, “I don’t know whether, if you go upstairs and play the piano, I would have to evacuate the building.”
In the course of almost a decade, the flat has played host to hundreds of acts, including one extraordinary performance a year ago by the late great Michael Marra, who sang to an audience of 80 people which, by the standards of the flat, is a jam-packed sell-out. More recently, an Argentinian folk group provoked an impromptu tango between the pot plants and the book case. What Colin, the amiable wee terrier who lives here, made of that particular hoolie has gone unrecorded. He certainly seems unfazed by the musicians and audience members, contenting himself with chewing on an empty plastic cup which, until recently, contained a half-decent Merlot.
From about 7.30pm, the audience start to turn up, about 50 people in total. Robertson seems to know most of them. He stands by the front door and greets new arrivals. Mwah. Mwah. Plenty of air-kissing. Find a seat, he tells them. Get yourself a plastic cup. Bring your own bottle is the policy here. Soon, the smells of wine and whisky mingle with the vegetable soup. It’s cosy and domestic. The audience, more or less equal numbers of men and women, are a mix of ages and types, but in the main you might call them well-heeled bohemian. There are hipster couples in their twenties; hippy couples in their thirties; middle-aged men with middle-aged spread drinking mid-priced reds.
Before the show starts, I chat with the neighbours. Paul Coppola lives next door and invites me in. He’s 59 and in the property business. Do the concerts bother him? “No,” he says. “I can hear the music faintly but it’s not obtrusive in any way. It’s not a problem.” He attends the concerts from time to time. He popped next door to see Michelle Shocked and considers it one of the best shows he’s ever seen in his life. “It’s great that I can come back here during the interval and get a cup of tea or another beer from the fridge. And I don’t have to wait to use Douglas’s toilet.”
Not everyone is so enamoured of course. The council’s action began with a complaint from someone who lives locally; not about noise, apparently, but rather the disturbance caused by audience comings and goings. The gigs, typically, go on until about 10.30pm; very occasionally as late as 11. Another neighbour, who prefers not to be named, complains about the difficulties getting parked, and the noise from people drinking and smoking in the street.
In the main, though, the public reaction seems positive. Susan Robertson lives upstairs and has come down to show her support. She is a nice old lady in a fur-trimmed coat, petite and full of vim. “I’m coming up on 80,” she says, “I’m coming up on five foot. I’m coming up on eight stone.” She was a performer on the Edinburgh folk scene in the early 70s, and would play with her late partner Dave, a guitarist, in Sandy Bell’s and other pubs. Her great thing was to sing Edith Piaf’s Autumn Leaves in the original French. It’s a bittersweet memory. “He was a chain-smoker and didn’t reach 50,” she says. “We had looked forward to a life of music together.”
At ten past eight, with everyone settled, Robertson makes a few introductory remarks, asking that mobile phones be switched off, and for money for Fraser and Graeme. The suggested donation is a tenner. All the cash goes to the band. In fact, it is handed over straight away. This alone makes these house concerts important for musicians who may be struggling to make ends meet, especially within a city where several small venues have closed in recent times.
But it’s more than economics. What Robertson’s flat offers is an atmosphere of intimacy and respectful attention – no chat, no shouted drinks orders, no noisy tills – which musicians love. Also, and this seems key, there is something about the domesticity of the situation, that whiff of soup, the Christmas cards on the cabinet, that brings a particular magic. There’s a generosity of spirit that perfumes the atmosphere. Robertson not only puts bands on, he puts them up.
Mike West and Katie Euliss, the husband and wife duo who perform punky bluegrass as Truckstop Honeymoon, lost their New Orleans home to Hurricane Katrina and have been on the road since. They played 42 Royal Park Terrace last year, staying there for a few days with their four kids and a nanny, walking up Arthur’s Seat in the rain. “We hung out and Doug plied my wife with whisky,” says Mike. “It was a beautiful thing.”
In America, there is a long-established network of house concerts and “listening rooms”. Bands can go from coast to coast, playing these places. In Scotland, the scene is not really a scene at all, just a few scattered places in some of the bigger cities. But it taps into something of the old ceilidh spirit and may be an idea which is about to have its moment. One visitor to Robertson’s flat, a tax accountant called Caroline Bond, tells me she has already put on two jazz parties at her top-floor flat in the New Town and plans to begin a series of monthly house concerts, following the Royal Park Terrace model, which she and her friends will take it in turns to host. Her motives are not entirely altruistic. “Jazz is good for my psyche,” she says. “It does something to my soul.”
Tonight’s music is suitably melancholy and elegiac in places, with a sense of something ending. Some of Fraser Fifield’s music is based on old pibroch laments. It is received in perfect attentive silence and rewarded with sustained and sincere applause.
During the interval I get talking to Cera Impala, a 33-year-old “wild, banjo-wielding mama”, originally from Flagstaff, Arizona, who is drinking Guinness from a pint glass. She has performed here, but more often comes along as a member of the audience. She moved to Edinburgh from Berlin, where acoustic venues are closing down, having heard about what was going on at Royal Park Terrace. “It’s tragic and heartbreaking that this might end,” Impala says. She sees the council’s action as part of a wider problem about a culture that seems happy for its artists to stay poor. “Douglas is the Robin Hood of musicians in a way.”
So has Royal Park Terrace hosted its last concert? Unlikely. Douglas Robertson doesn’t want the police at his door, but says he is prepared for it to go that far if he cannot reach an agreement with the council. Tonight, the music was sweet, but there may be discord ahead.
“We’ll see you soon,” he tells the audience. “I hope.” «