Finally crawled out of my Hobbit-hole this weekend after a shilly-shallying period of making do with BGT on the telebox, and what better way to kick my sorry-ass back into gear than to finally pop my Cheese and Grain cherry?
Hold your gasp, I know, mate, inspecting the South West’s flagship venue was still surprisingly on my Devizine roadshow to-do-list, and a little tour of Frome’s back streets on a Saturday night with a former resident to direct me off the tourist track was also on the cards. For I’ve mindfully put Frome, particularly the Cheese, on a pedestal, and was eager to see if it lived up to expectations.
Firstly, the invite was for a sellout night with eighties premier Scottish rockers, Big Country, of whom I could only cite one hit from memory, conveniently self-titled, but if far from their biggest fan, the support came from another eighties band, who had minor chart success with a post-punk synth type style, Spear of Destiny, and I’d never heard of them. Neither, I confess, were my cuppa, but the opportunity to cross the border and see Frome in all its heavenly glory was my motivation.
Frome conveys a happening liberal, alternative arty and counterculture reputation, its hipster value far outweighing any Wiltshire market town, something which has developed fairly recently, and can be likened to Somerset’s own Brighton, pebbly beach converts to cobbled streets, and the Cheese effectively their Pavilion. But should we bow in envy at its proud accomplishments? Perhaps.
Our initial pitstop was a necessity burrito calling, placing me with pleasant first impressions. As a train pulled into Frome Station and people offloaded, we took to a renovated hanger nearby, called the Station, where various street food outlets surrounded an alternative art gallery. It was no issue Burrito Boi was the only one open, as per guide’s recommendation, it was what we were here for.
Even with a view of the gigantic B&M sign, your gaze is ever-easily diverted from commercialisation in Frome, it’s colourfully aesthetic. We met a chatty musician type, of the acoustic punk covers band Raggedy Men, a Frome band, it was told, which rarely gigs further than they can effectively crawl home from, amidst folk gathered alfresco on benches, under a casual reggae beat! Burrito Boi’s bar and eatery wasn’t exactly cheap, but damn, that was one tasty burrito, as worthy of your attention as any beef and rice wrap can possibly be.
And there it is with a general nutshell of Frome, like Italy, to suggest it’s cool and hip is no fib, but whatever you do is hefty on the wallet; shrug, sign of the times.
The ticket stub for The Cheese and Grain tonight stood at a sizable thirty-five notes, a pint has reached the inevitable fiver as standard, but dammit, it bears its wires as to where your dollar goes, and you have to hand it to the place, it’s the kind of wonderful to leave you contemplating if every town needs a Cheese and Grain.
While immersed in an adequate free overnight car park, one vocal regular with khaki shorts and floppy pink and silver mohican informed me she had never seen it so full, only to be further confirmed Big Country attained a devoted fanbase in meeting a couple who’d travelled from London, and delighted to shock us that there’s “nothing quite like this in the capital.”
Such is the reputation of this big cheese, the kind of venue to host the Foo Fighters, or a spontaneous pitstop for Sir Paul McCartney to drop in for a gig on his way to Glasto, and frequently too, The Pretenders graced this grand hall last Friday. It is a comparable rural answer to a city venue, such as Bristol’s O2. Though you may find a ticket stub at a smidgen less at the latter, supposing because it has a larger capacity, the further fuel and parking fees will far tipple over the price for the Cheese.
So, if you like your live music bold and with celebrity or legendary status, The Cheese and Grain is the choicest thirty-five minute drive away, as it’s the only venue here so majestically respected to host such big names. As at an eight hundred capacity, the mechanics of any larger venue are unavoidably bound by regulations, to make you feel like herded cattle, at the Cheese you’re relatively of the organic free-range variety. The hall is a huge open space with a grand purpose-built stage and marvellous acoustics, as the sound reverberates like a bass bin, the effect is awesome. But the surroundings are equally appeasing, the outside area is bustling, with an aroma of freshly-cooked pizza; it is, just, nice.
The slim age demographic inside reflected the double bill of acts popularised in the eighties, and thus an older crowd appeared spaciously divided, so late comers were standing watching beyond the fire doors for want not to be ageing sardines, and thus I felt little atmosphere developing. Both bands accomplished yet hardly groundbreaking now, and with little knowledge of their works for me it lacked the retrospective appeal it clearly did for the fans; I was a tender thirteen in 1983, and favoured Grandmaster Flash!
Though I will say, if a post-punk support felt unmatched for the aficionados of this harder rock band, even if of the same era, Spear of Destiny where equally as great, expressively vocal and perhaps closer to the general rock sound of Big Country than I’d bargained they would be.
Big Country though, were only partially the real McCoy. With former Skids original frontman Stuart Adamson passed away in 2001, Simon Hough made for a great alternative, as they worked through their magnum opus album, The Crossing, on its forty anniversary. As for the fans, well, they lapped it up.
Of course, on another evening, with a different line-up I’m gathering The Cheese & Grain converts to suit the punters, ergo given when Ruzz Guitar plays there, or when Dreadzone pays a visit, the crowd will relate appropriately to the tenet of the act. See, to me, June 16th-17th’s Frome ska and reggae weekender has my name all over it, and you should browse their website or our event calendar to find something to fill your boots too, because I know you will!
With the pull of acts to play the Cheese, such as Big Country far greater than our humble blog, it’s futile to provide you with a detailed analysis of them, as also as suggested, I appreciate they played well to the fans but it wasn’t my cuppa. I ask myself, would I have preferred to be in one of our cosier, grassroots venues, backing an upcoming act, like at The Pump, or down the trusty Southgate back in Devizes? Actually, being not one to chase the big names, yeah, I believe I would have.
With that box ticked then, it was decided to do a bunk; I was keen to see what else was on offer in Frome on an typical night. Yet, it was surprisingly quiet elsewhere, as if the Cheese has the gravitational pull of Jupiter and anything else surrounding it was merely a moon.
I didn’t think at this point to check the sister venue, the Tree House, who had a Muse tribute, rather we sauntered the town, mostly upwards cobbly streets. While told to avoid The Blue Boar, and some class and glass fronted wine bar, Eight Stony Street, which looked city-like and not within the character of the town, we wandered through the partial club-bar 32 Bath Street, which catered for a younger, perhaps less affluent, and with drum n bass playing out, young at heart, I loved it there!
Of course, the busiest was a taste of home, Wadworth’s grand George Hotel, and we passed by The Sun, which appeared welcoming, and had some locally sourced live music on, to the cobbled legendary Lamb & Fountain, which I was told was the best pub in town. Yet it was an acquired taste, uniquely appropriate, akin to said Southgate, or Swindon’s Beehive, it has its independent feel which wouldn’t change on request, a local of locals, it was sawdust-on-the-floor welcoming. Nought Wetherspoons about any of them!
I left feeling sometimes, perhaps, less is more. Clearly Frome attracts more lively characters, bohemians and oddities than any neighbouring towns, but overloaded with options of things to do, I fear, aside the outside pull of The Cheese, if it has the population to sustain them all, as the biggest niggler was, unlike cities like Brighton, the streets felt comparatively void of activity.
Maybe we could attribute this to being a weekend before a bank holiday, or a general sign of these hard times which all towns are experiencing. I don’t know, just felt, though it was an adventurous evening exploring a town I know little about, and only had time to scratch the surface of, while Frome has this city-sized event programme feel to it, it only weighs in approximately eight thousand larger in population to Devizes, and less than half the size of Chippenham.
I’m kinda thinking, if I lived there, with all this on my doorstep, would I simply take it for granted and rarely engage as much as I assume I would? And would my wallet allow me to?
Ah, it’s debatable for sure, but take Devizes on a Saturday night, where options are comparably limited, at least plenty will gather at what beauties we do have, I’d wager great nights were had, as ever, at the Three Crowns and The Southgate. So even without a regular Cheese and Grain on our doorstep, we make do with what we do have, and use them more regularly. And on those special occasions like next week’s Street Festival, Devizes will put on the amazingly colourful parade we know it to be, and all will join and rejoice there, freely.
Or I could just be on a grumpy Sunday rant cos you can’t get a burrito that tasty for love nor money in Devizes; you decide, but yeah, Frome, don’t go changing just to please me!
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