4 May 2024

Mel Parsons on her favourite Christchurch venues

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 4 May 2024

Aotearoa's performance spaces have been through some testing times over the last while, including a pandemic that forced them to stop trading, and inner-city intensification leading to noise complaints. To survey the health of the country's live music scene, we checked in on four of the country's main centres, starting in Christchurch.

Mel Parsons performing at Isaac Theatre

Mel Parsons performing at Isaac Theatre Photo: Cartwright Creative

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Mel Parsons is an award-winning folk musician who's no stranger to playing live in her home town. Our tour starts with her favourite spot to perform.

Isaac Theatre Royal

“I’ve played a lot of shows here over the years," says Parsons of the central city heritage building, "with Fly My Pretties, and we did a lot of the Liberty Stage shows here. I’ve done some of my own shows here. 

“I love it, it’s beautiful. The sound’s always great. There's something about the atmosphere in these old, vibey venues that’s impossible to create anywhere else. The environment gives it the edge over a brand new state-of-the-art theatre.”

Mel Parsons and band performing at Isaac Theatre

Mel Parsons and band performing at Isaac Theatre Photo: Cartwright Creative

Blue Smoke (RIP)

Housed in The Tannery shopping centre, Blue Smoke was a favourite local spot, before it stopped hosting live music a few years ago. It's now only available to hire for private functions.

“It’s gutting because Blue Smoke had a lot of internationals come through," says Parsons, "a lot that are well-regarded sit in that 300 [audience member] pocket. The funding for the bigger commercial venues is probably quite a different scenario to these smaller venues, which rely on people coming to gigs and paying for drinks. When they’re not doing that how do they stay open?

“Jess Shanks [from the band The Eastern], who ran it, cared about every show. Having an artist run a venue who innately knows all the things that you need to make a great show, and to look after artists, it just made the difference I think. 

“The sound was always good, and the setup was always right for the show. Because of that, It always drew a nice music-loving crowd. For me, they’re the key ingredients for cool shows.”

Taylor MacGregor of Save Our Venues

Taylor MacGregor of Save Our Venues Photo: 95bFM

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the country's performance spaces led to the forming of Save Our Venues, an organisation who raised around $500,000 to help keep them afloat.

Their representative Taylor MacGregor, (who hosts Freak the Sheep, a NZ music show on 95bFM), says it highlighted a need for collective representation in the live music space. 

In 2022 they stepped in after a trio of Christchurch venues made headlines, when construction started on some nearby property.

“There was a naturally-formed hub of these primary purpose grassroots venues," says MacGregor, "Space Academy, Dark Room and, formerly, 12 Bar [who closed in 2023], were essentially neighbours. It was announced that consent had been given to build 18 townhouses over the driveway from Space Academy. 

“This is [potentially] a noise issue: it was a mixed use industrial area, and it essentially flew by without council realising the venues are there. This has caused potential for land-use conflict, and reverse-sensitivity issues around having residents next to functioning music venues.

“Parallel to that you had Dux Central in town, that was having issues with a neighbour that was essentially jeopardising the ability to host music. 

“We’ve been working with the council for the last year and a half. There is a plan underway to develop ways in which there can be nighttime activity, and high noise areas, and establish that these spaces are a part of the design of the city. 

“It is an ongoing process, and council is very engaged. For now, those venues are going strong.”


A performance at Wunderbar in Lyttleton

A performance at Wunderbar in Lyttleton Photo: supplied

Mel Parsons sings the praises of this Lyttleton stalwart, saying “It’s like there’s been an art department through there and they’ve just gone absolutely mental. It’s so cool, there’s colour, and mirrors, and lampshades made out of Barbie dolls, and a big disco ball in the band room. 

“From the balcony you’re looking straight out to the port, and the harbour. Places that have a vibe stick around, don’t they? It’s cool but unpretentious.”

Naval Point Club

Nearby Wunderbar in Lyttleton is this unlikely performance spot.

“It’s a yacht club mixed with RSA kind of vibe inside," says Parsons. "I’ve played a few wee shows there over the years. We did a show on a Greg Johnson tour five or six years ago that was a lot of fun.

The Loons

“I would say Loons is the main Christchurch venue now, says Parsons. "It’s almost like a community hall. It’s beautiful, and has been refurbished, but it’s just a big long room with a wooden floor and a stage at one end. 

“When Blue Smoke shut down I felt quite sad, because it was such a hub. But you know, things have their time, and I guess we’re just lucky that the timing of Loons’ refurbishment has meant it’s become that new space.”

Mel Parsons

Photo: Cartwright Creative

Mel Parsons' new album Sabotage is out June 7th.