They’re the world’s number one Eric Clapton tribute band and the incredible Classic Clapton go from strength to strength 25 years after their debut show.
Frontman Mike Hall caught up with rushonrock‘s Ian ‘Self Made Man’ Murtagh prior to next month’s homecoming show in Newcastle.
rushonrock: When did you first visit the City Hall?
Mike Hall: My first gig there was The Beatles in December 1965. I think it was their last UK Tour. I was only 13. My cousin and her husband took me. I feel very lucky and honoured to have seen them live.
rushonrock: Tell me some of your favourite memories of the venue?
MH: Since 1965 I have been to dozens of gigs at The City Hall. In the late 60s my favourite band was Free. I went to most of their North East gigs including Sunderland Locarno and The Mayfair. I saw them at the City Hall more than once I think. One of the best gigs for me in the early days at the City Hall was in 1968 or ‘69 – it included The Nice, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack and Tyrannosaurus Rex (with Marc Bolan sitting on the floor playing acoustic guitar). I also saw an acoustic gig with John Mayall in 1970 where we were allowed to sit on the stage behind the band. Surreal. Over the years there are too many gigs to remember but some stand-out shows were The Tubes, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton (many times – of course) and a few years back a brilliant come-back gig by Bad Company (without Mick Ralphs). The audience sang every song louder than the band. Paul Rodgers could have just stood there silently if he’d wanted. I saw Delaney & Bonnie & Friends in 1970. The “friends” included Eric Clapton & George Harrison but we didn’t find out till afterwards that George had been standing in the shadows at the back of the stage.
rushonrock: Do you have a personal favourite gig there?
MH: I have been to so many great gigs there that it would be impossible to pick one favourite. However, if you twisted my arm, I suppose I would have to say the first gig! The Beatles at Newcastle City Hall.
rushonrock: What makes the City Hall unique as a venue?
MH: It’s one of my favourite venues anywhere in the world and definitely the most historic rock venue in Newcastle in my opinion. It was Newcastle’s first dedicated concert venue when it opened in 1927. The atmosphere is amazing and this has a lot to do with the enthusiastic Geordie audiences. Over the years, many major bands have picked the City Hall to be the opening night of their UK tour. I’m sure this is because they want to get the tour off to a good start. I realise that it is important for Newcastle to have a big venue like the Metro Radio Arena, so that we can attract the biggest world stars to the city. However, I don’t like large arenas. The acoustics are usually poor and they have about as much atmosphere as an aircraft hanger. I always admired the fact that Mark Knopfler avoided playing at the Arena and included Newcastle City Hall in every one of his tours (until this year). He could have made much more money at the Arena but I am sure that, like many of us, he has a soft spot for Newcastle City Hall. In 1985 when Dire Straits were at the height of their powers with Brothers In Arms riding high in the charts, they did five nights in a row at the City Hall. That was the week that my band After Midnight played our first ever gig at The Cumberland Arms, Byker. After our debut gig I went down to Julie’s nightclub because I had heard that Mark and the boys were playing a “secret” gig there. That was a very special night. It’s not just the atmosphere of the City Hall – I like the architecture as well – inside and out. It’s almost classical. Very respectable and yet all these scruffy rock bands like to play there. Of course, one of the greatest features is the Harrison & Harrison pipe organ at the back of the stage. The excellent staff are another reason why I like the venue so much. Manager Peter Brennan is a very knowledgeable man and has been in charge there since 1983. Whenever I have rung him to discuss booking the venue, he has always been very helpful and sympathetic.
rushonrock: What does it mean to be on stage there yourself?
MH: It will be amazing. We will be in total awe of the place. If I think too much about all the great musicians who have stood on that stage, I will probably become dumb-struck. Earlier this year we discussed among the band what we could do to celebrate our 25th Anniversary. It had to be somewhere really special. There are some excellent venues in the region, but for this one special occasion there was really no contest.
rushonrock: Tell me about the backdrop you have requested on the night and its significance.
MH: I previously mentioned the Harrison & Harrison pipe organ at the back of the stage. It is the only existing organ of it’s size in the world and it was built in Durham City. I used to live next to the organ factory and all the staff used to come into my parents’ corner shop. The organ is a hidden gem that almost no-one knows about. Thousands of people go to the City Hall every year but they never see it because they always pull down a black back-drop. When I used to go to gigs there in the 60s, you could see the magnificent organ and the steps at the back of the stage. It was part of the experience. That is why I want to leave the organ and steps visible for our concert on December 11. When we are playing on that historic stage, I want to turn around and see that famous back-drop behind me.
rushonrock: Are ticket sales going well?
MH: Yes, I’m pleased to say. So far, we have only booked the ground floor but ticket sales are going very well and hopefully the stalls should be nearly full. In fact, if they continue at this rate, we may have to open up the balcony!
rushonrock: Finally, what are your plans post-City Hall?
MH: The Classic Clapton UK Tour resumes at the end of January but before that we have just been booked to appear in Jakarta on New Years Eve 2010/2011. We fly out from Newcastle in late December to perform two shows in Indonesia. The second show will be in the city of Surabaya, East Java, on Saturday January 1, 2011.
* Classic Clapton will be performing at Newcastle City Hall on Saturday December 11 at 8pm. Tickets priced £12.50 are available from the box office, Tel: (0191) 261 2606 and on-line at www.newcastlecityhall.org The band have performed sold-out concerts at most North East venues in the past few years but this will be first ever appearance at Newcastle City Hall. Fans are therefore advised to book early. Visit www.classic-clapton.com for more details.