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The Vanguard

Written by Thomas Mitchell on January 22, 2009

A holiday in New Orleans, (before Hurricane Katrina did her dance of destruction) provided the inspiration to John Cass to start up a new live music venue in Sydney.

Music floated around the streets, people spoke in slang, chewed tobacco and partied. Cass wanted to capture that effortless vibe and bring it to Sydney, promoting new bands with a new venue.
“We’d returned from a tour of New Orleans, Chicago and New York with a head full of great ideas. We spent three weeks down there, in the French Quarter, which is still intact, I’d recommend anyone to go there. It is party 24/7, music all the time, I mean Bourbon Street smells like Vomit street but besides that it’s awesome. It’s so inspiring.”

The mysterious streets of Newtown seemed the ideal place to realize John’s dream. A clash of cultures, music, art, drinking and a suspicious African Eating House.

“We scouted around Newtown and the current building wasn’t actually for sale. It took twelve months of negotiation, he didn’t want to sell. It was a second hand furniture shop before we got it, and it was piled high full of shit, it took him three months to get his crap out of there.”

Upon acquiring the building, John was met with some resistance from the Local Council, the Anglican Church and The United Nations. Alas his will to succeed was as strong as the four layers of gyp rock it took to soundproof the Vanguard.

“The arduous task of selling it to the council, was a nightmare. The politics of local council, then selling it to residents and most importantly, selling it to the Anglican Church who owned half of the street. We had a community meeting, and we were strongly opposed. But now they fully support it, they know what we’re doing is for the good of the neighborhood and local musicians, but at the start it was tough.”

With the formalities sorted, the next step was to pry the punters away from their comfort zones. Sitting down for dinner? Dinner that wasn’t liquid? Not being able to wear the Newtown Jets 50th Anniversary Special Edition Singlet?

“It was hard to sell to punters, they had a hard time accepting. They were so used to seeing bands in a pub environment, they didn’t agree with having to see their favourite acts sitting down eating dinner.”

“We slowly turned them around, and now I don’t think they’d have it any other way. But the first 18 months was hard like any business. You got to be prepared to work for nothing, live off bread and water, and then the second year it started to come together.”
As the Vanguard became the heart of live music in Newtown bigger acts wanted to play. Cass lists The Finn brothers as a personal highlight, however it was a meeting of Hollywood and musical royalty that gave the Vanguard one of its finest moments.

“Russell Crowe did a whole run of shows, every Tuesday for two months. That was an adventure, we had people from all over the world booking their holidays to come and see him. People dressed up as cowboys, astronauts, gladiators. But one night out of the crowd came Elvis Costello, and he did eight songs with Russell. It was a special moment, you just pinch yourself and say this is why I did it.”

With the economy shitting itself daily, people need to escape and relax, see live music, have a good feed and just chill out. New renovations and a mezzanine dining area make The Vanguard even more enticing.

“Well now we’re mixing and matching it up now, so instead of just having dinners downstairs all the time, we’re having dinners out on the Mezzanine and people can stand downstairs, it changes the vibe. But it gives us flexibility to take acts we wouldn’t normally take, if people want to have dinner they can be treated like VIP’s in the gallery, and you can have your moshers downstairs, it’s pretty sweet.”

We’ll drink and dine to that!

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