20 Jan, Wednesday
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Warrenpoint – home to Northern Ireland’s Best Live Music Venue

It is official! The Skylite Room in Warrenpoint has been voted as Northern Ireland’s Best Live Music Venue!  And they have the NI Hospitality Award to prove it!

This fledgling venue has been open for just over three years, yet it’s fast gaining a reputation as the place to beat for great live music.  While there is plenty written about venues in Belfast, now it’s time that gig-goers found out what else is available to them, and what they could be missing out on.

The stage in The Skylite Room

Coming from a background in catering and hospitality, Newry man Kris Fletcher took over this venue together with David Reynolds and Caroline Reynolds in 2015, but at first live music wasn’t their vision for the place at all; they just thought it was a great building which needed to be put to good use. With a bar in front and a restaurant above, the room at the back was initially earmarked for parties and private functions.  A couple of such events with live bands though, brought about an eye-opening moment for music lover Kris; the realisation that live music should be a regular feature. “It’s such a good room, it’s such a good size, and no matter where you are in the room there’s a great view of the stage, but with live music in it the room just came alive!”.

Since that vision became clear, extensive renovations have been undertaken to make The Skylite Room one of the best venues in the country; a new bar was installed, new décor put in place, the stage was extended to allow for even bigger and better bands, and they now have a beer garden with an outside stage that is the envy of many bigger, more well-known venues.  More recently they have invested in a completely new sound system, new mixing desk, new lighting system, acoustic panelling.  “Unfortunately it’s not cheap to put those things in,” says Kris, “but over a period of time we’ll get that back hopefully, and it definitely has helped the sound.”

The Skylite’s newly refurbished beer garden

Inevitably, there were teething problems; the co-owners didn’t always agree on which bands to book or how much money to spend.  And there were gigs in the very early days which didn’t go to plan. One such disappointment was when Dublin trio Chasing Abbey, despite having a massive summer hit and playing to a crowd of 10,000 at Sea Sessions weeks earlier, played in The Skylite Room to twelve people.  Kris remembers, “I left early that night, and Gerry our sound engineer texted me later saying, it can’t be helped and on to the next one. But I was feeling like, what’s the point?”  It was quite a blow.

Not to be disheartened for long though, Kris did persist, and the venture became steadily more successful.  And one thing the partners did agree on, was that if this idea was to work, The Skylite shouldn’t be restricted to solely rock or blues or pop or dance music; they were going to offer the people of County Down anything and everything and cater for all tastes until they discovered what worked best.  And it is working; hits on their social media posts and numbers coming through their doors reveal that there is a real buzz about this place which shows no signs of diminishing. With the beer garden in place the capacity has increased to 350, and they’ve filled that capacity eight or nine times already this year.

The Winners!

The added facility of the beer-garden has also meant that live music from local singers and duos was on offer every Sunday afternoon during 2018’s most glorious summer which has drawn a new crowd to the venue. And word-of-mouth is a powerful tool; drawing the punters in for that Sunday drink has meant that they’ve kept coming back for gigs, and they’re bringing their friends.  Also, the restaurant upstairs, Number 7 Duke Street, is tied in with The Skylite which means there’s so much more to offer the patrons. “We do put on restaurant promotions and deals when people buy tickets for the shows, and increasingly we find that we’re upstairs in the restaurant and by the time we get downstairs to the gig it’s the same people.” It’s an tempting feature in particular for people travelling a distance.

In just three years, the sheer variety of performers – both tribute acts and original artists – that Kris and his team have had on the bill has been astonishing.  Just last weekend for example, there was a special treat for those “gangsta rap” fans when Coolio came to Warrenpoint!  It’s fair to say people were surprised to see those posters pasted up around the town. Kris told me, “A lot of people were coming in and saying to me, it’s got to be a tribute, it couldn’t be the real Coolio! They were amazed to find out it was actually him.”  This upcoming weekend there’s a black tie, Rat Pack event. You can’t say that’s not diverse.

Coolio in The Skylite!

As its reputation grows, many more prominent acts are signing up to play there; Aslan, The 4 of Us, Paddy Casey have all graced that modest stage.  To land Aslan not once but twice within a year, particularly considering the current resurgence that has seen them sell out two consecutive nights in Iveagh Gardens and several more in Vicar Street, is pretty impressive. Kris puts it down to the fact that the acts just seem to love playing there; “I always get a lot of feedback from Billy after the gigs, and I talk to the bands in the green room, and they keep telling me the same thing, that there’s a really good atmosphere and a smaller more intimate venue is a bit more rock and roll.”

Paddy Casey summons those Saints and Sinners to the Skylite Room.

And the bigger the acts get, the more Kris has to pinch himself to believe that it’s really real.  He told me that there have been times when he stood and watched in amazement as songs which he’d had on his first MP3 player growing up, (Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, Crazy Town’s Butterfly, and he even sheepishly admitted, Reach by S Club 3), were played there on his stage. Proper dream come true moments.  Another such moment was when Paddy Casey‘s first Skylite appearance was confirmed, he had a moment where he said to himself, “hang on, this is actually Paddy Casey we’re booking here”. And then to hear the likes of Saints and Sinners and Lucky One at close quarters in his own venue, confirmed that all the hard work had been worth it.

Aslan’s Christy Dignam rocks The Skylite stage

When I asked Kris about some of the most memorable nights they’d had there, he said he had to mention the hardcore electronic dance act hailing from Waterford, King Kong Company.  Far exceeding what he’d expected, their live performance is so different and so exciting, that they have become one of his favourite live acts because you just never know what to expect.  “They bring their lasers, last year they called and asked if they could bring a CO2 machine with them, and I just said yeah, why not? That’s what it’s all about.” Not only that, but on both occasions that they’ve played there, they didn’t make use of the accommodation laid on for them, rather they’d found a party somewhere in Warrenpoint and raged all night – now that’s proper rock and roll.

Kris acknowledges that there is a whole team of people who makes the operation work, and right at the heart of that is event-organiser-slash-stage-manager Billy Hunt.  He looks after the acts from the moment they arrive at the venue until they leave, and Kris will admit that he’s a big part of the reason why performers keep coming back.  Whether it’s an act of the calibre of The 4 of Us, or a tribute band who are more accustomed to changing in the back of their van, Billy treats them all like royalty and tends to their every need.  A well-stocked dressing room, a little bit of schmoozing and Billy’s undivided attention goes a long way towards keeping the artists happy. Like Kris, Billy’s a genuine music lover, and his 100% punk exterior belies what’s inside – a bit of a softy and a true gentleman, whom I suspect doesn’t even mind a bit of S Club!

Old school punk – Billy Hunt

The life of a music venue owner is not all glamour and showbiz. Kris points out that when you’re rushed off your feet behind the bar or have your hand down a toilet trying to unblock it, it’s hard not to question what it’s all about.  But the moments when he gets time to take a breath and stand back and enjoy the music, that’s when it’s all worth it. When the room is jumping, when the people are happy, when a capacity crowd is singing along to every word with Slippery When Wet the Bon Jovi tribute, those are the moments when it’s all clear.  And as The Skylite prospers, it can only be good for the little seaside town of Warrenpoint. Though the blues festival there has drawn crowds for over twenty years, having a music venue which is a more permanent fixture has helped to confirm the town’s reputation as a musical hub. With each gig they are drawing people from further and further afield to check out what all the fuss is about.

The 4 of Us at The Skylite: Declan and Brendan Murphy

The Skylite Room’s strength may be the passion of the team behind it and their utter lack of fear to take risks. Bringing a world class rapper to County Down was certainly a risk, as was putting on such an important gig on a Sunday night. Kris says, “We’re not Belfast, we’re not Dublin, we just can’t put on a gig on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night and not worry about it”.  But they did it and it paid off – the venue was heaving, and they even had their first official crowd surf!

They also do their bit to foster homegrown talent, offering a platform for up-and-coming local artists like Darragh McSloy, The Vicunas, Jack Devlin and On the Rocks, amongst others.

Ecstatic! L-R: Billy Hunt, Kris Fletcher, David Reynolds

Given all of that dedication to making The Skylite Room a success, there can be no doubt that they were worthy winners of the prestigious NI Hospitality Best Live Venue Award with which they were presented at a glitzy ceremony in the Crowne Plaza Hotel earlier this month.  They were surprised and thrilled to discover that they were nominated by members of the public and shortlisted by the judging committee.  Once they saw that shortlist though and saw that they were vying for first place with long established venues like The Limelight, The Black Box and The Belfast Empire, they had no expectation of actually winning.  Kris admitted that his first thought was, “well at least we’ll get a good night out”.  Live video footage from the night confirms their utter disbelief at being declared winner.

I asked what he thought gave The Skylite the edge over the opposition.  “I don’t know”, Kris replies, “all I can say is we try to look after our bands… we try to do that little bit extra, and Billy really is so professional in how he takes care of them.  And every band that leaves tells us that they have enjoyed playing the venue.”  He recognised too that social media may have helped and that the many videos online of capacity crowds having such a good time there, could have helped to swing it.  Besides that he tells me that the feedback he’s getting is that the people have just come to trust that whatever bands they bring there will be top quality, “People now aren’t even worrying whether it’s an original band or a tribute, they know the band’s gonna be good, it’s a given. Every band we have had has nailed it!”

Worthy Winners! L-R: Billy Hunt, Kris Fletcher, Joanne Mackin

Whatever the reason, Kris and team are most appreciative of the accolade and intend to make the most of it and just try to top what they have achieved already. With lots of acts already lined up for 2019, Kris says they are not afraid to reach out for really big-name bands and artists; “aim high, they can only say no”.

And he is hopeful that the award will not only help them book more big acts, but that it will get the venue’s name known around the country. It is significant that in a shortlist of nine, six were in Belfast, so he feels it’s a boon for music outside the city to get recognition.  “Belfast is the hub of music in Northern Ireland, and that will always be the case… but there’s no reason why the supporting areas can’t also have a thriving music scene – Ireland has music coming out of it’s ears, and recession or not, people will always want to hear live music.”

Check below for upcoming events, click here to follow the venue on Facebook, support your local live music venue, or better yet get yourself down to County Down to see for yourself why The Skylite Room is the best live music venue around!

My tastes vary - live in concert I've seen (amongst others) Bob Dylan, The Cure, Morrissey, Johnny Marr (sadly never The Smiths), Van Morrison, David Byrne, Counting Crows, John Prine, Chris Smither, Erasure, They Might be Giants, The Verve, Ben Folds, Georgie Fame, Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright and Loudon Wainwright III. This decade, a lot more home grown talent, with the likes of Duke Special, Brian Kennedy, VerseChorusVerse, The Bonnevilles, Tony Villiers and the Villains, The Hardchargers, and The 4 of Us. Favourite gigs include Prince in Cork in 1990, Trip to Tipp ’91 & ’92, David Bowie’s Reality tour in 2003.