The grassroots music venue’s legacy is also carried by a history spanning more than two centuries. The building can be traced back to 1809 as the Bathurst Hotel, which said to cater for seafarers coming to the newly built Bathurst Basin. The Friends of Bathurst Basin Association say the first-floor tented balcony covered seven bays with iron standards and railings is reminiscent of the architecture in New Orleans, which was the inspiration for its present name, the Louisiana.
As legend would have it, there was a tunnel that used to link the road to the hangman from the New Gaol who used to live in the room. The head foreman of the gaol hid in the connecting tunnel during the 1831 Bristol Riots - that saw the New Gaol destroyed - when he was being hunted by the inmates.
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After that, the building became the Garricks in 1978 and the Smugglers in 1982, known for putting on performances. Mig Shillance’s family has run The Louisiana for 35 years, having previously run the Old Lock and Weir in Hanham as a venue.
“We’ve been here way before anyone else,” Mig joked, who runs the Louie, as it’s more affectionately known. The whole area has seen redevelopment in recent years while several buildings in the area hold Grade II-listed status, including The General and The Ostrich pub.
Mig added: “We’ve been doing this a long time. When we came to the Louie we were running other little venues and we’ve always put on shows in the bar years ago. People would bring their own PAs in and perform.”
The venue, which has a 140 capacity, had always hosted local bands even before there was a proper stage built in the upstairs room. In 1996, a fire at The Fleece caused two promoters to search for a new venue last minute and approached the Louie to use its upstairs space.
Because the venue is run by musicians, this gives Mig and the team a mutual understanding of what the artists need. “A lot of the profits we’ve made, we always plug it back into the venue. I’ve toured myself around the country and I think Bristol as a whole is really good for that. All of the venues get on, it’s a rare thing, and it’s the one thing that makes Bristol a bit special in that sense, the fact that we all try and support artists wherever we can.”
In 2006, the venue was hit with a noise complaint from a new neighbour that caused a battle that went on for years. “We didn’t have to close up it did cost us our house so we could soundproof the place. Everything my parents worked for just disappeared overnight. This was pre-Music Venue Trust days so we had to fight it all on our own.”
Fortunately, the people of Bristol came in their droves to submit letters of support online, which subsequently crashed the Bristol City Council website in an hour, Mig explained. The Fleece also found itself at risk of closure in 2014 when a new development was planned with the closest flat being just 20 metres from the stage, MP Kerry McCarthy for Bristol East told The Guardian in 2017.
(Image: Robin Murray)
One of the reasons why the charity Music Venue Trust was launched in 2014 was to protect music venues from being closed, in particular, due to noise complaints that were becoming more frequent at a time when planning laws were relaxed, making it easier to convert offices into housing.
This month, The Louisiana was one of eleven grassroots venues across the country to receive funding from the Music Venue Trust, to safeguard arts venues across the UK. The Bristol venue has received a grant of £4,855.28 to go towards a new performance area for quizzes and comedy nights downstairs, specifically to fund speakers and a new mixing desk.
On the funding, Mig said: “I want to say a massive thanks to Music Venue Trust and Pipeline. I think what the organisation does is incredible, they do such a great job. They unified all of the UK’s grassroots music venues, and we’re obviously all stronger together. If one venue has an issue we can all show our support.”
He added that the money is hugely welcomed coming out of the pandemic, where the venue has had to rebuild like so many other businesses. With the UK edging closer to a recession, each day becomes harder financially for venues and pubs like the Louisiana. The area has also been drastically impacted by less footfall due to the closure of Gaol Ferry Bridge.
The new system will streamline more events held downstairs and alongside a rich programme of music. Mig and the team have also set up a music studio that doubles up as an art gallery as well as welcoming drinkers downstairs in the pub-bar area.
“We’re in a position where we can think six months ahead every time and almost try and prepare for any possible issues that might come up. That’s one thing Music Venue Trust is very good at is providing advice and guidance.”