Hamer Hall, something to Bragg about

Gary Barling
Summary 
In October I saw the English musician Billy Bragg at the refurbished Hamer Hall. The wheelchair seating was fantastic. It is very rare that venues enable wheelchair users to sit in the front row. The number of lifts, wheelchair accessible toilets and the low counters made the venue very accommodating for wheelchair users. But it was the wheelchair accessible seating which impressed me the most. The show was a tribute to Woody Guthrie and was part of the Melbourne Festival. A great performance and the wheelchair friendly venue made it a special night.
Posted by: 
Gary Barling on 24/01/2013
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Billy Bragg played a concert at Hamer Hall in tribute to 100 years of Woody Guthrie

It irritates me when I ask people what type of music they like and they enthuse, Oh I like all kinds of music! Does that mean they like Dutch clog dancing music? For me the simple answer to the question is rock and blues. It is an absolute treat to experience music like this in a swish venue like Hamer Hall, rather than the usual pubs, theatres and arenas.

Before the show

In an annoying and all too common prelude to the show, the wheelchair accessible toilet was occupied by an able-bodied person. Moreover, there was a line of five people waiting and not one disability in sight. It's no surprise that they all looked embarrassed and let me go in front of them. I understand that insulin dependent diabetics may use these toilets, but six in a row - c'mon.

On entering the seating area, I was surprised to find my space was in the first row, directly in front of the artist with a completely unobstructed and comfortable view. When Bragg sat in his seat with an acoustic guitar I could have seen the hairs on his arms, had I decent vision.

Improved wheelchair accommodation

At the new and improved Hamer Hall, the facilities for people in wheelchairs are top-notch. Some of this was covered in Maureen Corrigan's article on Hamer Hall and the MSO. Her article described the plush concert hall and surrounding foyer.

I have seen other great acts such as John Cale, and David Byrne at this venue and the wheelchair seating has always been excellent. Sitting in a wheelchair is never fantastic, but the position of the wheelchair seating at the newly refurbished Hamer Hall was beyond my expectations. As the designated areas for wheelchairs can be easily replaced with the usual seating, they are able to offer more of it. In the stalls, there are four spots in the front row and four in the back. There are also four in each of the two levels above.

Introducing Woody Guthrie

The show was in celebration of the 100 years since Woody Guthrie's birth. Billy Bragg has long been passionate about Woody Guthrie and has marked the centennial year with shows like this around the world. This show was part of Bragg's 2012 Australian tour and Melbourne was the only Australian city to feature the Centenary show, as part of the Melbourne Festival.

To give you a bit of background information, Guthrie was an American who travelled with poor migrant workers in the 1930s. He became a folk singer, writing a vast collection of songs about the experiences of the downtrodden. He wrote about all kinds of subjects in his later life until his death in 1967, and his formidable legacy has influenced a range of musicians including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

On with the show

In attitude at least, Englishmen like Billy Bragg, were influenced by Guthrie as much as their American counterparts. In the late 90s, Bragg and the American group Wilco added music to a number of Guthrie's lyrics. The result was two CDs, from which the performance drew heavily.

The set also included covers of Guthrie's tunes, with Bragg chatting easily between songs about Woody Guthrie, the songs and his legacy. In conversation, Bragg was warm, good humoured and articulate, creating extraordinary intimacy in the 2200 plus audience. It's possible that the intimacy may have had something to do with my being only four metres away from him, but you could sense the entire audience was paying close attention.

As an encore, Bragg played a few of his own songs, the last being Waiting for the great leap forward. The venue, assuming it maintains the same seating policy, is in itself a great leap forward for wheelchair user's access to live music. At the conclusion, Bragg wryly threw his tea-bag into the audience. I was close enough to throw my jocks on stage in reply, but decided against it.

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