Build it and they will come: How The Kalamazoo Klub won over the biggest acts on the folk music circuit

Paul Alcantara opened a folk club after despairing of a lack of live venues
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Fifteen years ago, I was sitting in a café with a musician friend, Guy Simpson, lamenting that our leafy north London suburb, Crouch End, had no music venue where we could play. Both veterans of the folk club scene, we were frustrated with the dingy rooms above pubs, with harsh lighting and poor beer. Though some were well attended, at other times we played to three (bearded) men and a dog. At the other end of the scale were proper venues like The Mean Fiddler – where you could only get a gig if you brought an audience of 500 with you.

The answer was obvious. We'd have to start our own club. Crouch End has a thriving nightlife. And with two recording studios – Ray Davies' Konk and the Church Studios, previously owned by The Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, plus a rumour that Bob Dylan was house-hunting in the area, it seemed incongruous that the closest thing to live music was Karaoke night at the pub.

Despite having no experience in running a club, we decided to give it a try. The first thing was to find a venue and the obvious choice was our local, The King's Head. Having booked one Friday a month, we had to find a big name to start with a bang. Bert Jansch, 1960s folk guitar wizard and founder of Pentangle, was playing in London that week. We approached him in the interval and our naiveté paid off – we left with his agent's number.

We advertised in local papers and Time Out and put up 200 posters. Would anyone turn up? On the night of the gig, we almost didn't dare open the doors in case the pub was empty. We took a deep breath, slid back the bolt – and couldn't believe our eyes. Not only was the pub completely full with a queue that extended up the stairs and through the bar – it led right around the block. By 9pm the "Full House" notice was up.

Since then, the Klub has welcomed Robin Williamson, Eliza Carthy, Martin Stephenson, Norma Waterson, Tim O'Brien and Davy Graham. We have had virtually every member of the great 1960s folk bands – Pentangle, The Incredible String Band, Waterson: Cathy et al. It was decided that we wouldn't be limited to folk, but would include music from other genres, too.

We also decided not to invite members of the audience to take a turn – a "floor spot" as it's known in folk club parlance. This practice, whilst preserving a wonderfully egalitarian atmosphere, can sometimes lead to a lack of quality control. I have sat through many a shanty sung gustily by large men in Arran sweaters.

We have had some frustrating and some hilarious moments: putting up 200 posters around north London on a freezing night – then being forced to scrape them all off again when the council threatened us with a fine. Then there was the 1960s folk Diva who arrived with DJ toy boy in tow, having "updated" her act to include techno and drum'n'bass influences and the "lady of the night" who hung around for one of our artists to finish his set – and was duly taken home.

The Kalamazoo Klub hasn't made us rich but the privilege of watching our heroes at close quarters has been reward in itself. And as we approach our 15th anniversary we have booked a bigger venue and two fantastic artists, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. So the moral of the story must be, if you love what you do, so will others.

The Kalamazoo Klub presents Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick at The Union Chapel, London N1 on 25 September (