Backstage with Todd Wills

Backstage With Todd Wills
Backstage with Todd Wills

The Bristol Beacon – formally known as The Colston Hall – has long been a landmark venue and musical meeting place for the people of Bristol and the many famous talents that have blessed the venue’s stages. Iconic acts regularly stealing the headlines when performing in the city included The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Rolling Stones.

September of last year saw the venue complete a name change from “The Colston Hall”, named after the 17th century slave trader, Edward Colston in 1867. The venue acknowledged that it was time for a fresh start and in order to create a fairer and more equal society, a name change was completely necessary. Not long before this, anti-racism protests in Bristol saw a statue of the slave trader, which had long been a focal point of local debate, pulled down by protesters.

“Our organisation was founded long after Colston’s death, and has no direct connection to him, financial or otherwise. We can no longer be a monument to someone who played such a prominent role in the slave trade,” reads a statement on the Bristol Beacon website.

The Bristol Music Trust, the charity which runs the venue, revealed the new name “Bristol Beacon”, describing it to be a symbol of “hope and community. A focal point for music in the city. A gathering space, illuminating the way ahead. A place of welcome, warmth and light.”

We wanted to find out more about the process of choosing a new name, about the treasure trove of stories surrounding iconic talents and historical moments, adapting during the pandemic and so much more. Read on to find out the answers to these questions, answered by Todd Wills, Artistic Director at the Bristol Beacon.

Firstly, a huge congratulations on the successful name change to Bristol Beacon! How important was it for the venue to change the name to something that symbolises hope and community? Was it a difficult process to come up with a name most people could agree on?

Thanks very much. The name change was essential for us to move forward as an organisation and to better reflect what our intentions are as a concert hall. More hope and community spirit is what we all need these days, so finding a name that symbolises that felt right. The process itself was remarkable really because coming up with a name is notoriously difficult and I thought we’d struggle to find something suitable that we could all agree on; however, through consultation with thousands of people in the city, the themes of light and hope slowly emerged so the name naturally became apparent.

Marvin Rees and Louise Mitchell reveal Colston Hall’s new name, Bristol Beacon. Image courtesy of Bristol Beacon.

Do you have any more plans for the transformation of the venue? Can you tell us more about how The Bristol Music Trust aims to bring the venue’s history and heritage to life through the creative Lantern Project?

We are currently working on the heritage interpretation and have the amazing Cathy Mager leading on it who is coming up with some great ideas. Whilst there will be more permanent references to the history and heritage of the hall within the building when it reopens, there will also be more performance related activity such as our recently announced ‘A New Song for Bristol’ project. This is based around some archive material that Cathy found showing that the hall was used for mass sing-a-longs to lift people’s spirits around World War Two. Given the year we’ve had, we’re asking Bristolians to contribute words and music reflecting their recent experiences, be that Covid related or indeed the Black Lives Matter movement and send them to us. These will be archived and also used as the inspiration for a new song to be written and performed by This is The Kit and Bucky. Further to that we’ll also have artists going into schools asking children to write something musical that reflects how they feel about the times we are currently living in. I can’t wait to hear the results.

Image courtesy of Bristol Beacon.

The Bristol Beacon has long been a landmark venue and musical meeting place for the city, with performances from legends such as The Beatles and Ella Fitzgerald. What’s your favourite piece of history of the venue?

We had two suffragettes hide in the organ loft overnight so they could protest a speech the following day by an opponent of women’s suffrage, which I thought was pretty cool. In terms of artists that have played there, it’s got such a rich and varied history, it’s an honour to work in a role that adds to that list of artists.

Image courtesy of Bristol Beacon.

How as a venue are you coping during the tough challenges caused by the global pandemic? In what ways have you had to adapt your event offerings?

It’s such a difficult time for the music industry right now but the support between venues has been amazing. I meet regularly via Zoom with other programmers up and down the country and some are in a worse position than others right now, but it helps us all to know we’ve got that support network. In Bristol we’ve worked with so many of the smaller venues in the city, so we try to all stay in touch locally as well and I’m hopeful we’ll still have a thriving live music scene when we get through the other side of this. In terms of shows, we’re looking to do more socially distanced events in our foyer space and other venues in Bristol equipped to do it. I think it’s important to continue to support artists as well encourage audiences to continue going to gigs. They may not be quite how we’d like to present them, but it still beats watching it online.

What makes you proud of how the live events industry in general has reacted during these testing times?

Precisely what I’ve mentioned above. I’m also proud of the fact that the live sector was able to come together to offer a combined and cohesive message around what the industry was facing. The live music industry is a highly disjointed and competitive sector with artists, management, agents, promoters, engineers/techs, logistics etc, all having their own industry bodies representing them, so it was refreshing to see us all come together in a crisis.

What do you love most about Bristol’s music scene?

I love that we punch well above our weight. It’s a pretty small city yet we give places like Manchester and Glasgow a run for their money when it comes to audiences. Bristolians love live music and they come out in droves to support it. The variety of what you can watch is pretty remarkable too with loads of new bands coming through. Don’t get me wrong, I love Massive Attack and Portishead, but I’m looking forward to the day when there are a few more names that spring to mind when people outside of Bristol think of the music scene here.

What do you like best about Bristol?

Among many other things (the people, the attitude, the food) I love the fact that you can see the edges of the city. I moved from Bristol to London for university and stayed there for 12 years before moving back and I realised how much I missed being able to get out into green spaces. A short cycle ride can find you out in the middle of nowhere, for which I am extremely grateful.

Image courtesy of Bristol Beacon.

Are you excited for Bristol to have an arena?

Of course! It’s been an ambition for the city for far too long and now it feels like we’re finally going to add that missing piece to the cultural fabric of the city. I can’t wait to see what it’ll look like (much like the Bristol Beacon when it reopens!).

What’s the first gig you attended, last gig you attended, and a future gig you’d love to go and see?

I think the first proper gig I went to was Stiff Little Fingers at The Academy (or Studios as it was then). I’d seen local bands before that but SLF were the first in a proper venue and I remember it being absolute chaos. It’s terrible but I can’t remember precisely what the last gig I went to was. The last one I recall is probably Sturgill Simpson at the Fruit Market in Glasgow during Celtic Connections festival. I must have seen other gigs between then and lockdown but I can’t remember what. I guess it’s not that unusual when you see as many shows as I do in a year. The gig I’d love to see is probably Tom Waits. I think he’s retired from performing now so I think that ship has sailed…

And last, but not least, what’s your all-time favourite song so we can add it to our YTL Arena “Backstage With” playlist?

That’s a question you never ask a programmer! There’s a great song for every occasion so it’s impossible to name an all-time favourite. As you’re looking for a song for the playlist, I will go with Pardon Me Mister by Charlie Feathers just because I dusted off some of his old records for a listen this weekend, so it’s as good a song as any to choose.

To listen to our Backstage Playlist on Spotify, click here. For exciting updates at YTL Arena Bristol, follow @ytlarenabristol on social media or sign up to our newsletter here.