If you’re a fan of ska music (or grew up in the 1980s), The English Beat is legendary. And frankly, you don’t really expect to be this close to your idols in West Warwick, especially when you’re standing in a 19th-century mill building on an otherwise dark and deserted side street. But there we were with lead singer Dave Wakeling slamming out “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “I Confess” at Manchester 65, Rhode Island’s newest live-music venue — a space so intimate that the band doesn’t so much exit the stage as steps off into the crowd once the music stops.
Located in the Crompton Mill Historic District, Manchester 65 (the name is the address of the old textile mill, reversed) is looking to write a little history of its own. And though the location may seem a little sketchy, the neighborhood is less daunting than the area around Fête or Firehouse 13 in Providence, there’s ample free parking and the venue itself is a vast improvement over, say, the final incarnation of The Living Room (which, despite its legendary status, ended its days occupying a dingy former restaurant building).
“The place is big and is just the right amount of ‘ugly’ that you want from a rock club. It very much reminds me of The Living Room, but twice the size,” says Aaron Martin, drummer for the Rhode Island-based band Cad. “The stage is high and large, which I feel makes a better show for fans and bands alike. I love the vibe of this place — it’s one of my favorite places to play in Rhode Island and there are a lot of national acts (such as Afroman, Eve 6 and Candlebox) starting to roll through, so it’s quickly becoming a hot spot for the live music scene.”
“We are looking for positive music, where people are just out to have a good time,” says Manchester 65 owner Jim Vickers, who also acts as the venue’s booking agent. Vickers is a big fan of ska bands, for example, because the music “makes everyone happy, and the crowd is all dressed up and dancing.”
Like any new operation, there were some growing pains when Manchester 65 opened its doors this summer, including complaints about the sound setup. On the night of the English Beat show (with fellow ska acts The Copacetics and Brunt of It opening), however, the acoustics and sound system were crisp and clear.
The layout is actually pretty ideal for a small music venue: the club consists of a single, large stone-and-brick building with a vaulted ceiling, divided in two. One side has the stage, a few tables and couches, and plenty of standing room in front; the other is set up as a lounge with communal tables and flat-screen TVs hung from the ceiling; the bar is along the wall opposite the stage. What’s nice about the setup is that you can be immersed in the music one minute, then step into the lounge if you need to carry on a conversation at a normal speaking level. In the summer, an outdoor, riverside patio serves as an al-fresco concert space on Sunday afternoons.
The selection at the bar is basic, but the $3 Narragansett tallboys are a big seller, and cocktail prices top out at $9. The bathrooms were some of the cleanest we’ve seen in a nightclub anywhere. As you’d expect from a new club located so close to the site of the infamous Station nightclub, there are multiple, well-marked fire exits — it’s actually one of the least claustrophobic clubs you’re likely to find. (Manchester 65 also will be hosting a Station Fire memorial concert and fundraiser in February.)
Vickers, a veteran of the Providence music scene who previously worked at Lupo’s and ran the Providence Social Club, says the 550-capacity Manchester 65 is a safe and affordable (cover charge on most nights range from $10- $25) alternative to the hassles of attending a show in the city, and a venue for both local acts and touring bands that otherwise might pass Rhode Island by in favor of rooms like the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River or the Hampton Beach Ballroom in New Hampshire. Rock and roots acts are schedule staples, but Manchester 65 also recently hosted a live production of Jesus Christ Superstar and next year will stage an adaptation of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy.
“I became passionate about live music working for Rich Lupo and Jack Reich at the original Lupo’s,” says Vickers. “Those guys had a knack for finding the finest up-and-coming artists. I saw bands I had never heard of for the first time at Lupo’s — the Beat Farmers, Bruce Hornsby, NRBQ, many others; it was amazing. Those experiences taught me to seek out music, not just listen to the radio. And that is the approach I’m bringing to Manchester 65.”
“It’s a cool new place for all different kinds of music genres, especially the rock scene,” says Warwick resident Christina Markrush, a fan of local bands like Cad and Along Came the Flood. “I’ve been there several times already, and every show was awesome.” Photography: Ron Cowie Manchester 65 65 Manchester Street, West Warwick.