West End in Brisbane has always had an arts culture, including much dancing and live music, that just makes people feel good.
Back in the early 2000s, renowned songwriter and guitarist Blind Dog Donnie brought blues music to the Melbourne Hotel’s Murderer’s Bar, where it pumped like a heartbeat every week until the old pub was razed to the ground. It took at least five smaller venues to cater to the live music needs of the people who loved and lost it.
Next week (22 March) it will come full circle as Blind Dog Donnie will once again bring the music back to the people on the exact same site at Hotel West End.
Back in the '90s, live blues music lived at the Travel Lodge in Roma Street and the Bomb Shelter Bar at the Story Bridge Hotel until it was closed for renovations. In 2001 Donnie Burke, or ‘Blind Dog’ Donnie as he is known, brought the music across to the old Melbourne Hotel and helped create the West End blues music scene.
Live blues music and jamming at ‘the old Melbourne’ created the best of times for hundreds of people rocking up to the venue until it was demolished in late 2003 to make way for a structure built to modern day regulations.
Blind Dog Donnie
It was a sad loss, but the music culture that the Melbourne Hotel had created spawned a cluster of West End venues that popped up like shoots from the ground and kept the music alive.
Places like The Boundary Hotel, Satchmo’s, Lock N Load, The Hi-Fi Bar, The Motor Room, Vision Gallery, The Joynt and others nearby… all carried on the tradition of live music. One by one, those venues have changed hands and new look establishments have been introduced in their place.
Back in the early days, the upstairs bar in the old Melbourne Hotel was known as the Murderer’s Bar, nicknamed for its reputation, and years later it became West End’s home of live blues music.
Blind Dog Donnie and The Reverend held down the Friday night spots as did The Hip Shooters on Saturdays. A slew of top-class musicians ‘sat in’ with them or played gigs on other nights, or at the music festivals that were held there.
We’re talking top-notch artists like Dutch Tilders, Ash Grunwald, Mia Dyson, Collard Greens and Gravy, Kevin Borich, The Backsliders, Lil’ Fi, Sweet Felicia and the Honeytones, Wiley Reed, Mojo Webb, Harvey Blues, Mike Frost and the Icemen, and a young 18-year-old 8 Ball Aitken starting off his music career among the aforementioned illustrious company.
To appreciate the significance of ‘the old Melbourne’ for live blues music in Brisbane, I asked local musicians 8 Ball Aitken and Dillion James to take us on a walk down memory lane to remind us of the hotel as it was, back in the day.
“It was a very large and imposing structure with two big rooms whose bars were filled with hundreds of people,” 8 Ball Aitken explains.
“It was so old that it had only one ladies toilet, as women were not allowed in bars at the time it was built. Once they were allowed into the Melbourne they had to line up and queue for a very long time.
“There was a staircase going down to a labyrinth of what seemed like several levels of dungeons. They probably brewed and stored beer and wine there in the old days. My girlfriend used to ride her pushbike there and we’d get it out from the bottom level at the end of the gigs.
“There was also a back room where all the gear was stored, and that’s where all the musicians used to hang out between the sets and catchup. It was a really amazing time for Brisbane music... They always welcomed newcomers and that’s how I, and others like me, learned from the best.”
8 Ball Aitken
“When I first jammed at the Melbourne Hotel,” continues Dillion James, “I was under age and they smuggled me in through the back door. It was so dark in there that I got away with it.
“When I came of age, I was there every week at the Thursday jam session and was eventually paid to play a handful gigs before it closed down.
“Blind Dog Donnie had strong support from the regulars who turned up every week, mostly West End locals. When the Melbourne Hotel closed, he took his entourage down to the Boundary Hotel and the crowd followed him. That’s when I joined the band on keyboards.
“The Boundary Hotel was a very rough place back then and it always shut at 6pm, however Blind Dog Donnie’s music made everyone lovers instead of fighters and the gig gradually finished later and later each month until it became the new home of blues music. So, the Boundary Hotel live music scene had only occurred as a result of the Melbourne Hotel closing down.”
The Blind Dog Donnie band featuring Dillion James will be underpinning the night at Hotel West End with the nostalgic blues flavour of the past era. The Hip Shooters will be back as will Johnny Hucker. It will be both a continuation and an inaugural night of live blues, riffing upon the ghosts underground from 15 years ago.
“I think the essence here is the way the history of the place ties into this gig, in that Blind Dog Donnie himself really steered the blues straight to the old Melbourne Hotel and he made it what it was,” Dillion adds.
“The fact that Blind Dog Donnie is still out there playing and he’s bringing blues music back into West End on the site of the hotel where it all started, I think that’s going to attract all the old crowd back to experience that and its relevance to the past. The marble rest rooms are spacious and clean, and the hotel is safe, no one is gonna get murdered!”
Club Limbo presents The West End Blues at Hotel West End (Brisbane) Friday 22 March.