Sunday, 2 January 2011

The City’s Dark Horse

Photo: Andy Croasdale
In common with almost any UK city, Preston’s night life has seen many changes over the last 15 years or so. Club nights come and go, pubs close and new bars open; most Prestonians know the nigh-time terrain, or at least they think they do, but it’s a fairly safe bet that many of them, particularly the younger end, the so-called ‘newcomers’ and students, won’t have heard about Upstairs at the Black Horse.

As the name suggests, the venue is a first-floor function room above the Black Horse pub, right in the heart of the town centre between Wilkinsons and Café Nero. To the casual observer, it’s simply a classic Victorian era real ale pub, albeit one with a very impressive 120-year-old tiled bar and some stunning interior features. It’s certainly a gem of a pub with friendly locals and a wide range of bitter, if that’s your tipple. The nine percent Tom Cat bitter is only served in halves and is pretty lethal. But on Friday and Saturday nights, the pub’s first floor caters for an audience that perhaps wouldn’t know a John Smiths from a Timothy Taylors.

But the real action (musically speaking) is to be found by traversing an unassuming flight of stairs at the back of the pub. Once alighted, the vibe changes into something altogether more contemporary. A dimly lit corridor opens out into a candle-lit wooden-floored space with minimal décor, where the music takes centre stage. The music policy is varied to say the least. Funk, soul and jazz rubs shoulders with Latin percussion bombs, disco and hip-hop joints. It really couldn’t be any more different from the scene downstairs.

How did all this come about then? How did the Black Horse end up with trainspotters upstairs and train drivers downstairs? You need to go back a while to find out. In 1993 the venue saw its first regular nights hosted by Hanz Mai, with the music being provided using pre-mixed cassette tapes (remember those?) Shortly after, vinyl was introduced by local DJ Billy Stewart. These nights ran for ten years plus and, broadly speaking, retained their characteristic funky, soulful flavour. Affiliated to the now defunct dance music department at stalwart music emporium Action Records, the Black Horse was never short of local talent behind the decks. But when other nearby venues closed, the resulting footfall decreased and this unfortunately had an impact on the attendances. The venue shut its doors for a while and the regulars migrated to alternative nights offering similar music such as the popular but infrequent Itch parties among others.

Fast-forward to 2007 and the pub was taken over by local DJ Alex who vowed to resurrect the venue. With a ‘stable’ of fourteen DJs in rotation, Friday and Saturday nights once again offer superb musical treats, drawing on the considerable talent of the Itch crew, Herbal Sessions, Action Records, Circus Circus and Preston FM. The original vibe is back, and with DJs drawn from those who were previously involved in the venue, it’s easy to see why. Unlike many other DJ-led events, the Horse tends to have one DJ playing all night. “This way people get to hear the full spectrum of the DJ’s tastes”, enthused Stu, one of the pub’s regulars. “It really can be anything, from Disco to Motown, hip hop to classic house.”

Photo: Andy Croasdale
Not recognising the black music epithet, Alex prefers to use the term ‘soul’ as an umbrella term to describe the eclectic musical style on offer at the Horse. “It starts out as a pub and ends up as club,” he explained. The demand for this type of music in Preston is considerable. News of the relaunch spread rapidly through the city, resulting in a packed opening night. The clientele are always an eclectic bunch, from students to old northern-soul aficionados and b-boys to p-funkers. Local punter Tim was ecstatic about the re-launch. “I used to come here a few years ago, but didn’t realise how much I’d missed it until tonight,” he said. “It’s brilliant to be back here with so many old mates. The music is just superb; I don’t even know who’s playing tonight. It doesn’t matter who it is. I know that I’ll always enjoy it because it’s quality.”

Resplendent with the now mandatory smoking area balcony, The Black Horse fills a unique musical gap. It’s always been free to get in, with a genuine musical passion shared by both the regulars and the resident DJs. One major advantage over its swankier, more commercial competition is the drinks prices. Nightclubs and trendy bars make enjoying Preston’s nightlife an expensive business, but even the most financially challenged Prestonian can afford ‘a few down at the Horse’.

The Horse serves another valuable function as a local hub for the large DJ roster. Early on, the music is played at a reasonable volume, allowing conversation to take place. There’s a natural cross-pollination of different crews as each DJ takes their turn providing music. New friendships are formed and new music is discovered. Having such a large DJ roster means that the music on offer will never become stale. There’s none of the ego or swagger you might associate with the DJ circuit, more a sense of community and camaraderie which comes from mutual respect for the music.

Alex believes that his intimate little party will continue to go from strength to strength because it has a winning formula that will sustain the night as a local institution.

Resident DJ Paul Thornton is equally optimistic. Never short on enthusiasm, he has a keen sense of The Black Horse’s significant local history: “The Horse has so many great memories for me, from meeting some of my best mates there to being introduced to some of the finest tunes; there’s nowhere else in Preston quite like it. It’s not about genres it’s about the vibe.”

The vibe and venue are definitely unique. The music policy is certainly unpredictable, but the quality is always there. Anyone who fancies an alternative night out should give it a try. Bet on the Black Horse and you’re backing a sure-fire winner.

- James and Martin Deane

Originally posted on: January 2, 2011 by The Ark Preston

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