Had a beer in Brisbane lately? It’s going off like a cane toad in a sock. Rattle off a list of the game-changers and chances are you’re name-checking one of the venues Jamie Webb has a hand in—Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall, Sonny’s House of Blues, Seymour’s Cocktails & Oysters, Hope & Anchor—in terms of venue styles, he’s almost gathered the full set.
Webb cut his hospo chops in NYC, working in bars on the weekend to round out a nine-to-five in the music business. After coming back to Australia, he ran venues in Sydney but took a hit from the GFC, and landed back in hometown Brisbane. Thank the gods of Brissie nightlife he did...
Do you think you have to go away from your city—your hometown—to really see what’s missing?
Especially somewhere like Brisbane, for sure. If you don’t then you’re just relying on what’s going on here. Otherwise you’re doing yourself a big disservice. Even when we moved back here five years ago there wasn’t a great deal going on in Brisbane at that time. There was not that many cool places happening and then all of a sudden it just exploded.
Have your businesses evolved quite naturally within Brisbane?
Yeah a lot of what we do—or so people tell us—a lot of what we do is very unique and hadn’t really been seen in Brisbane before. With Lefty’s we were kind of like the first place to have a whiskey/craft beer focused bar that had live music. So they’ve all come from ideas I picked up from travelling or living abroad. Just wanted to do something a bit different to the usual that’s been going on here since the ‘80s. And now there’s a lot of young operators coming on board with really good ideas which is pretty exciting
Within your own businesses do you mean?
Oh no I just mean in general. I mean some of them have worked for us in the past and they’ve gone on to open their own things. Yeah there’s a lot of young people up here with good ideas that actually quite like living here and don’t want to move to Sydney or Melbourne but have probably spent time there and have come back with stuff the’ve seen. The craft beer thing here, it’s a really big deal as you’re aware. It’s almost gone are the days where you walk into a bar and there’s XXXX Gold being served. Yeah there’s some cool things happening up here.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you?
In Brisbane? I guess how quickly the small bar scene exploded up here in a very short period of time—bars and restaurants. I mean literally when we first moved up here we opened a restaurant called Peasant and we opened on Monday nights and our wine list was just all Spanish and Portuguese and pretty much everyone I knew up here said you’re mad for opening Mondays, no one will ever come…you’re mad for just having a Spanish wine list, no one will drink it. Monday nights are one of our busiest nights of the week so there was definitely a market for Brisbane people wanting to go out mid-week but just no one was doing it. Now everyone opens Monday night, it’s been good for Brisbane in general it’s such a sleepy place during the week, still is to a degree—it’s not like Sydney or Melbourne. Just to stimulate that a bit, let people know it’s ok to go out on a Monday night have a couple of drinks, have something to eat. Yeah I’m not saying we started it, we were definitely at the forefront of it and now it’s sort of dragged Brisbane ahead a little I think in general, the way everyone’s jumped on board with it and are opening Monday nights and doing cool stuff during the week.
Up in Brisbane, I mean literally people thought it was blasphemous to go out on a Monday night, people just didn’t do it. I think if you’re trying to sell your city to the world, or your country to the world as a truly modern place, you want tourists to be able to come out—they don’t generally decide what day to be in a place, if they’re there on a Monday they want to know they can go out and eat. So it’s a good service to provide.
And what’s your biggest failure?
My biggest failure? Don’t know. [Thinks for awhile]…We had a restaurant in the Valley in Brisbane called Gordita, it was the first time I’d ever taken anything off a plan, it was sold to us heavily through a developer. When they ripped the hoarding down and presented this thing that didn’t look anything like it was supposed to…It had this laneway through the middle and they said it’s going to be a Melbourne style laneway and it just was a massive wind tunnel and you couldn’t use it. The whole thing was a bit of a disaster. It was still a good restaurant, people liked it. It’s good to have a failure though, everyone’s got to do it at some point so you know what not to do the next time: Don’t trust greedy developers!
What was the first gig you ever went to?
I was about 14, I think it was INXS at the Dean Park Sound Shell in Townsville. The first gig I’d like to admit I went to would have been the Dead Kennedys at Festival Hall in Brisbane!
I heard a rumour that Powderfinger played their first gig under your house?
JC the bass player older brother and I lived together and they were always hanging out at our house when they were young derelict kids. We sat through many practice sessions and then they had their first show under our house. It’s pretty funny. When I went overseas—I was over there for a long while—part of my job was I would help out Australian bands that would come to New York, [I’d] get them gigs and stuff. A guy from Sydney came out and I mentioned, ‘oh how are those guys in Powderfinger going?’, he was like ‘do you know those guys?’, and I was like ‘Yeah I’ve known them since they were kids’ and he said, ‘Do you know that they’re like the biggest band in Australia now?’ I was like ‘What??’…I just had no idea.
And the last gig you went to?
What’d I go to recently? I just saw Nick Cave at the Riverstage …yeah, it was pretty fabulous.
Any gigs at Lefty’s or Sonny’s that make your personal hall of fame?
At Lefty’s we have a band that plays quite regularly called The Walters who are for my money one of the most entertaining bands in Brisbane. They’re great, they’re awesome, you won’t hear them on Triple J anytime soon but they play all this like ’50s RnB, they’re just ridiculously good musicians but they sound like a bunch of black guys from the ‘50s and they’re all white dudes from the suburbs in Brisbane. Sonny’s we’ve got Ella Hooper coming up from Killing Heidi. We’ve just started to do ticketed shows at Sonny’s so the format will change, we’re getting some good acts coming through which normally we wouldn’t be able to do because normally we just pay the bands ourselves.
And are people responding pretty well?
Yeah they are. It’s such a competitive market in Brisbane, for bars in the CBD. Put the free music thing on after awhile just doesn’t make financial sense so we were either going to change what we do or change the bar itself. So we’ve moved into the ticketed thing and it’s working really well. And it’s good because most of the ticketed venues are still pretty old school—like Coopers is the most radical beer they’ll serve, so we still keep our integrity with what we serve in the bar. You know, the punters can go along and get a decent beer.
And there must be a magical point there where if you charge the right price it’s almost like it adds a bit of prestige if you’re asking people to pay for music. Rather than, if it’s free people think it’s not good…
Yeah! Oh look Brisbane people are notorious cheapskates, so anything free is good! Yeah it does, it just gives the music a bit more integrity.
If you’re on death row what’s your last meal and more importantly what’s your last tipple?
My last drink would be tequila, a really good Corralejo 3 year old aged tequila. Or a really nice bottle of Burgundy. My last meal would probably be one of my wife’s homemade curries. She’s half-Pakistani, so they’re pretty good.
Do you have a hidden talent very few people know about?
Does that mean there are no talents?
Yeah, there’s no talent.