Review: Beatles Dub Club emphatically resides over Thekla’s fortieth celebration finale

At a time when small, local music venues have sadly become an endangered species in cities across the UK, it’s cause for hearty celebration that this weekend saw Thekla mark its 40th anniversary. Built in 1958 and starting life as a cargo ship transporting timber around the Baltic Sea, Thekla was abandoned in the 1970s – half submerged in a dock in Sunderland – before American novelist Ki Longfellow-Stanshall and her musician husband Vivian Stanshall brought it to Bristol in 1983. Opening as the Old Profanity Showboat in 1984, Thekla became an underground nightclub in the 1990s and, after its purchase by Daybrook House Promotions in 2006, it has, as a much-loved nightclub and live music venue, endured as a cultural gem of the city.

According to figures released by Music Venue Trust in January this year, Thekla’s fortieth birthday arrives in a context whereby two grassroots music venues are closing per week across the country. In the last 12 months, 125 venues shut their doors for the final time and, of those that remain, 38% reported making a financial loss in 2023.

Thekla’s Ruby anniversary is, therefore, something to shout about and a five day programme of DJ sets and live music – featuring live acts Kenya Grace, The K’s and Henge, and DJ sets from Soft Play, My Nu Leng and Kahn & Neek – culminated with Sunday night headliner Beatles Dub Club. The creation of DJ Chris Arnold, the BDC concept – which utilises the Fab Four’s timeless melodies to create an upbeat, modern day party atmosphere – is something so effective, and seemingly obvious, that it feels as if it should have existed for much longer than its inception just a few years ago.

Kicking the night off with a dub reggae version of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, Arnold lets the audience know what to expect from his 90 minute set: “remixes, mashups and cover versions” of The Beatles’ most popular tunes. Any fears of sacrilege that devout Beatles fans may hold in anticipation of such a novel twist on their work is soon allayed; ‘A Day in the Life, propelled by the ska upstroke guitar style, is imbued with a new dimension that totally works. ‘Come Together’ appears in mashup form, starting with a repeat of its bass riff and chorus line before being varnished with a showtime dance beat.

And there’s effective utilisation of some of The Beatles most recognisable riffs; a drum and bass remix of ‘Paperback Writer’ transforms the well-loved rocker into something irresistibly danceable, while the guitar hook to ‘I Feel Fine’ is blasted emphatically from the stage with the help of five-piece brass band Mad Apple Circus.

With the occasional inclusion of the two trumpet, two sax and single trombone setup of Mad Apple Circus – and a few tracks featuring showgirl dancers in feathered headdress – this is a DJ set cranked up a couple of gears, and the enduring, ubiquitous tunes of The Beatles are a perfect vehicle to induce an atmosphere of celebration. A cover of ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ is ideal for a brainless, alcohol tinged weekend singalong, as is the brass embellished cover of She Loves You’. A sped up ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ segues into a dub reggae incarnation of the same song and the track’s somewhat innocent sentiment is run roughshod by the two teen members of the audience who seem intent on eating each other’s faces off.

The Beatles Dub Club approach is an intoxicating and enjoyable one, and a sure-fire formula for fun times. There are also a few surprises along the way to keep you on your toes; we hear Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ (as far as I know completely free from any Beatles connection), a single Fab Four solo outing in the form of a remix of Paul McCartney’s ‘Coming Up’ and hip-hop flavoured support acts Mr Fitz and Binbag Wisdom scratch up some records and MC in a distinctly non Beatle-esque way.

With the good ship Thekla becoming a joyous carnival of Beatle related homage, it’s easy to see why Arnold started to draw in huge crowds during the 2022 festival season, including at Glastonbury, Boomtown and Green Man. Thus, Thekla’s five day 40 birthday party concludes. Vibrant, vital and in fine working order as its 41st year begins, Thekla looks, ostensibly at least, as far removed from endangered status as a local live music venue can possibly be. Long may it last. Here’s to another forty.

Scott Hammond