It may be one of our region’s great cultural and historical hubs, yet you need only visit the toilets to recognise Redhills’ need for refurbishment.
Home to the Durham Miners’ Association, this exquisite architectural landmark remains a vital location, offering aid to former miners as well as engaging in community work – most notably the annual Durham Miners’ Gala.
With renovations required to keep 102-year-old hall alive and kicking, organisers have elected to open their doors to live music, with tonight’s fundraiser the first in a series of events curated in collaboration with the team behind the city’s popular DIY space the Empty Shop.
And what better way to kickstart the campaign than the with pride of today’s North East scene; the unique, inimitable talent of Richard Dawson.
A cult figure in local circles for some years, the buzz surrounding the Newcastle songwriter is now spreading nationwide and beyond, with last year’s extraordinary LP Peasant raising his star with a clutch of influential Album of the Year accolades.
First up, though, we were treated to a set from Durham’s own Onsind; a politically charged punk duo consisting of Pity Me residents Nathan Griffin and Daniel Ellis.
The pair have been making waves in recent years as members of Martha, but this acoustic side project is increasingly taking on a life of its own, encouraging activism and socialist sentiment among a largely youthful audience.
With the crowd sat in semi-circular pews and ornate banners draped from the hall walls this was far from their average gig venue, yet their presence could hardly have felt more appropriate.
The self-explanatory Never Trust A Tory was always going to go down well, but for me the high point was Loyalty Festers, a cut from recent album We Wilt, We Bloom exploring the roots and grim realities which stoke nationalism.
By contrast, Richard Dawson’s music has never been overtly political. Instead, his songs are often steeped in history, whether it’s the immaculately realised dark ages concept which runs through Peasant or past work inspired by research at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums.
Regardless of their setting, his lyrics nevertheless tend to centre on themes of hardship and toil, the subtext of which requires little elaboration.
More important on the live stage, however, is Dawson’s jaw-dropping voice, an astonishing, visceral instrument capable of reaching absurd notes at scarcely fathomable volume, and one that’s increasingly shorn of old imperfections.
Nowhere is its power clearer than the aforementioned museum pieces, which as ever he performs a capella. With the his audience spellbound and voice reverberating off the vast walls and ceiling, the mic in his hand was hardly necessary.
More recently Dawson has taken to performing with a band, with his voice and off-kilter guitar tonight backed with bass, percussion and a pair of additional vocalists.
After months of practice, the quintet are now a beautifully-oiled machine for whom the blanket term “folk music” does little justice.
Ogre, for instance, is a startlingly original number that’s joyous, thrilling and heart-rending all at once, while mini-masterpiece The Vile Stuff sets absurdist humour to a sinister procession bearing closer resemblance to avant-garde and doom metal than any traditional roots.
What Redhills fundraisers will entail remains to be seen, but tonight’s combination of a unique, revered artist and stunning setting made for a truly memorable opening salvo.