When the Esplanade Hotel relaunched in November 2018 after being closed for renovation for three years, punters sighed a breath of relief. The iconic music venue had lost none of its charm in the revamp – the new iteration even revealed areas that had been previously closed to the public for 60 years.
Now sporting twelve bars, three stages and two restaurants, the new Espy will also host live-music events of a different kind. Swell – a roving site-specific two-hour live show – will experiment with the venue’s possibilities for five dates over February and March, asking us to take part in a “surreal world of reimagined live music”.
“Swell is for the curious,” says the artist behind the project and the Espy’s arts director Janenne Willis. “It’s for people who are really excited to see artists collaborate on one-off experiences that you will have never seen before, and will never see again.”
Willis describes Swell as an immersive live-music-meets-art experience. This is the fourth iteration of the show, with previous versions having been staged in the back of house of the Carlton Club, the basement of the abandoned Royal Women’s Hospital and remote Fort Nepean national park. Audiences at past shows have found themselves at boiler room raves, inside padded cells and in a foam cave.
Swell’s theme this time is “music as medicine”, inspired by the Australian entrepreneur, pharmacist and art lover Alfred Felton. Back in the late 1800s, when the Espy was a seaside resort, Felton lived at the hotel and filled his room with a considerable art collection. Before he died in 1904, he established a philanthropic trust that bequeathed large amounts of money to various Victorian charities and donated the rest to the National Gallery of Victoria. Swell will pay tribute to the idea of art (specifically music) as a remedy or healing power – a universal connector of people.
All five levels of the Espy will be open to the audience each night – including never-before-seen corners of this heritage building – and the nature of the live experiences behind each door will only be revealed on the night.
The artists performing at the shows include The General Assembly, Loose Tooth, Naretha Williams, Go Get Mum, Edd Fisher (Waxo Paradiso), Nick Acquroff (n.y.c.k), Hayden Calnin and David Sauvage. Willis says that once a concept is established, she works collaboratively with the musicians on board to make it meaningful. “In the end, artists get involved because they deeply get the idea of presenting their music in a never-before-seen way,” she says.
The driving force behind Swell isn’t necessarily novelty – it’s more about the joy of engaging in spontaneous discovery of multiple “encounters” designed specifically to draw people out of their everyday inertia. Keen to challenge the traditional audience expectations of a live-music gig, Willis encourages us to question what’s considered normal. “Why is it that we have to see a stage and an audience and a headliner and a support act? How much more powerful could live music be if we really pushed the possibilities for the format of the gig?” she says.
Willis thinks there are far more unexplored possibilities to be considered when it comes to reinventing how we come to understand what “live music” can and should be. “There are usually some other art forms involved during gigs – stage dancers or projections, perhaps – but we definitely don’t push that to the limits as is.”
“The thing I’m always hoping to achieve with Swell from an audience perspective is allow them to feel a level of connection – whether that be to themselves, to others, or to the space that the show’s in,” she says.
According to Willis, the Espy is ideal for exploring this year’s Swell theme in ways that are both deep and playful. “For many moons, St Kilda has had a culture of music and art and heritage,” she says.
“The reimagining and reopening of the Espy is a really beautiful part of enlivening that history while also creating an opportunity to consider what the future of experiencing art and live music in St Kilda could be.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Explore Port Phillip.