Shannon Bennett – the celebrated and celebrity chef of ultra fine diner Vue de Monde – is sitting in a King Street basement. In place of the Masterchef make-up studio are the themed rooms of this former strip club: the School Room (Primary), the Jail Cell and Shower Shows. In the latter, an old plastic curtain remains draped over its rail in a functional – rather than performative – washroom presumably used by the dancers of Showgirls Bar 20.
But Bennett’s not here for adult entertainment (not that kind, anyway). He’s here to show Broadsheet around Geddes Lane Ballroom (GLB), his new live-music venue. Bennett says he’s loved live music since his early days as an apprentice chef at the Grand Hyatt.
“I snuck into an over-18s show for the Hoodoo Gurus that was bloody amazing. I was an apprentice and my chef that was teaching me at the time discovered we both loved [the band],” says Bennett. “He seemed to think I was 18 but I was only 16 at the time. But I got in [to the Palais] no problem at all. We were about three rows from the front.
“The live-music scene suited chefs because we would knock off at 11 o’clock.”
Back to the present, and it’s the day before opening night. We’re sitting in what will become the GLB green room.
“We’re planning to do small little gigs here, intimate gigs here, half an hour shows,” says Bennett of the space. “We’re hoping the likes of Tash Sultana might do an acoustic gig here, that’s what we’d love. Creating a one-on-one experience with the artist where you can really interact with them.”
Looking around the green room, it’s hard to see such an intimate gig working here. The dancers’ old lockers are reflected in a wall-length mirror, with a novelty-size $500 cheque (made out to the 2013 Showgirls Bar 20 Rookie of the Year) propped up against it. But the giant Justin Timberlake tour posters will soon come down; Bennett has plans for a green velvet ceiling and pinball machines.
Facelifts are in part what GLB is all about. The venue is a partnership between Bennett’s Vue Group and property developer Lorenz Grollo of Grollo Group, the company that owns the Rialto Tower, which houses Bennett’s Vue de Monde. In March, Grollo Group added the Inflation Nightclub building to its portfolio, creating an uninterrupted strip of Grollo-owned King Street properties stretching from Collins Street to Flinders Lane.
Whether you call it gentrification or urban renewal, opening GLB is part of Grollo’s plan to change the public perception of King Street’s southern end – a strip currently populated largely by adult-entertainment venues.
Lifting the public perception of the area will also handily increase the value of Grollo’s property stronghold. You could be forgiven for seeing GLB as Bennett and Grollo’s three-level vanity project – but the money has to come from somewhere, and GLB is a singular, slightly bonkers, possibility-filled addition to Melbourne’s live-music scene.
Despite being naive to the realities of the returns delivered to musicians by streaming services, Bennett is deeply passionate about live music – particularly the scene in Byron Bay where he spends the majority of his time these days. He seems genuine in his desire to support up-and-coming musicians.
“I think there’s opportunity [in Melbourne] for small-tier live-music venues, not just one but multiple, to support [bands getting exposure on] platforms like Spotify.”
And it’s not the first time the venue has hosted live music. In another life it was the Grainstore Tavern, where John Farnham launched his iconic album Whispering Jack.
Bar the odd lick of paint or strip of wallpaper, the interiors have remained largely unchanged since then. Wooden dado panelling lines the walls and there are arched stained-glass windows. There are the previously mentioned themed rooms (in a currently closed-to-the-public basement) and a street-level bar. A pizza vending machine is being shipped over from Japan, and there’ll be food trucks (including Benny Burger) outside in Geddes Lane. But the real star is the 300-person capacity band room with its massive wooden support beams and stunning gabled roof.
“In some ways our hand was forced because we didn’t want to commit financially,” says Bennett of the relatively untouched interior. “The space is ours for the next three years and if it’s successful then it’s a real long-term project.”
On opening night, Melbourne band Kingswood belt out masculine rock jams, making use of the new lights and PA system. Singer Fergus Linacre struts up and down the phallic red catwalk that juts out into the crowd, alternating between tambourine and maracas. It might be a good thing that the dancer’s pole has been removed from the stage as none of the 15 people that invade it at the end of Kingswood’s set appear to have the capacity – or athleticism of the former dancers – to straddle it with any conviction.
Bennett has a long friendship with the band, but ordinarily the stage will be booked by Ben Thompson, who started his career booking bands at the Corner Hotel and currently handles bookings at 170 Russell. Thompson plans to have a diverse range of acts and genres play at Geddes Lane Ballroom.
The first set of gigs include a free show from psychedelic-jazz group Krakatau for Melbourne Music Week's Live Music Safari, roots singer Kyle Lionheart (the singer's first show has already sold out) and two shows from classic rockers Augie March.
“Hopefully this venue attracts bands of the calibre [of Gang of Youths and Ocean Alley] who will say, ‘Hey, I’d actually like to play at an old-world venue that used to be big in the ’80s’, and who would like to come back and see a bit of nostalgia and what it’s like to play there,” says Bennett.
“I saw Gotye at Mona and he seems like a bit of a foodie so maybe I can do a contra with him.”
Geddes Lane Ballroom will be open to the public from late October.
Geddes Lane Ballroom
Level 1/46 King St, Melbourne (enter via Geddes Lane)
Thu to Sat 5pm–late