Goodbye to Melbourne’s Palace Theatre

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Sadly, the Palace Theatre closed its doors forever last weekend; the inevitable result of a buyout by developers who now want to build a massive hotel atop its soon to be pile of rubble. For music lovers, Melbourne has lost a spectacular live venue, and for Melbourne’s history in general there’s concern in the fact the building is set to be demolished rather than transformed. It’s funny that the Palace is going to be a hotel really, given it originally housed a hotel when built in 1912. It’s kind of like coming full circle in a way, except instead of evolving and holding onto a piece of Melbourne history, the Palace Theatre as we know it looks to be simply erased from Bourke Street, just as the last musical Palace in St Kilda (another live music staple) was wiped out.

The Palace was a vital piece in the Melbourne scene; somewhat of a little brother (capacity wise) of the Forum Theatre – the two forming a kind of “mid-sized” alliance that allowed appropriate bands to climb the capacity ladder with each subsequent tour. In many local cases, you could predict bands playing one of these venues by the fact they’d sold out numerous Corner Hotel shows. Sure enough, the next tour would roll around and they’d have their upgrade. For international bands, the Palace was often the perfect spot for new breakthrough or hyped bands as much as it was for returning favourites, who with each new album were working their way from the pubs, the Corner and the HiFi (etc.), toward a Festy Hall and, maybe one day, Rod Laver or Sidney Myer sized crowd. The Palace was a prime spot for festival sideshows as well, which meant when Falls or Splendour rolled around I would find myself at the place several times in a single week.

Smaller than its Flinders Street friend, the Palace offered a rare and unique live music experience for Melbourne punters, with multiple levels, balconies and nooks to find yourself perched in. You could be standing on the floor and there might be a mosh pit, or you could take to the multiple vantage points on level one (including the sound desk steps often cited as prime). Failing that, you could go up and up again, allowing for an entirely new visual perspective that was high but never too far away. Probably the best utilisation of the space I remember was seeing Pnau perform in August 2008, when they filled the venue with lights, confetti and giant balloons that reached as far back and high up as the venue allowed. From the front corner of the first balcony, this created one of the most memorable visuals for a gig I remember.

My list of gigs attended at the Palace is pretty extensive and I’m proud of the ticket stubs I’ve acquired on my way out of the venue each night over the past eight years. As with almost any venue, the Palace had its cons. The timing of bands was often heavily influenced by the venue, which resulted in unreasonable waiting and unnecessarily late starts (yes, it’s my granny argument, but there’s little excuse to have a ventriloquist perform and then wait over an hour for the next act  – thanks Eels). The other issue I took with the Palace was its security, who were often in nightclub mode (it’s Mumford & Sons guys…) and gave everyone a hard time, berating for IDs, holding up lines for no good reason and generally being unpleasant meatheads.

But each little negative was outweighed by a great number of positives for the venue, which is why it’s so disappointing to see it go. As already mentioned, the set up of the venue meant you were always close to the action, could see what was going on, and could appreciate great sound production. The interiors added to the atmosphere of the gig, and on many occasions I remember international acts complementing the Melbourne site and noting how lucky we were to have it. The house lighting setup meant that bands could easily be visually extravagant; with the endless stellar photography that came from Palace gigs a testament to the fact. The calibre of bands billed for the Palace stage was another major pro, with the appropriate capacity ensuring you got to see big bands in an intimate setting. In the case of international bands, this often accounted for the last time you would see them in a Melbourne venue that had soul.

For me, my Palace highlights are numerous. I saw some of my absolute favourites there, such as Franz Ferdinand, Editors, Kaiser Chiefs and Band of Horses; finally managed to catch Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds totally own their hometown; watched Mumford & Sons on their rise to world domination; saw Tom Chaplin flounce, Jesse Hughes pounce and Justin Hawkins trounce; and genuinely took something ultimately positive from every gig there. For me and many, it’s an absolute shame to see the Palace Theatre go and I wish more could have been done to hold on to a Melbourne treasure. There are alternatives, but there is no equivalent; which is a damn shame indeed.

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