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South-London Palace of Varieties rekindles spirit of music hall

February night of fun in Camberwell promises Dickensian punks and DJing with a difference. And the PA system is not your average rig either…

Laaaaadeeeeez…. Aaaaaand… Gentlemen! Cue the crash cymbal, as the very first Palace of Varieties of the modern era launches on Saturday 2 February in Camberwell. Inspired by the time-honoured days of “music hall”, local entrepreneurs Michael Armstrong and Micky Tume (both active in 2011’s Oxjam music festival) have taken the traditional Victorian format of entertainment, given it a modern twist and are bringing it bang up to date, as part of the ongoing ‘Camberwell is Cool’ campaign. Already confirmed for the evening are an Edwardian animal impersonator, an act that DJs with 78RPM vintage records, a Dickensian punk band called Jarmean? (as in, “Do you know what I mean?”), an irreverent stand-up/cabaret act that uses balloons and, most likely, a compere who juggles. The mind boggles. “Camberwell has a rich history of Music Hall revelry,” explains co-organiser Tume. “It was once a much celebrated destination for nightlife in the late 1800s and, at one time, was able to boast seven different Music Halls in the area. “It is our aim to reinvent these bygone days and once again bring together a veritable miasma of everything and anything comedic, theatrical and musical, all pinned together to form an evening of great entertainment.” Managing sound for the event is Jason Playford, using a PA of his own construction. Playford co-runs Dropout Studios, a split-level rehearsal and recording facility, with an acclaimed and capacious live space, in a converted butter-packing factory in Camberwell. Dropout’s philosophy is centred around “older”-school practices and methods: hence, yes, you will find Cubase and Logic, and digital recording via RME and Apogee converters, but there’s also a Tascam 16-track one-inch machine, and a Fostex HD recorder. Even the studio is named for the performance of the original 8-track Tascam, which – amusing for us now, not so for the users back then – kept “dropping-out”. Florence and the Machine, Fuck Buttons and Dylan Carston (“the guy who sold Kurt Cobain the shotgun…”) have all rehearsed in Dropout during its nine years of operation. “Two years ago we built a much bigger control room, and bought and restored a 42-channel AMEK 2500 series console,” says Playford. “It was launched in 1980, and was once owned by Genesis. It’s probably the sweetest sounding AMEK built. But being an old desk, it does need a lot of maintenance, which we’ve now learned how to do. It’s a beautiful thing: it cost 60 grand back then, and eight grand in total to buy and fully restore.” The PA he’s supplying for the Palace of Varieties has been tried and tested at Dropout. Originally a cabinetmaker before the studio business took off, Playford built the X1 folder-horn bassbin design, and a variant on a mid-top blueprint, from the acclaimed website (set up by the Void Acoustics founder Rog Mogale).

Playford says he’d always wanted to build himself a serious “dub stack”, but this project came about almost as a necessity: “We had too many guys come in and plug in their bass synths, DI’ing them into Dropout’s original PA and blowing it up every other rehearsal! I got fed up of replacing expensive drivers… So I built something more substantial…” Asked to participate in the Palace of Varieties project, Playford was keen to get involved. “It sounds like fun, and it’s great for Camberwell. The rig is small but great for this venue.” The overall FOH set-up is a no-frills affair: Mackie 16-channel mixer, dbx compressor and EQ, and JBL wedges as monitors. Microphones – mainly for the standup comedy acts, with some extras for Jarmean – will be bread and butter Shure 58s and 57s. Playford says he won’t be taking all four X1 bassbins to the Palace venue: after all, there wasn’t an awful lot of dub in Victorian times… The organisers of the Palace of Varieties are confident that the evening will be a great evening out, while doing something special for the community too. Camberwell may be cool, but it’s just about to become even cooler.