Magic Music at Mechanic's Institute

Some years ago there was a ‘bunfight’ at Blue Mountains City Council about the fate of the old Mechanic’s Institute or Lawson Community Centre in Lawson. Some within BMCC had wanted the old building to be demolished so as to facilitate road widening of the Great Western Highway. It was generally agreed that the hall had fallen into serious disrepair.

The hall was constructed in 1903 at a total cost of £407; using bricks from the earlier Lawson Railway Station platform of 1867 – just goes to show that recycling is nothing new. Further add-ons to the side and front ingress of the building were made, also using bricks from the old railway station at Mount Victoria. It served the community well for a period of some ninety years and was used variously as a billiard hall, community centre, library, picture theatre and youth centre; not to mention as a skating rink! The Mechanic’s Institute was a ‘jack of all trades’.

Around 30 years ago, I was in a rock band that used to hire one of the smaller halls at the rear of the institute so as to rehearse. It was rather draughty, smelly and clearly in dire need of renovation or demolition. When I first heard about the impending demolition of the old institute around fifteen years later, I’ll admit I wasn’t too concerned; bearing in mind that Lawson does have another community hall facility in another part of town. It’s worthwhile remembering also that the walls and ceiling are made from rendered masonry, fibrous plaster and asbestos sheet. Certainly there are health concerns, but we were blissfully unaware circa 1986/87. To be fair, of course, asbestos only becomes a problem when disturbed.

At this point, I’ll insert one of my diabolical puns to say ‘as best as’ far as I can remember, I hadn’t been back to the Mechanic’s Institute since those heady days of rock ‘n’ roll; until 3rd November this year in fact, when we went to a concert to raise funds for the refurbishment of the hall – I’ll get to the music and artists shortly. Firstly, it would be remiss of me not to ‘bitch’ about the vexed seating arrangements; the interminable queuing in the cold to get in and to get a drink; the general air of chaos – that was rather annoying, but…all is forgiven for the concert was sublime!

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The music was provided by three world class guitarists: Ralph Towner from the United States, Wolfgang Muthspiel from Austria and Australia’s own Slava Grigoryan. Three unique artists playing in three very different styles. Who would believe it? A concert of superb contemporary music that would not have been out of place in any of the great concert halls of the world, right here in the Blue Mountains, and at the Mechanic’s Institute? My head couldn’t take it in! I can probably count on both hands those concerts I have been to, over say 40 years, where the quality was so good that the memory remains vivid. This concert was one of those! You could not hear a single sound from the audience – everyone was enthralled.

During the performance, you could’ve heard a pin drop – actually (come to think of it) you did hear the odd wine glass being kicked over in the dark. Whoops, sorry Slava, for all the palaver!

Ralph Towner was the main composer who is already very well known for his work with the rather eclectic sound of Oregon; another non-mainstream group from many years ago, still active. How does one describe the music though? It wasn’t classical although there certainly were some classical voicings. Jazz, perhaps? Well…yes, maybe. World music then…folk? Really, it was all of these things and much more and none of them at the same time – a true hybrid. Indeed, labels become superfluous because the music is transcendent. It was complete bliss to just close your eyes at times, suspend all rational thought and become enveloped in the sound. As John Lennon once said, ‘turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream’.

At the end – to be exact – the false chaser, the audience rose and gave the trio a genuine standing ovation. And of course, after a suitably extended pause, they came out and played another spellbindingly, beautiful piece, took a further bow and that was that! The audience applauded long and hard and people kicked over further wine glasses in their enthusiasm! Well, in somewhat of a sense of shock we left, but not before purchasing a couple of their CDs which they (the trio) very kindly signed for us, as they did for the majority of the audience I suspect.

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So who would believe it? Were we dreaming? I’ll have to concede that preserving the Mechanic’s Institute was a great idea after all – I now look forward eagerly to the next concert…

Have you see a venue or iconic place restored to its former glory? Where was it? Tell us about it below….