Current Issue #488

After 25 years, the song remains the same at The Gov

After 25 years, the song remains the same at The Gov

No Pokies. No TAB. No screens. It’s a hard creed laid down by the Tonkin family for the past 25 years at the Governor Hindmarsh Hotel, fostering a joyful atmosphere that telly and gambling can’t match.

“Those are the enemies of community,” says an indignant Brian Tonkin, 79-year-old patriarch of a family that now has its third generation at work in the pub. “Building a sense of community is what I believe a pub should be all about — and music provides a marvellous service to the community. It’s the foundation for selling happiness.”

Instead of automated distractions at The Gov, there is live music performed in up to five different spaces throughout the hotel on any given night, featuring all manner of musicians, from folkies and bluesmen to metalheads and shoegazing indie kids.

The Gov’s front bar (Photo: Sia Duff)

Performance is deemed so valuable that the Tonkins were prepared to rally local musicians and march on Parliament in 2001, to fight for the right to keep The Gov as a live music venue after threats from nearby housing developers. “It wasn’t a protest, but a call for help,” explains Brian. “We had 5000 musicians, music fans and politicians from all sides marching with us. It was a statement about how important live music is to so many people.”

It also triggered changes to South Australia’s noise complaint legislation, so that new neighbours in recently constructed dwellings couldn’t simply close down longtime music venues with a terse complaint.

As a consequence, The Gov remains one of Australia’s most enduring music pubs, which is how Brian and Vivienne Tonkin designed it when they bought the pub in a derelict state, in June 1993. They vowed to rejuvenate it as a hub for musicians, as a gesture of gratitude to Adelaide’s musical fraternity that had contributed greatly to the Tonkins’ succession of pubs since 1980: the Bridgewater Hotel, the Maylands, the Royal Family at Port Elliot. Brian wanted The Gov to be all about folk music, though soon there were 14 music clubs based at the pub, as expenses and renovations quickly outweighed modest revenue.

“After five years, I was prepared to close up, but we contacted our daughters Joanne and Melissa living in Sydney and asked if they wanted to take over,” says Brian.

Joanne Tonkin (Photo: Sia Duff)

They agreed, but Joanne brought the radical idea of introducing rock bands as headline attractions — The Cruel Sea, Paul Kelly, Vika and Linda, The Whitlams. Brian was far from pleased, but finally consented. It brought crowds and consistent revenue. At least Brian consoled himself that every Friday evening the pub’s lounge bar had Pat Organ leading an unlikely cluster of seniors and teenagers in a session of Irish jigs and reels — old teaching young the ways of traditional music via a menagerie of fiddles, tin whistles, accordion and guitars.

“It’s become a home to everyone, no matter what their taste, which is why so many people feel a real sense of ownership about this pub,” says Melissa.

Angel Olsen plays The Gov, 2016 (Photo: Andreas Heuer)

The mood echoes Brian’s aim of creating a place where people feel at home, helped by Estonian-born artist Lepo Laide’s bold interior colour scheme and fixtures constructed from rich Tasmanian timbers that contrast with the pub’s original stone exterior.

A gaggle of old fiddles and accordions rest above the ornate timber bar, framed by paintings, posters proclaiming the next brace of performers coming to The Gov, and cherished photographs of beloved musicians. Many current leading lights fondly remember playing at The Gov early in their career, from Hilltop Hoods to Sia to Keith Urban. When he recently returned to play at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Urban announced from the stage: “It’s great to be here, but it’s not The Gov.”

Melissa Tonkin (Photo: Sia Duff)

The same warm feeling extends through many musical fraternities, from Tuesday night’s gathering of Appalachian fiddlers (three Tonkins often join them on stage) to Club Cool, a monthly dance party for people with disabilities and their families.

Many schools also use the venue as their space for annual concerts, although Brian would like to see more musicians conducting workshops for budding young players, especially since there have been cutbacks in music programs at public schools. “That’s a disgrace,” huffs Brian. “Kids need to be taught about music. It’s our duty for the next generation.”

Bill Bragg plays The Gov, 2017 (Photo: Andreas Heuer)

The venue is primed to be run by another generation, with four Tonkin grandchildren now working at the pub. Yet despite its 25-year history under the Tonkins, The Gov remains valid, having won three national awards in 2017, including AHA’s best music venue in Australia.

Its prominence begs the question of whether another champion for live music can embrace all musical genres like The Gov, or are we witnessing the last of its kind?

“You see a lot of music venues come and go, because it costs an awful lot just to open each day, but we have the dedication and belief to see it through,” says Melissa.

“Given the choice, I’d still do it all again,” adds Joanne. “We still have ideas that we’re working on. We’re not done yet.”

Header image: Melissa and Joanne Tonkin (Photo: Sia Duff)

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