“The vibe from the beginning was being a ‘pub pub’,” George Swallow says. “That community-based thing that hotels are in a city. The Exeter, the Cranker, they’re all little hubs for people around them.”
Swallow was 22 years old when he started as a glassy. Tired of working ‘til dawn in the club scene, he was drawn to the pub’s then-fledgling live music culture. Now publican with business partner Symon Jarowyj, Swallow has spent much of his adult life here.
The Grace Emily name might be two decades old but the hotel is one of Adelaide’s oldest, trading as The Launceston Hotel from 1839. Built when working class city-dwellers lived in small cottages or tenements, the Grace’s front bar echoes a time when the local would be your living room and town hall. Today, it’s evident in a floorplan that invites random conversation and overheard discussion. Even grubby relics like the long-disused urine trough beneath the bar itself (“I’ve thrown two people out for using it in 20 years,” Swallow says) allude to a deep history.
“This part of town has always had that community and acceptance, always welcoming everyone,” he says. “We had this old lady come in for her 90th birthday a year or so ago, and it was her first time in the pub. When she was a kid she was never allowed in, she would come and get her dad with a message from mum that it’s dinnertime. He would go back to the boarding house they ran. So, this area was a massive melting pot of immigrants from Europe, Asia, everywhere. It still is, and that’s what the pub is still about.”
Having once hosted everything from dances to inquests, live music became the 21st century focus when former owner Greg Kleynjans (known to all as ‘Clanger’) transformed the old dining room into an award-winning band room home to internationally prominent touring acts and a generation of local bands. “It’s what we love, it’s what keeps us going,” George says. “Just every gig is all so different, and you walk away from every night going, ‘This is why I do it’.”
It’s a position that was hard won. The Grace was born out of a turbulent period for Adelaide’s music scene, as noise-averse development threatened established venues and the newly opened Grace alike. “That was scary,” he recalls. “We’d just cemented what we were doing, that community was building… and then next door was going to get developed. At the same time, it was happening at The Gov and a couple of other places, the Exeter and Austral, were going through developments, too. The whole Adelaide music community came together, and it was 5000 or so people. We rallied and we got change.”
As one of Adelaide’s smallest rooms, the Grace occupies an important place in a wider music ecosystem. Lose one, and risk rattling the rest of the food chain. “It’s really nice to see people move on and outgrow us – I feel like we don’t do our job if we don’t see people evolve and grow to move up to other venues,” he says. “That’s why it was so sad to see the [recently embattled] Ed Castle close. We’ve noticed the effect; when people came here for gigs it was really easy to do the venue hop – see a set there, then come see a set here.”
Little has changed in 20 years, save for some new high-rise neighbours, a begrudgingly adopted EFTPOS machine and the kilograms of kitsch paraphernalia that have accrued on the walls. “Ask any pub, they soak in the community around them,” Swallow says of the Bert Newton shrine, the mosaic of band stickers and painted portraits from the annual ‘Bald Clanger’ art prize. “People like to make it their living room, bring bits of themselves in and put things up and make it their own.”
Swallow has barely noticed its growth behind the bar – he’s been busy watching the people in front of it. “I guess for me the changes are in people’s faces, seeing people grow up. That cycle of young heads coming in for the first time, meeting people, getting a house or moving in together, we don’t see them for a while then they’ve gotten married.” The same changes go for bands. “That generational turnover is really nice. Seeing them get onstage of the first time nervous as all fuck, and then developing and learning… that’s brilliant.”
After a decade of working at the bar, including a brief period living upstairs (“I just would never leave,” he says. “I think my longest was a week-and-a half without actually leaving the building”), Swallow and Jarowyj took over in 2011. “It was a handover – the ‘family’ word again. A handball down the line, and hopefully when I get too old and cranky, I can pass it on to the next family member and keep it going.”
As for the latest spate of venue closures and developments sprouting up around it? “It’s always a bit worrying but as long as the local council and government continue to see the huge benefits that all live music venues have to the state, I will remain positive and confident that we will be able to continue doing what we love.
“We’re not here to reinvent the wheel, we just want to keep the doors open, keep encouraging young kids to get on stage to learn and develop.”
Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country. His work has appeared in Rip It Up, The Saturday Paper, Smith Journal, Royal Auto, Swampland Magazine, Broadsheet and The Thousands.
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