Riverina musicians were left stunned by the news this week that one of the region’s leading live music venues, the Duke of Kent, had closed its doors.
On Friday morning it was announced on Facebook that the Fitzmaurice Street pub would “be closed for a few days due to a unexpected event” before confirming on Sunday that they would not reopen.
“It’s with a heavy heart that we have to announce that we’re closed,” the post read.
“Covid and 2022 in general has gotten the better of us. We are truly sorry to our loyal patrons.”
The comment has attracted a steady stream of comments and shares from locals, devastated to lose “live local music every weekend, friendly staff and beautiful food”.
Joseph Smith from the Bidgee Blues and Roots Club, who regularly utilised the venue, said the news took them completely by surprise.
“The first we heard was the post on social media,” he said, explaining that it’s been a bumpy ride for Wagga’s live music scene over the past few years.
“For us it goes back to the closure of the Home Hotel (in 2018) which had been our home for 10 years.
“We moved to the Blamey, then COVID hit and they changed their layout so we had to make another move.”
He said the news was a shock as publican Ward Gaiter and the team at the Duke had invested in the venue and worked hard to foster a great live music atmosphere.
“There was an in-house PA there and Ward had a really good vision for a music pub into the future,” he said.
“We were all starting to sort of see our way out of the fog and then this came out of the blue.”
The website proclaims the Duke of Kent to be “Wagga’s Last Independently Owned Pub – Family Owned and Operated” and “Your Home of Live Music”.
In 2021, the pub was taken over by a syndicate that included Wagga pub kings Sam Cruikshank and Sean O’Hara.
The $3.5 million price tag now pales against recent Riverina hotel transactions that have run into the tens of millions.
At the time Mr Gaiter’s long-term lease on the property was to be honoured, however, the 12 attached gaming machines were relocated and the venue was promoted as “pokie free”.
Commenters on the Facebook post have speculated that the loss of gambling revenue may have contributed to the closure.
Neither Mr Gaiter nor Mr O’Hara have responded to Region’s enquiries.
Other local musicians and venue owners have expressed their sadness at the news.
Vickie Burkinshaw from the nearby Curious Rabbit Cafe said it was a blow to the diversity of the local music scene.
“There’s so much incredible talent in the Riverina and we’re getting so many musicians travelling through from Sydney to Melbourne who stop in Wagga and are always looking for venues,” she said.
“It’s a real shame because the Duke was a big venue and caters to a quite different crowd than we do.”
Steve Price from pub rock band One Shot Too Many agreed that the region will feel the loss.
“It’s getting harder to find a place with a nice big stage set-up,” he said.
“To have like a place with a PA set-up and a good stage makes a huge difference.”
But he says the music scene remains alive and there are an increasing number of gigs at private functions now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing.
Veteran rocker Aaron Oldaker agreed that it’s tough for larger bands to be sustainable but he continues performing regular solo gigs at venues across the Riverina.
“The music scene is getting stronger at the moment, or at least it’s returning to pre-COVID levels,” he explained.
“And there are lots of venues popping up that are keen to give bands a go.”
He pointed out that the newly rebranded nightclub ‘Tilly’s’ has just put out a call for live bands and hopes that other venues will continue to support local talent.
“Because live music is just better,” he said.