For those of us based in the North West, thoughts of Lancashire’s Ribble Valley might bring to mind an area rich in heritage and quaint market towns, among a scenic backdrop of lush hills and fells.
But while there’s no doubting the tourism potential here, you probably wouldn’t equate this countryside idyll with a burgeoning music scene.
Hollow Horse Events is changing that though, through its bold mission to bring nationwide artists to local venues.
Eyebrows were raised as former Ultravox front-man and successful solo artist Midge Ure played Hurst Green Village Hall at the end of February.
That wasn’t a one-off either, with indie darlings Dodgy set to rock the valley this weekend, the night after a more likely gig at West London’s Borderline.
Other acts are confirmed to follow too, including acclaimed singer-songwriter Nick Harper and ex-Icicle Works frontman Ian MacNabb.
Not bad for a village that only has around 500 residents.
Hollow Horse Events – named after the 1984 Icicle Works single – is the brainchild of Carl Barrow and his wife Sarah, who happily swapped a thriving Manchester scene for a new life in the country around seven years ago.
They love their adopted home, and everything about the Ribble Valley. But they weren’t prepared to give up one of the more important parts of their social life.
As a result, Carl decided to look into the possibility of promoting gigs, in a bid to not only help out the local economy, but also bring big-name acts to the countryside.
So, hot on the heels of their last sell-out gig in Hurst Green, this Saturday (March 29), Dodgy drop by for one of only a handful of gigs throughout the country, taking time out from recording their new album.
Best known for feelgood Britpop era hits like Good Enough and Staying Out for the Summer – and loved by this blogger on a wider scale for first three great albums The Dodgy Album (1993), Homegrown (1994) and Free Peace Sweet (1996), this London-based three-piece’s booking is another great coup for the area.
I must admit I took my eye off the ball when they reformed. Put it down to new-found responsibilities and having kids. But Real Estate followed in 2001 and in 2012 they were back with Stand Upright in a Cool Place, which at first glance might even have been written about one of Carl’s intimate gigs.
I’ve since caught up a little and can confirm Dodgy are still that original trio of Nigel Clark, Matthew Priest and Andy Miller. And every bit as good as before, that last album with a bit of a mellow ’70s folk-rock feel – with Fleet Foxes like harmonies in places – as well as those sublime ’60s influences that always characterised them.
Dodgy’s appearance was set to be part of a double-bill of gigs in the village this weekend, but slow ticket sales meant Friday’s show featuring Mercury Award-nominated Ian McNabb had to be rearranged for September 6.
But Carl remains determined to succeed, with the early signs pretty good. And McNabb clearly likes the concept, the Liverpudlian acknowledging the intimate feel of the village hall after so many city centre venues.
He speaks from experience too, having put on two previous Hollow Horse events shows in the Ribble Valley.
So why are all these headline acts choosing the backwaters of Lancashire? Well, to explain that, we should go back to the beginning of the story.
Carl and Sarah, based in nearby Goosnargh, couldn’t see why upping sticks and heading for the country should change their outlook on night-life.
Carl, 50, said: “I moved to the Ribble Valley, initially to Ribchester, for the love of a good woman, and it was a fantastic move.
“But without being disrespectful, apart from the odd amateur theatrical production and occasional local band in pubs, there wasn’t much going on.
“I enjoyed nights out and loved going to gigs and comedy nights, so I missed that aspect and decided to try and do something about it.
“Rather than trudging into Liverpool, Manchester or wherever, we thought, ‘let’s try and bring artists to us’.”
Carl previously worked in local Government in Stockport, at first commuting to and from his new base, while his wife worked in the retail sector.
They then decided on a total change of direction, opening a tea room in Ribchester, incorporating a gift shop and florist’s.
Carl added: “We thought it would be nice to get the premises licensed and bring in a few comedy nights and acoustic music nights, opening it as a proper venue.
“We did that, and it went down really well. Then, as we had quite a big garden, we did a few outdoor music events too, which also proved a success.
“In time, we sold the tea room, and while Sarah carried on with the florist’s, I missed doing the promotions side for the music and comedy.
“So we got thinking as to how we could carry on, and the obvious thing that sprang to mind was through village halls.
“We’ve been doing it a while now, with a few biggish names. Last year’s highlight was with The Travelling Band, playing the opening night of their UK tour at Chipping Village Hall.
“That really rocked the venue, and to this day is still one of my favourites, because of the atmosphere it generated.”
As well as Chipping and Hurst Green, Carl has also put on gigs at Ribchester and Whalley, and plans to continue with his village hall model.
He added: “It may sound corny, but it’s about bringing the music to the people.
“We enquired about using venues such as the Clitheroe Grand and Blackburn King George’s Hall, but that’s getting away from the principle.
“And if we can break even on ticket sales, we can run a bar which will hopefully pay a little on top, so we won’t be out of pocket.
“There have been a couple of shows where we’ve lost a little, but overall you don’t mind if people leave the venue with a smile on their face. Hopefully, you can break even next time.
“The Midge Ure gig was the first gig of this year’s Spring season, and went down really well. And it’s all a part of our bid to bring national names to local venues.”
In parts of rural Lancashire – as all over the country – there might just be a pub and a community hall these days, and sometimes not even a shop. So is he helping revive the local economy?
“Using Midge Ure as an example, there were people staying in the Shireburn Arms overnight, and before and after, local pubs had a lot of people in, eating and drinking.
Those visitors might return to the area, if they like what they see. So I’d say we’re definitely contributing.”
What did Midge Ure – who carried on from Hurst Green to Belfast, Dublin, then a German arena tour – make of his visit?
Carl added: “He loved it, telling us he did a couple of similar small shows, including one near Southampton.
“That said, there’s always an element of people turning out to see the big rock star in town. A regular gig audience might be there more for the music than the occasion.”
How did Carl go about booking Ian McNabb and Dodgy?
“The first one’s an easy one – I’ve always been an Ian McNabb and an Icicle Works fan, taking our company name from one of their songs.
“It was always a standing joke with my wife when we ran the tea room, saying we’d get Ian to play it.
“Maybe it was never going to happen, but when we decided to do village halls he was one of the first artists I got in touch with. He’s done each year since.
“With Dodgy, their manager’s from Blackburn, and when we did a series of events in Chipping last year, he came along and suggested we put them on.
“I believe they’re only doing three or four live dates. They were launching a greatest hits album, but are still in the studio at the moment.
“They’re in London the night before, so it’s a fair trip, but it should be a great night.”
Beyond that, Hollow Horse’s next dates also include one in mid-May featuring acclaimed solo artist Nick Harper – son of folk star Roy Harper – whose CV includes work with Squeeze.
Carl’s gig promotions are not yet a full-time job, and he works in customer services at a Clitheroe department store.
But he added: “I still like to get out in the evening – and then music takes over!”
Hollow Horse Events is something of a family affair too, with Sarah’s daughter working behind the bar at the last show.
You’re not likely to find Carl and Sarah posing for ‘selfies’ with the star attractions though. He said: “We like to fade into the background, really.”
That also explains why there’s no photos of him or Mrs B in this feature.
So has he got any other big names in mind to grace the stage of Ribble Valley village halls?
“I’d love to do something with Guy Garvey from Elbow. He’s a Bury lad, so he’d not have too far to come.
“I’m not sure we’d get Elbow playing a village hall, but we could always try and turn it into an outdoor event.”
What a great backdrop too – a fine advert for the Red Rose county. Has Carl considered going into the outdoor festival business?
“Whether the local council would like the idea of a few thousand people coming here is another matter. But never say never.
“I’d love to do something like that. The Ribble Valley has Beat-Herder, but why not. And there are a few places I’d have in mind.”
For ticket details for Dodgy and other Hollow Horse Events, check out their facebook page or head to www.ticketweb.co.uk.
This article is a revised and expanded edition of one written by Malcolm Wyatt for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on March 27, when the Ian McNabb gig was still set for its original date. The LEP version is here.