The Square's Summer Reunion: It was an out-of-venue experience
Saturday's summer party hosted by The Square showed that the spirit that made it an iconic Harlow music venue is still alive despite two years of homelessness.
"I have a crazy emotional attachment to the place – I've been going since I was 11," said Heather Eaton, whose band Medium Love played first on the outdoor stage and who used to work behind the bar at The Square. "Even walking in, I know everyone. It's the best feeling in the world."
Tickets for The Square's summer party at Harlow Rugby Club sold out in three days, with early-bird tickets being snapped up before the headline act (a storming King Prawn) was announced.
Adam Smith, who used to run The Square, set himself a few rules for organising Saturday's show. Rule No 1: no covers. Secondly, he wanted to showcase the kinds of early-stage band who would have sent their demo tape to The Square.
The first two acts – Harry and the Chicks and Medium Love – fitted these criteria. He was also looking for a bit of nostalgia, acts like Paul Howard who used to be regulars. When he heard King Prawn were getting back together and had a new album out, he knew he had his main act.
As a relative newcomer to the area, I didn't know any of the line-up and hadn't expected to enjoy the punkier acts, but each one was a revelation – and in a good way. Adam said this kind of discovery was the spirit of The Square.
"People bought tickets trusting that we would bring them good music and that's what it was all about. Because we delivered quality, people would show up on a Friday or Saturday night without even knowing who was playing."
The Square's cross-genre eclecticism seems to belong to the pre-algorithm era. In my late thirties – when I believed hard disks were foolproof – I lost my entire music collection. Lacking time to make the lazy discoveries of my youth, I now rely heavily on Spotify, but find I am often directed to the same sort of stuff: the big-name acts that headline festivals elsewhere.
And quite frankly, the playlist is often a little boring. When I feed the 11 new bands I discovered on Saturday – a new taste every half an hour, alternating between indoor and outdoor stages – into my favourites, I'm counting on it messing with my algorithm, also in a good way.
Saturday night at the rugby club wasn't quite like the olden days, however. When beer was spilled on the indoor dance-floor, a steward valiantly tried to mop up. When her yellow 'Cleaning in progress' sign was grabbed by a dancer and waved in the air, she looked less than impressed. More beer was spilled.
Dwarf Antidote played on – and frontman Daniel Smith seemed to quite enjoy it. "That kind of thing always used to happen at The Square," he said. "It's nice to see it again."
Although the magic is still there, some of it has dissipated. Medium Love's Heather moved to London as soon as The Square shut down, and without a venue that played their sort of music, many Harlow bands just fell apart.
Re-formed for the night – after only three practice sessions – The Antibodies showed they hadn't mellowed with age. Guitarist Matt Compton said the band split up when The Square closed and their drummer moved north. "It was a bit nerve-racking to be honest," he said, just after the band's set. "But the old support was still there."
The knock-on effect of The Square's closure has hit Harlow's bars as well as talent – and Bishop's Stortford's music scene, says Adam.
"When you have good venues in close proximity, you have to work harder, but it's healthy competition. As soon as you lose a venue then your region falls off the map for touring bands. Agents aren't looking any more because there's less to see."
Guitarist sisters Jennifer and Katherine O'Neil, of Indian Queens, are based in east London but used to make regular trips to Harlow to play The Square. "It was on the circuit," said Jennifer. "It was what you used to do."
If the spirit of The Square is to be revived, it will need a new home soon. Adam said he'd hoped a new venue would have opened in Harlow by now.
"I had this hope that the equivalent of me when I first started at The Square would be out there, that some younger people would start something, but it hasn't happened."
With the threat of closure hanging over it for so long, when The Square finally did shut in 2017, Adam needed to take time out.
Bitter about the fact that the land on which The Square stood has not been redeveloped and about the lack of help to find an alternative venue, he seems in two minds about whether to go for it again.
"I get a flurry every now and then that I could do something." He has a young child now and mentions other priorities. But then... "I'm gutted he's growing up in a town where he doesn't have the opportunities I had."
What's missing in Harlow, he says, is that kind of cultural hub which would be where people would go to meet like-minded others. With his partners in The Square One partnership – Chris Gilham, Steve Harcourt and Richard Holgarth – Adam says: "We can make stuff happen. But you know, we're musicians. We're not businessmen."
I remind him of the support for the reunion party. He smiles, looking down. "If someone gave us a building, I'm sure we could make a success of it."