‘We’ve had one fight in 15 years’: is the Grace Emily hotel Australia’s best music venue? | Music

A UFO on the roof and the words “No Pokies, No TAB” proudly splashed on the sandwich board set the Grace Emily hotel apart from the student accommodation high-rises and Christian bookstores in this quiet patch of Adelaide’s western flank.

The building itself is one of Adelaide’s oldest pubs; the former Launceston hotel poured its first beers in 1839, not long after the colony was established, and for years it served the city’s poorer residents who lived in nearby workers’ cottages and slums. In those days the pub was your front parlour, dance hall and, tragically, a coroner’s court (a string of 19th century inquests into the deaths of infants born to young, unwed mothers says much about the time and the place).

Around the turn of the millennium the building was reborn as a live music pub, with a stage in the old dining room and a new name borrowed from an elderly neighbour: Grace Emily.

The Launceston hotel, which opened in 1839. Photograph: State Library of South Australia

On a quiet midweek afternoon, the publican, Symon Jarowyj, does the books at the front bar while a young folk band loads in for the night. Jarowyj was a regular punter and performer first – “Just rock’n’roll bands, nothing good,” he clarifies – before a few shifts behind the bar led to him taking over the place in 2010.

Behind the bar the walls are covered in layers of paraphernalia built up over 25 years. Band stickers fight for space alongside Bollywood posters and discarded name badges from punters’ dead-end day jobs. A Bert Newton shrine beams over the doorway, while a collection of vintage Tretchikoff prints stare at a mixed bag of portraits of regulars, painted as part of the pub’s answer to the Archibald.

“People just bring in stuff,” Jarowyj says. “Maybe from a relative that died or something like that. They get their hands on something special and put it in the pub – it’d be nice to have Antiques Roadshow come in.”

The Grace Emily front bar is decorated with kitsch and stickers collected over the decades. Photograph: Sia Duff/The Guardian

The Grace’s cosy, limited-capacity band room hosts live music most nights, from sausage sizzle-fuelled jam sessions every Monday to touring acts and locals across the weekend.

“You have the same crew in every week,” Jarowyj says of the Monday jams. “Wednesday night we have a jazz night, all the jazz heads come in. We have this big community but with little subsections that we cater to.”

Plenty of big names have played on its small stage, from Marlon Williams and Julia Jacklin to the late Justin Townes Earle.

“It’s nice – we get them on the way up and then we get them on the way down,” Symon says affectionately. “They go back to their roots.”

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats fondly remembers playing the Grace on his first tour of Australia in 2003, where he played to a few dozen people before bunking in the flat above the pub.

Los Palms play at the Grace Emily in January 2023. Photograph: Mark Panizza

​​“I woke up at three in the morning, and I walked out to the balcony and had a real consciousness of how far from home I was,” Darnielle says. “I was having a cigarette, listening to the birds – well, these were different birds. As an American, you see a green bird and your whole reality shifts.”

He also remembers the emails he received from thrilled strangers in the lead-up to the show. “They were excited that I was going to be in that venue. I had a sense of a local history, which is exciting for me because I come from a small local scene.

“I could tell the Grace Emily was a lot of people’s home base; that’s the place you go, whether there’s a band playing or not. If there’s a band playing, that’s a bonus – you’re gonna be there anyway.”

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Tim Rogers has played the Grace many times over the years, in up times and down. As a performer and a music lover, the You Am I frontman says it’s a place that inspires a special relationship between those on and off the stage. For one thing, you can all look each other in the eye.

“Your pulse slows,” Rogers says. “You want to listen to the record, or loose conversations, have a look around. You don’t really want to get your phone out because there’s interesting stuff everywhere.”

But the last few years have been challenging for the Grace Emily, even after Covid-19 restrictions eased, according to Jarowyj.

“I suddenly got told by my insurer that I could no longer get public liability insurance through them. I had to shut the pub for about six to seven weeks, until I could actually find public liability. I think we were probably one of the first venues in Australia that suddenly had that honour of being classed as a ‘high-risk’ venue.

The Grace Emily faces on to Waymouth Street. Photograph: Sia Duff/The Guardian

“We have the most passive crowds at the pub – I think we’ve had one fight in 15 years. But unfortunately, we get lumped in the same box and really have to wear it.”

Which is a shame, Jarowyj says: “I think all live music venues this size are more like community centres than anything.”

Rogers recalls one moment about 15 years ago when he ended up at the Grace after a bad gig, in a time of “bad decisions”. A Grace regular named Ian handed him a homemade Kiss mix CD, knowing Rogers had loved the glam metal group as a kid.

“I’d had a night at the Grace, fell over somewhere, and just wasn’t the best citizen. And when I got back to wherever I was staying, I fished it out of my bag and played it. He wrote a little letter and slipped it inside, and not for the first time, a compilation tape saved my life.

“The Grace seems to encourage that kind of behaviour – where you would be recommended a book, or a poet, or a record, and it could save your life at 4am in the morning when you’re feeling bereft of inspiration.”

Darnielle agrees. “These chains of connection happen in local spots; they connect people to one another, which is really the whole point of music, of having a club. Connecting people, letting us connect with one another.”