Countless legendary evenings: San Fran

Local musician Samuel Scott on the Cuba Street live venue that's home to everything from pummelling punk rock to friendly folk music and every in-between

San fran live venue music cuba street bar

Where

Cuba Precinct

Location

171 Cuba Street
Te Aro

San Fran (formerly the San Francisco Bathhouse, Indigo, Sonic Temple, Stax, et, al.) may have had a few names over the years but it has, since the 1960s been at the centre of Wellington’s live music scene. Local musician, composer and founding member of The Phoenix Foundation Samuel Scott shares the story of one of Wellington's favourite late-night venues. 

At that perfect in-between size for established local acts and upcoming internationals, San Fran has hosted countless legendary evenings. When I asked friends to name their favourite gigs I got back so many responses for so many shows I don’t know where to even start. The humble, beer-soaked stage has been home to The Breeders, Stereolab, Ween, The Datsuns, GZA. The list is long and storied and incredible.  

San Fran Cuba Street venue gig crowd stage Credit Nicola Edmonds
San Fran Cuba Street venue stage crowd gig Credit Nicola Edmonds
The Phoenix Foundation perform at San Fran 2
The Phoenix Foundation perform at San Fran 3

Run by two of the most experienced players in the Wellington live scene, Tim Ward and Ziggy Ziya, San Fran has developed a rep amongst bands as one of the best places to play. A good PA and thoughtful staff can make all the difference and is why managers and promoters come back year after year. Plus the backstage graffiti, the many crude, irreverent, deeply bizarre works of sharpie-art that line the backstage room is remarkable. 

It’s part of Wellington’s unique position as a small city with a great nightlife that you can pop along to San Fran any given night and see really top-notch bands in such a cozy venue. You can often see an act in a crowd of 400 that anywhere else in the world you’d be seeing in venues quadruple the size. Watching Fleet Foxes play to a hushed packed SF crowd just as their debut album was blowing up worldwide was remarkable.

Jeremy Taylor from San Fran’s music retail neighbour Slow Boat says that San Fran is part of that special, undefinable Cuba Street vibe. “There is a great symbiotic relationship between Slow Boat and San Fran. We both want to see interesting music livening up Cuba Street."

San Fran stacks up with the best small venues I’ve been to in NYC, Vancouver and London.

Jeremy Taylor, Slow Boat Records

Ziggy takes a simple approach to longevity in the music game. “I have a basic three-way philosophy with venue management; book good shows, pay people, don't be a t***.” San Fran aims at being a broad-church venue that’s more part of the ever-evolving creative Te Aro community that a scene-specific spot. “We are open to all genres and like to think the venue is adaptable to its performers and customers. Working collaboratively with promoters and acts which helps to create relationships and repeat business.”

Co-owner Tim Ward has been putting on shows and running venues in and around Cuba Street for over 25 years and has now branched out into brewing. His own Abandoned Brewery beers are available on tap at San Fran and add to the DIY, local flavour of the place. San Fran abandoned commercial brewery connections after a major fit out in 2014 in favour of a great selection of very local products, setting a trend that many music venues around the country have followed since. 

The Phoenix Foundation San Fran 2015 4
San fran frontdoor live venue music cuba street bar

I first played there in 1995 when it was a kind of heavy metal grotto, the paper-mache cave has gone and the venue is much better now and I can say after playing maybe 50 gigs over the years and attending, even more, it’s a simple venue, the right size, great sightlines, no-frills, where the music is boss. It just works. Whether it’s an Abandoned IPA on the deck overlooking Cuba St in the sun, a pummeling punk rock, a groovy club night, or perhaps some live comedy you know you're in safe hands at San Fran because they’ve been doing it best for a long time.

You might like

Live in WLG

Subscribe to get fortnightly updates on Wellington events, special offers and sweet competitions

You may unsubscribe in the footer of all emails from WellingtonNZ. For more info, read our enews terms