AN UNLIKELY and in many ways unintended success story in the heart of Rathmines, Abner Browns Barbershop – opened just five years ago – has become a fairytale at the heart of Dublin music.
Today, the venue hosts regular bring-your-own-beer events and is expanding into festivals and documentaries, but the musically-themed barbers started out as owner Dave Judge’s post-crash last resort.
“I’d been a businessman for 20 years, and I lost everything in the crash,” he said.
“Everything except the shop. I didn’t have a penny, and I picked up some records on sale in a local shop in Rathmines, hung a guitar above an old couch, and opened up the barbers.
“The first gig happened really quickly. It was a Canadian singer called Blair Packham, who came in for a hair cut, talked about his music and we decided he’d play sat on the couch the next Saturday. Another guy saw him, and came in the next week. Within four weeks, I had people in every weekend playing music. It started so fast, and to this day I’ve never asked anyone to play. They always come to me.”
Judge himself used to play in bands, but describes himself as “a general businessman” who left music behind years ago: “I’m organised and good with people.”
The process has been entirely organic – “it’s great marketing,” Judge admits, “but that’s not why I do it. I love it. Almost every gig someone will come up to me with an idea about monetising the shows, but it’s a community thing. I don’t want to turn it into something else.”
In the few years that it’s been going, Abner’s – currently temporarily shifted a few doors down from its normal location on Rathgar Road for the duration of a roof replacement on what Judge jokingly calls “the mouldy green room” – has had some serious highs. Michael Stipe of REM dropped in a couple of years ago having heard about the place, while Northern Irish pop-rockers Ash are amongst the acts to have played for free on a floor cleared of its hairdressing equipment.
A film about the barbers entitled ‘More Than A Barbershop’ – actually the third to be released, alongside regular footage of in-house gigs – is currently doing the rounds at film festivals ahead of public release next year, and Judge’s influence is quickly growing beyond his own walls.
A Rathmines based festival called Canalaphonic launched in 2015 under Judge’s stewardship, featuring over a dozen venues and a host of local acts in its 2016 incarnation.
The businessman turned music aficionado has been appointed as booker at Rathmine’s newest (and, bizarrely, pirate-themed) venue The Bowery. He’s also been involved in managing several acts, including rising starlet Sinead White and his son’s act Military Road.
“There’s no agenda, and no money, but I’ve made some great friends through this, and the last few years I’ve been happier than I ever was before it all happened,” Judge says, speaking the day after being nominated against far larger and more established venues for IMRO’s ‘Irish Venue of the Year’.
“It’s never VIP, though I do try to look after the regulars. It’s there for people to enjoy, and because it’s something I enjoy doing. We might have to bring in more tickets, as I’ve had to start turning people away, and I hate doing that.”
“I think people like what it is, and it’s given me so much. I’ve been speaking to [The Pogues’] Cait O’Riordan and Niamh Farrell from Ham Sandwich. I’m bringing Maverick Sabre over [to the Bowery] in a few weeks. It’s been such a great journey.”