Belfast, March 1987: 13-year-old Marty Watson is headed to the Ulster Hall to see The Mission perform – his first rock concert. To understand the Northern Irishman’s journey, it’s best to start at the beginning – with that 13-year-old goth teen becoming smitten with music and everything about it. And that started at Ulster Hall with The Mission.
Marty recalls the night as if it were yesterday, seemingly reliving it as he divulges the details. After taking the train from the coastal town of Bangor, where he grew up, to Belfast, he arrived at the iconic Ulster Hall – the same Ulster Hall where Van Morrison, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin played many times. In fact, Ulster Hall is the first venue where Zeppelin played their massive hit “Stairway to Heaven.”
That night, The Mission, one of Marty’s favorite bands, would take the stage – a relatively rare occurrence, as not many touring English bands would “cross the water” to perform in Belfast at that time. Marty recalls watching the opening band finish, the lights go down and people starting to scream. Ominous electronic orchestral music began to play. The lights enamored him; green spotlights beamed from every direction and clouds of fog obscured the stage. The orchestral music faded into the winding opening guitar intro of the band’s first song “Beyond the Pale,” from their album “Children”. At the moment the drums kicked in, bright white lights engulfed the stage, silhouetting the band.
Marty, now co-owner of The Shakedown and The Racket Bar and Pinball Lounge, takes a sip of his sugar-laden tea, on a rainy afternoon. “It was my first show, but still maybe the most iconic show I’ve ever seen,” he says.
This is quite the statement from someone who has been going to shows for over 30 years and co-owns a music venue where hundreds of acts play throughout the year. But it makes sense; there’s nothing quite like that first concert.
Marty spent the rest of his youth in the same fashion – going to punk and goth concerts, and buying a lot of records along the way. Early on, bands such as The Cult, New Model Army, New Order, Echo and The Bunnymen, and The Damned were his favorites. Later, bands like Leatherface, The Afghan Whigs, Fugazi, Jawbreaker and Lungfish were prominent in his prized record collection.
Marty went on to attend college at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle in Northeastern England. He graduated in 1995 with a degree in Environmental Management and began the journey that would lead him out of the United Kingdom and, ultimately, to Bellingham.
Due to a lack of environmental jobs in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, Marty began to look for work abroad. “I picked places that seemed the most glamorous to my young, urban Northern Irish eyes,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself I wanted some ‘sexy experience,’ to put on my resume. I imagined it would look great if I had shark-tagging in the Bahamas or something like that listed on a resume.”
Many of these locations were in the Caribbean. After writing letters to 25 different organizations, Marty received 20 responses back, with 17 saying they didn’t have funding for him – but the St. Croix Environmental Association in the U.S Virgin Islands, did. He moved to St. Croix in June of 1997.
Here, Marty was tasked with writing a waste management plan for the island, following up on reports of pollution and other environmental issues, as well as outreach to schools and youth groups – including taking children snorkeling. He says he was a bit nervous about the job at first – particularly having to supervise children. But he found his rhythm.
On St. Croix, he met his wife, Heather, a jeweler from Kansas City, Missouri. The couple decided to move to San Diego, California where Marty got involved in the punk and hardcore music scene again. He frequented a club called The Casbah and began to develop his interest in music photography. “The Casbah is an iconic venue in San Diego,” he says. “I loved it. Sometimes I would see acts who would later go on to be huge. I saw The White Stripes there. It’s only a 200-person venue and I wasn’t even there to see them; I was there to see their support band, The Bellrays.”
Marty wanted to approach music photography from a different angle, not just the crowd’s perspective, so he would often get on stage and take photos from angles that tried to capture the energy of the musicians’ performance. Some of his photos can be seen at The Shakedown today.
While living in Southern California, Marty worked as an environmental consultant, writing and editing large impact assessment reports for firms based in San Diego and Los Angeles. The L.A. firm allowed him to telecommute, which became advantageous when the 2008 financial crisis hit. By that time, Marty had grown tired of larger cities and the constant heat and sun. They took the opportunity to head north to a smaller city and a climate with more distinct seasons. In hindsight, a climate that resembled the one he grew up in.
In February 2009, Marty spent a weekend relocating to Bellingham. On Monday morning, he drove to the Starbucks in Barkley Village, logged into his computer and went back to work. They had no idea he was in Bellingham. They eventually figured it out, but it took them awhile.
Marty quickly sought out Brent Cole, editor of Bellingham’s monthly music publication What’s Up! Magazine. He began contributing his photography and connecting with the music community, including fellow photographer, Hollie Huthman. In early 2010, Hollie told him about her idea for a music venue – The Shakedown.
After reviewing Hollie’s business plan, Marty decided to invest in the business. But it seemed if only one person ran The Shakedown, it could get overwhelming – and, conveniently, he was looking for his next thing. “I had some savings after working corporate, so I was willing to roll the dice,” he says. “I didn’t want to regret it forever if I never tried, so I went with it.”
Before they signed the lease, Hollie and Marty felt that the city’s restrictive noise ordinance remained a roadblock to a successful music venue. Fortunately, members of the Bellingham music community were already lobbying to change it. In late 2010, it was updated with regulations much more amenable to live music venues within defined downtown and Fairhaven Entertainment Districts.
Hollie and Marty signed The Shakedown’s lease in January 2011, and opened three months later – on St. Patrick’s Day. “We started on a shoestring and improved the venue as time has gone on,” Marty says. “At an early point, we decided to put all of our energy and money into improving the bar and the venue.”
In the years since its inception, they have slowly upgraded their interior and sound system. Recently they even put in a merchandise booth for visiting bands.
In 2015, in an adjacent space, they opened The Racket Bar and Pinball Lounge. This allowed them to serve a much broader clientele and, as Marty emphasizes, to pour a “proper” Guinness. There was never enough time to complete the classic three-part pour at The Shakedown. “It’s one of my greatest pleasures to see a Guinness poured right and it’s a bit horrifying to see it done wrong,” Marty says. “I remember when my Dad first showed me what a proper pint looked like; if you can draw a face on top of the beer head and it has almost the consistency of shaving cream, then it has been done right.”
When Marty’s parents first visited The Racket, he was very nervous to give his Dad that first Guinness. Fortunately, it got the seal of approval. That moment was incredibly important and memorable for Marty.
The rain still falling, the chat now over, Marty takes the final sip of his tea. “Everything has worked out well,” he says. “The Shakedown, The Racket and, yes, being able to pour a proper Guinness.”