THE walls of Abermain's freshly-renovated Denman Hotel are unlike anything else in the Hunter.
There's no framed Knights jerseys, there's no poker machines flashing and beeping in the corner attempting to lure your attention.
Almost every inch of the walls in the front bar are decorated by the bright and colourful paintings by contemporary Indonesian artists Faizin and Pudjiami, who both hail from the Javanese village of Banyuwangi. Their surrealist art focuses on the humorous situations of ordinary people going about their lives and work.
In between the paintings there's life-sized models of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe and a collection of celebratory face masks of people like Gene Simmons and Ali G.
If there wasn't a grand old country bar in the middle of the room, you'd almost believe you'd walked into an art gallery.
Welcome to Qirkz in the Hunter, the region's newest, and indeed, quirkiest live music venue and pub.
Qirkz in the Hunter opened as a cafe a month ago and on Friday the pub will re-open for the first time since February, when owner Yaron Hallis bought the Denman Hotel and commenced its transformation.
The pokies are gone, the paintings are up and the only TVs in the pub will be screening music videos from the '50s to the '80s.
The greatest transformation is the pub's former back deck, which has been enclosed and turned into a 120-person cabaret-style band room that Hallis hopes will become the Hunter Valley's version of Lizotte's.
For more than a decade Hallis has been the co-owner of boutique Marrickville music venue Camelot Lounge, which has hosted everything from Tim Freedman and Deborah Conway to world music acts, gypsy bands and flamenco guitarists.
Yallis himself is an acclaimed musician, having won three ARIA Awards in the 2000s for Best World Music Album with his fusion gypsy band Monsieur Camembert.
Earlier this year Hallis and his young family were looking to move closer to his in-laws at Morpeth when the Denman Hotel became available.
"The grandeur and beauty of this 110-year-old building seduced me and I thought this is the one thing I would pack up Qirkz for," Hallis says.
With the hotel located on Cessnock Road, a major artery for Sydneysiders flocking to the wineries, Hallis thought it was an ideal place to revive his musical dream.
"There's certainly pubs doing live music, but it tends to be free admission, background music," he says. "The idea of doing something focused in the Camelot vein wasn't happening.
"There's a huge potential audience there. You've got to think of all the Sydneysiders that come here every weekend by the thousands that don't really have anything to go see unless they're going to a huge Crowded House or Elton John-sized show."
Qirkz in the Hunter's opening show on Friday is Jeff Duff's Bowie Unzipped, while Victor Valdes' Mexican Mariachi Band perform on Saturday. The December gig guide features Beatles and Eurythmics cover shows, but Hallis says he hopes to showcase plenty of original talent, including many who perform at Camelot.
There will be ticket-only and three-course meal and show options at all gigs.
Qirkz in the Hunter is actually Hallis' second attempt at Qirkz, but his first legitimate one. In 2005 Hallis was searching for a warehouse to showcase his large collection of Faizin and Pudjiami art when he found a space in Marrickville.
"I took that over and it became Qirkz, which was completely illegal," he says. "There was no council approval for it, it was only approved as a sewing factory.
"I took it as an opportunity to dress it with all my art and collections of style and started inviting all my own bands to come and see it."
Soon woodfire pizza-maker Tony Hecimovic came on board and Qirkz became popular through word of mouth, booking acts like Boy & Bear and The Necks.
"It started snowballing and a musician friend who had a gypsy band asked could they do a show too, and another did that, and another band, and suddenly without ever having the intention of starting an underground venue, it morphed into this underground venue," Hallis says.
The grandeur and beauty of this 110-year-old building seduced me and I thought this is the one thing I would pack up Qirkz for.- Yaron Hallis
"In this atmosphere of trust where no one would steal anything or deface anything, it started growing and growing from the point of having one show a month, it became like three or four shows a week."
In 2009 word of Qirkz finally reached Marrickville Council and it was shut down. In a lucky coincidence an old Greek club several shops up the road was available and Hallis and Hecimovic relaunched it as Camelot Lounge.
Despite the success of Camelot Lounge, the vibe and idea of Qirkz never left Hallis.
"I never ever thought I'd close that place down because it was so special to many people, and of course to me, and I loved the idea of a twin precinct with Qirkz and Camelot," he says.
"So I never wanted to give up on that dream until I walked into this building."
Qirkz in the Hunter is located at 141 Cessnock Road, Abermain.
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