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Ben Shannon

50 magical concert venues
that are the heart and soul
of Canadian music

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

In 1970, when Joni Mitchell penned those lines from “Big Yellow Taxi,” she couldn’t have known how poignant they would be exactly 50 years later, when the COVID-19 pandemic deprived us of so many things we take for granted.

With public gatherings banned or severely limited, the music sector has been hit particularly hard. “It’s not only musicians that are hurting,” explained Juno Awards CEO Allan Reid during the 2021 nominations press conference, “it’s also the venues, their staff and production crews, all across the country.”

Their efforts to pivot and move live music online have been admirable, but nothing will ever replace the magical, shared experience of attending a show in a cozy café, bar, theatre or recital hall. For music-lovers and music-makers, the return to normal can’t come soon enough.

So, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Juno Awards, we’re celebrating 50 live music venues that are the heart and soul of Canadian music, as chosen by Juno winners and nominees, past and present. These spots have helped put their towns and cities on the map, and now we’re doing the same thing — literally.

Of course, these are only a fraction of the countless concert venues across Canada that enrich our lives. If there’s a live music venue in your community that you want the rest of Canada to know about, tell us on Twitter @CBCMusic.

To begin exploring, click on one of the six regions, below, or simply start scrolling.

British Columbia

Hermann’s Jazz Club

Victoria

On April 30, World Jazz Day, Hermann’s Jazz Club celebrated its 40th anniversary by releasing an album featuring musicians who played for founder Hermann Nieweler back in 1981 — and are still playing the venue to this day.

Situated at 753 View St. since 1986, the club has overcome its share of obstacles. “Hermann’s has burnt twice,” explains Nichola Walkden, executive director of Arts on View Society, the non-profit organization that runs Hermann’s. “In 1999, the concert on the night of the fire that closed the venue for nearly a year was titled Burning the House Down.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Calamities aside, Hermann’s has consistently presented a who’s who of talent to the Victoria public. “After 40 years, we serve as proof that smaller venues are incubators of talent,” says Walkden. “Michael Kaeshammer, Diana Krall, Nelly Furtado, Bria Skonberg and Emily Braden played our stage in their youth. Hugh Fraser and Don Thompson, big names in jazz, have a strong history with our club.”

Walkden says Hermann’s strong history owes a lot to trumpeter/pianist Tom Vickery. “He has been hosting the Tom Vickery Trio and Jazz Jam for 38 years. He is like Hermann’s welcoming committee. When you move to town and you want to start performing, you show up and play with Tom to show your chops.”

Trombonist Nick La Riviere is another Hermann’s fixture. “Alongside his own career, he has formed two community big bands (his parents play in one of them) and an R&B band that gives the stage to emerging vocalists,” Walkden explains. “So fun! He brings props and smoke machines and a blue trombone. All of the cover charges for these events are donated to local food banks or shelters. So bright. So much energy. He deserves more recognition.”

Miguelito leads a conga line at Hermann's Jazz Club. (Richard Tsing Hum)

The Commodore Ballroom

Vancouver

The Commodore Ballroom opened its doors in Vancouver on Dec. 3, 1930, and today it’s as legendary as its much mythologized “springy” dance floor. Things that last for 90-plus years in Vancouver are exceedingly rare, but another part of the venue’s marvel? The iconic artists who’ve graced the Commodore’s stage during its nine decades and counting. From the Glenn Miller Orchestra and B.B. King to Tina Turner and Blondie, Nirvana and Patti Smith to David Bowie and the Village People, almost everyone who is anyone has played the Commodore. In 2011, Billboard Magazine even named it one of the top 10 influential clubs in North America — the only Canadian venue to make the cut.

So far, the Commodore has faced the Great Depression, World War II, a three-year closure in the late ’90s and a $3 million renovation, Vancouver’s rapidly changing entertainment scene, and now COVID-19. It’s too soon to say what will happen, but for now, CBC Music looks back at the Commodore’s remarkable 90-year history with these nine fascinating facts.

1. English punk band the Clash made its North American debut at the Commodore in 1979.

2. The dance floor really does “spring.” According to the Vancouver Historical Foundation, the Commodore boasts a “sprung dance floor; a hardwood floor laid over tires filled with horse hair to give it a distinctive bounce.”

3. Mulder and Scully slow-danced at the Commodore in an episode of The X-Files, which filmed all over Vancouver during the bulk of its television run.

4. The venue is so storied, there’s even an award-winning book about it: Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom.

5. In 2020, the City of Vancouver declared Dec. 3 as day of the Commodore Ballroom.

6. Colin James has played the Commodore 34 times so far.

7. U2 performed at the Commodore for the first time on March 24, 1981. Tickets were under $5.

8. In 2017, Sting chose the Commodore as the kickoff location for his world tour.

9. Spirit of the West played its final shows at the Commodore in 2015 following the announcement of lead singer-songwriter John Mann’s diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s.

Dating from the 1920s, the Commodore Ballroom is situated on Granville Street in Vancouver. (Supplied by the Commodore Ballroom)

Fox Cabaret

Vancouver

A Q&A with managing director Darlene Rigo.

What makes the Fox Cabaret unique?

It’s a former adult cinema, the last in Vancouver and, reputedly, even North America. And yes, it was cleaned and renovated very well in between.

What kinds of music is the Fox Cabaret known for?

All kinds. We are a cabaret and want to express that in the range of genres, from classical piano and string quartets to the loudest rock ’n’ roll and innovative experimental music that doesn’t quite have a genre yet.

Who has given an especially memorable performance at the Fox?

Local heroes Peach Pit, who played their first sold-out show at the Fox to excited local fans; the incredible Ezra Collective from the U.K., who made a jazz show seem like a full-on rave; and the Purple Tape Collective from New York, who proved that experimental noise art is a viable genre. Mdou Moctar from West Africa was phenomenal, entrancing the audience with his prodigious guitar playing and absorbing, amplifying rhythms.

When there’s an act performing onstage at the Fox, how would you describe the atmosphere?

We’ve been described as a church of rock ’n’ roll with revelers of all ages losing themselves in a collective frenzy. There’s something communal about hearing and feeling the exact same thing reverberate through you along with hundreds of others around you. It feels necessary and human.

Tell us something few people know about the Fox Cabaret.

It’s haunted. There are all kinds of strange phenomena that freak the staff out, especially when it’s mostly quiet and supposedly empty. Besides lots of strange noises, we’ve seen things move unexpectedly and have witnessed bizarre electrical/light phenomena with no realistic explanation.

Photos: supplied by Fox Cabaret.

The sun sets on Vancouver's Fox Cabaret.
A sign outside Fox Cabaret announces the club's temorary closure due to COVID-19.
Patrons line up outside Vancouver's Fox Cabaret.
Music-lovers fill Vancouver's Fox Cabaret.

St. James Community Square

Vancouver

In 1928, it was the St. James United Church, but since 1993, St. James Community Square has been a dedicated hub for artists, activists and community groups of all kinds in the Kitsilano neighbourhood on the West Side of Vancouver. It’s a humble building with multipurpose rooms, a daycare centre and a kitchen, but the centrepiece is that former church space: a beautiful wood-paneled hall with arched rafters and soaring ceilings, a stage, a piano, stained glass windows and a small balcony. Dedicated as the Mel Lehan Hall, named after a prominent local community member, the space is regularly home to the Rogue Folk Club which, in non-pandemic times, hosts regular concerts of local and touring folk, roots and Celtic musicians. Rogue Folk has hosted everyone from Loudon Wainwright III to Irish Mythen and Le Vent du Nord to Birds of Chicago at the Mel Lehan Hall.

Independent promoters can also rent the Mel Lehan Hall, which is how I saw Bahamas play for the first time in 2010, as well as Basia Bulat, Cold Specks and more. But it was seeing the Blow, a Portland-based indie-pop band, in 2008 that inspired me to form a more personal relationship with St. James Community Square. The Blow’s “Parentheses” was one of “our” songs in the beginning of my relationship with my then fiancé/now husband, Carlos. Seeing the band live, in the warmth and intimacy of the hall — strands of small glowing lights around the stage, a mix of wooden pew benches and chairs throughout the room, the feeling of creativity and communion within the crowd — it felt like we had found a kind of home. We were casually on the lookout for a wedding venue that made sense and that night we found it.

Rhododenrons bloom outside St. James Community Square. (St. James Community Square/Facebook)

We’ve returned to the Mel Lehan Hall at St. James Community Square countless times over the years, and in 2019 we rented it all over again to celebrate our 10th anniversary. In fact, one of the last shows we saw in 2020 before the pandemic closed too many doors was Jim Byrnes playing a fundraiser for the Rogue Folk Club. We took my Grandma (she loves Jim’s music and his storytelling style) and I even won a door prize. Sacred spaces are what we make of them, and St. James Community Square is one of mine.

Andrea Warner, CBC Music

Rickshaw Theatre

Vancouver

Aaron Chapman, author of Vancouver After Dark: the Wild History of a City’s Nightlife (edited for brevity):

“The Rickshaw Theatre is a fascinating little room — I shouldn’t say little because it’s quite a big place, located on the border between Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. It has an amazing pedigree: it’s an old Chinese movie theatre where martial arts, karate and kung fu movies from the ’60s and ’70s used to play.

“About 15 years ago, new ownership leased the building and started doing shows there. And the Rickshaw established itself and kept getting better against the odds — not only [in terms of] the neighbourhood where it’s located, which is a tough area of town, but it’s also been the little engine that could and it has become a popular live music venue, certainly for acts on the way up, as a punk and heavy metal venue in particular.

“The Rickshaw has done a better job, maybe more than any other venue in town in the last 10 years, [in that] it’s been a welcome home for a lot of benefits and fundraisers — [for example] the Bowie Ball, where a bunch of different bands all do a Bowie song. They’ve consistently raised tens of thousands of dollars for cancer research and whatnot time and time again.

“Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you might have said, ‘Well, it’s good. I hope they can make it. I don’t know if it’s going to last.’ Well, they’ve lasted and especially during this era of COVID-19, they’ve managed to keep the place going by doing a lot of virtual shows and probably been the venue in town that’s been on the forefront of that.”

Japandroids play the Rickshaw. (Rickshaw/Instagram)

The Dream Café

Penticton


There really is no place in the world like the Dream Café. It's a blessing for both the listeners in the audience and the performers onstage. It's what every venue should strive to be. — Matt Andersen, 2015 Juno Award nominee


“When I do my intro at the start of an evening, I always ask the audience for a show of hands if this is their first time at the Dream Café,” explains Hazel Bennett, who’s been booking acts at the 100-seat eatery since 2016. “Then, I tell them that they will want to return again and again. It is such a magical place where all your musical dreams can come true.”

Under normal circumstances, the Dream Café presents around 150 concerts per year, ranging from blues to bluegrass, Celtic, folk, Canadiana, jazz, singer-songwriter and global music. In 2019, a trio featuring Iranian–Canadian singer Tahere Falahati took to the Dream Café stage. “Their music was magical, mesmerizing and perfectly at home in our intimate room,” Bennett recalls. “We also enlisted some Iranian cooks and featured a Persian menu that suited the evening.”

Bennett takes pride in the Dream Café’s attentive patrons. “Because we are a ‘listening room,’ one can often hear the audience hanging off every word, note or lyric,” she says. “It feels like you are watching your [musical] heroes right in your own living room. When we presented Irish Mythen two years ago, I could hear the audience actually gasp when Irish hit her first note.”

One of the first musicians Bennett booked was Chad VanGaalen. “A different musical style from the artists the Dream Café had presented over the years — I was nervous whether we’d be able to attract enough of a younger audience,” she admits. “But on the night of the show we were totally sold out to a joyful room of younger, new faces. After the show several of the attendees hugged me on their way out and thanked me for bringing Chad to their town of Penticton.”

Bennett tips her hat to the “vision and relentless time and energy” of Pierre Couture, the Dream Café’s founder. She’s uncertain how such a small room will continue to operate in the post-pandemic future.

Sun shines on the exterior of Penticton's Dream Café. (Supplied by Dream Café)
The North

The North

The Local Bar

Whitehorse, Yukon

With a capacity of 300 and the largest stage and dance floor of any bar in Whitehorse, the Local Bar is a popular hangout for fans eager to catch their favourite local indie-rock acts.

It’s a colourful spot, so why the generic name? Darla Hansen, who took over the Local Bar in 2018, explains: “This venue started out many years ago as the 202, and honestly I knew it would not matter what I named it as everybody would still call it the 202 — and they do.” Whether you call it the 202 or the Local Bar, you’ll be impressed by the huge, quarter-scale World War II model aircraft hanging upside-down over the bar.

Hansen says the Local Bar hosts events all year long — none busier than the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous during which they host big shows for two straight weeks.

“When I took over the bar it had a ‘rough’ reputation,” Hansen concedes. “It has been difficult to turn the negative into a positive.” But she’s got help in that regard: “John Singh, my head doorman, is really awesome, he never misses a thing. And Carlo Filici can and will do anything we ask, from bartender, doorman, server, DJ, MC — he even plays with the band if they need a bassist. He is incredible.”

Hansen’s first New Year’s Eve as the Local Bar’s owner stands out in her memory. “The Velvet Steamrollers, a very talented local band, played their hearts out. In fact the drummer went through 14 sets of sticks, the dance floor was full the entire night and everyone had a fabulous time.”

Paris Pick and Aiden Tentrees perform at the Local Bar in Whitehorse. (Supplied by the Local Bar)

Our Lady of Victory Church

Inuvik, N.W.T.

Our Lady of Victory Church, commonly known as the Igloo Church, is a popular stop for musicians touring under the auspices of the Northern Arts and Culture Centre (NACC). The church, designed to emulate an igloo, was built in the late 1950s by Brother Maurice Larocque, a Catholic missionary to the Arctic and a master carpenter. “Engineers who visit are blown away that somebody with a Grade 5 education could build something so complex,” notes Peter Clarkson, former mayor of Inuvik and a past board member of the NACC.

The apex, supported by 36 wooden trusses, looms 27 feet overhead, creating a resonant acoustic for church services and concerts alike. “A function of the dome shape is that if you whisper on one side of the room, you can hear it clearly on the other,” explains Clarkson, who has vivid memories of performances by Alex Cuba, the Montreal Guitar Trio, Harry Manx, Reuben and the Dark and Jeremy Dutcher, among many others.

“I remember going to the centre of the space and really letting my soul voice sing and getting back such a healthy echo,” Dutcher recalls. “I was taken out the day before the show and we cut wood all day — not my usual pre-show routine. A lot of Indigenous people came to that show. I remember someone’s recollection that it was their first time in the space, and it felt really cool to be part of that.”

Soprano Patricia O’Callaghan performed at the Igloo Church on tour with the Gryphon Trio. “It was 40 below or colder for the entire tour, so that was the backdrop,” she recounts. “The audience was in full parkas and warm-up pants, and my thin velvet gown was obviously not going to cut it, so I just layered all the fanciest clothes I brought with me, one on top of the other. The real Igloo Church experience happened for me after the concert though. A few of us went out onto the ice highway around midnight to see the aurora borealis. They were the most spectacular I’ve ever witnessed. It felt truly miraculous. I’ve never been so happy and so cold at the same time.”

The apex of the Igloo Church is supported by 36 wooden trusses. (Wikimedia Commons)
Reuben and the Dark play the Igloo Church. (Supplied by Peter Clarkson)

Royal Canadian Legion

Iqaluit, Nunavut

A Q&A with Steve Rigby, drummer of two-time Juno nominees the Jerry Cans.

How did the Legion help the Jerry Cans get their start?

Having a space to play and perform every weekend or even as often as three times a week taught us how to play to a full crowd, a dead-empty crowd, over-enthusiastic crowds and maybe crowds you shouldn’t encourage. The level of playing we reached so that we could start touring the world you can only get from experience, and the Legion gave us that experience.

Who are you apt to hear at the Legion?

Mostly local artists including bands from other communities, Inuktitut-style square dance music, East Coast music, regular bar band cover stuff and the odd performing artist passing through town, which was always a treat.

Who are the patrons?

You have MLAs, city truck drivers, tradesmen, teachers, students, family members, policy analysts, the mayor, carvers — it’s literally for everyone. It also literally serves the community by providing breakfast programs for the schools, services for elders and the best open bar and roast beef buffet after hosting the Remembrance Day ceremonies next door.

Where do people go after a show?

Kulu’s was a chip truck that sat parked across the street from the Legion and would be packed at the end of the night. Poutine, poutine, poutine. It was also a sign that it was summertime when it showed up, so every year you’d hear someone cheer “Kulu’s is open!” and you knew it was that time of year again.

Who are the unsung heroes of the venue?

Taxi drivers. There is a stream of taxis that would line up at the door to handle the swarms that would cram them full at $8/head. So important in February when walking home is not an option.

What’s the best feedback you’ve received playing the Legion?

The best feedback is always either “My legs hurt!” from someone who danced too hard or the smile on the bartender’s face when we would play and they made great tips.

Prairie provinces

Tubby Dog

Calgary, Alta.

With its bright mustard and ketchup-coloured decor, Tubby Dog looks like a typical old-school diner that specializes in hot dogs with a wacky array of toppings. But this popular Calgary spot is also home to one of the city’s best alternative concert venues. Owner Jon Truch says Tubby Dog first started as “kind of a joke,” that the idea to sell hot dogs was just a way to attract more customers to their bar. But on any given night, concerts help pack the small 65-capacity space.

Eboshi and Contra of the Calgary rap group Cartel Madras used to live behind Tubby, and remember running down from their apartment and “stumbling into Tubby Dog to catch a punk show or a DJ set.” Whether it’s a hardcore punk show or an evening of blaring trap beats, Tubby provided a space for more niche acts. “We had the pleasure of giving Tubby Dog some of our best sets,” Cartel Madras explains via email. “Yelling into a soundsystem we usually forced to the brink of collapse, climbing onto whatever surface we could find to makeshift into a stage, we were able to test out and bring together the punk, trap, queer sensibilities of our sound into the venue.”

“Our memories of Tubby Dog, often blurry, usually involve a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other, yelling, ‘Who’s playing right now?’ into a stranger’s ear at 1 a.m.,” they continue. “It’s an essential Calgary spot, and truly a coming-of-age moment for every musician ready to have a rowdy, noisy and iconic night in the Prairies.”

Calgary's Tubby Dog is one of the city’s best alternative concert venues. (Tubby Dog/Facebook)
Tubby Dog is a venue for Calgary's Sled Island Music & Arts Festival. (Sled Island/Facebook)

Ironwood Stage & Grill

Calgary, Alta.


The Ironwood is awesome; Inglewood wouldn't be the same without it. It's a super fun stage to play and the way the room is set up makes the vibe really familiar and comfortable. Feels like a living room. They cook a good steak, too. — Corb Lund, winner of the 2006 Juno Award for roots and traditional album of the year


Boasting one of the only old-school marquees left in Calgary, the Ironwood Stage & Grill occupies the former Garry Theatre, an art deco treasure in the city’s historic Inglewood district.

“We are known for covering all genres of music — jazz, pop, country, folk, bluegrass, etc., with a focus on original music,” says the Ironwood’s owner, Patrick MacIntyre. “It really is magical to hear the room go from the buzz of conversation to dead silence when an artist takes the stage.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Ironwood was presenting more than 400 shows a year. Ian Tyson, Corb Lund, Bill Frisell, James McMurtry, Colin James, Dick Oats, the Skydiggers, Jimmy Rankin — just some of the musicians who’ve graced its stage.

MacIntyre got creative a few months into the pandemic. “We opened the door for live performances by creating an acceptable environment and, once approved, went around to other [establishments] to help them copy our design,” he explains.

The Ironwood’s staff and clientele are like a big family. “At any sold-out show, about 80 per cent of the patrons are regulars,” MacIntyre says. “My staff, front- and back-of-house, know every person who walks in the door. Some have been working with me for over 15 years. My latest hire, a waitress, complained that after five years she was still being referred to as the ‘new girl.’”

Open mic night is a popular occasion at the Ironwood Stage & Grill. (Ironwood/Facebook)

Yardbird Suite

Edmonton, Alta.

Located on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district, the 150-seat Yardbird Suite is the longest-running volunteer-supported jazz club in Canada. “The atmosphere is electric,” says Francis Remedios, president of the Yardbird Suite, which also boasts a youth band (Littlebirds) and a jazz education program for kids. Sheila Jordan, Steve Lacy and Pat Metheny are among the jazz stars who’ve played there, in addition to Edmonton’s own PJ Perry.

In 1957, when I was 16, I would visit Edmonton from Sylvan Lake, the summer resort that my father’s dance band was playing at seven nights a week. While in Edmonton, I would visit the small, smoky basement jazz club in the alley behind the Army and Navy and jam with the first creators of the Yardbird Suite. To the best of my memory they were: Tommy Banks, Phil Shragge, Terry Hawkeye, Ron Repka and Ken Chaney.

In subsequent years the Suite moved locations to where it sits now, not that far from the original site.

The best jazz musicians in the world look forward to playing the Suite, as it has a great piano, good acoustics, a state-of-the-art sound system, and most importantly an eager and knowledgeable audience. The Suite has also provided a stage and employment for local musicians and provides the catalyst for this very important art form, jazz.

— PJ Perry, Juno Award-winning saxophonist

The stage is set at Edmonton's Yardbird Suite. (Yardbird Suite/Facebook)

Starlite Room

Edmonton, Alta.

Cadence Weapon, in conversation with CBC Music (edited for brevity):

“When you get to play the Starlite Room, you know you’ve made it in Edmonton. Even just growing up, driving by, I was like, ‘That’s where all the shows happen,’ you know?

“I worked at the Starlite Room. I was the promotional manager there. I used to put up posters and give out fliers. I did that on top of DJing in the club below, which was the Victory Lounge. My first night I ever had was called the Youth Beat and I used to DJ every Tuesday night. That was one of my first ‘nightlife’ moments where I had my own event.

“[The Starlite Room] was a meeting place for the experimental electronic scene, the indie-rock scene, the underground rap scene. We would all have DJ nights there. That’s when I started realizing there was a local scene, because for me, I was just on the internet, reading magazines. I didn’t realize there was like a scene anywhere other than New York. And that’s when I started seeing my city in a different light.

“After working there for a bit and my music started going bigger, I ended up getting to play there. I opened for Questlove at the Starlite and that was an amazing show. You’ve got to understand, when I was growing up, big rap artists didn’t usually come to Edmonton. So it was very significant. Everyone remembers every show that happened in the rap scene. Like, we all remember when Nas came and we remember when Kardinal and De la Soul played, we remember all this stuff.

“The magic powers of the Starlite Room are all in the slanted floor. There’s just something destabilizing about it, that just makes every show feel kind of strange. The stage is quite high up — that was the first stage I ever jumped off. It’s like eight feet tall or something.

“I learned how to play at the Starlite Room. Before I played there, I was playing all these DIY venues that didn’t really have proper sound and were very small. Playing the Starlite, you get to interact with the crowd, like, I would be sitting on the edge of the stage, rapping to people. Jump off the stage, run laps around the crowd.”

The building that houses Edmonton's Starlite Room was designed by Herbert Magoon and George Heath MacDonald and was constructed in 1925 by the Salvation Army. (Starlite Room/Facebook)

The Geomatic Attic

Lethbridge, Alta.

Blink and you might miss the Geomatic Attic, a 100-seat concert space situated in a nondescript commercial subdivision on the east side of Lethbridge. “Performers almost always think they’re in the wrong place when they arrive for their first shows here,” says Mike Spencer, director of this non-profit venue known for presenting alt-country, Americana and blues, among other acts. “Thankfully, once they get upstairs they often rave about the ambiance we’ve created.”

Joel Plaskett, Hayes Carll, Whitehorse, Deep Dark Woods with Little Miss Higgins, Tom Wilson’s Lee Harvey Osmond project, Monkey Junk with Cousin Harley — just a few of the artists who’ve played the Geomatic Attic since it opened in 2009. “Often the musicians and bands play much bigger venues than ours and it can be special for the audience to see them in this very intimate setting,” Spencer notes.

“This was early in our touring days and as we fumbled through our looping technology, stomping on boxes and playing three instruments at once, the audience egged us on, not even 10 feet from our faces,” recalls Melissa McClelland of the duo Whitehorse. Her partner, Luke Doucet, admits to being conflicted about small venues. “Evolving to bigger spaces is the goal,” he says, “[but] the irony is that it’s impossible to replace the intimacy and we spend the rest of our careers trying to replicate it in bigger rooms. So much has to do with curating a welcoming environment when the space is as small as this. Geomatic is at the top of the pile.”

Monkey Junk performs at the Geomatic Attic in October 2016. (Supplied by Geomatic Attic)

Amigos Cantina

Saskatoon, Sask.

Before we even mention music, we need to give a shout-out to Amigos Cantina’s renowned Mexican cuisine. “We have a scratch kitchen,” says Jim Clarke, who books bands for Amigos. “All sauces, all meals are made in house.”

Come for the food, yes, but stay for Amigos Cantina’s stellar lineups of rock and alternative acts that have been attracting capacity crowds for more than three decades. “There’s nothing quite like watching a live band tear the roof off in a sweaty rock club six feet in front of you,” says Clarke.

The Halluci Nation (formerly A Tribe Called Red), Broken Social Scene, the Sadies, Rheostatics — some of the bands who’ve memorably torn Amigos’ roof off over the years. “Many touring acts cut their teeth here when they were just starting out, like Hollerado, the Smugglers, Pup, Arkells, Caribou, the list goes on,” Clarke adds.



This country needs more venues like Amigos. It’s the right size and the right kind of environment that helps to grow the careers of both local bands as well as touring bands from across the country. And they have good food, too. Never underestimate the importance of a venue with good food when you are on the road. — Bear Witness, the Halluci Nation


But things don’t always go according to plan, as Clarke recalls from early in Amigos’ history: “Country Dick Montana from the Beat Farmers was performing and walking on the tables and was struck on the head by a ceiling fan. He went down like a ton of bricks. I thought he would be going to the hospital and our sold-out show would be over. However he just got up, said into the mic, ‘Bartender, I’ll have another tequila,’ and the show went on.”

Mishaps aside, Amigos regularly hosts fundraisers for Girls Rock Saskatoon, “an amazing group that builds self-esteem in girls, women, trans, two-spirit and gender-expansive folks through music creation and performance,” Clarke says.

Alvvays performs at Amigos Cantina in Saskatoon. (Supplied by Amigos)

The Bassment

Saskatoon, Sask.

Operating out of Saskatoon’s old post office, a ’60s-era government building situated on 4th Avenue, the Bassment is the Prairies’ premiere jazz venue — although it may not seem like it at first glance.

“When you enter the building and make your way down the stairs and through the hallways, you have the feeling you are either going to have to give a urine sample or be interrogated by the police,” says Don Griffith, the Bassment’s artistic director. “When you make it into the club and turn the corner to face the stage, you finally relax.”

The club’s mandate is “to present, promote and foster jazz,” but Griffith says they pay a lot of bills by also presenting blues, roots, R&B and country. “Our biggest challenge is trying to get bigger crowds out for instrumental jazz shows,” he explains. “That’s a very tough sell in a small Prairie city.”

But with a top-notch backline, two grand pianos and a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie speaker, the Bassment has no trouble attracting top jazz talent to its stage. Griffith says organist Joey DeFrancesco’s 2014 performance was “probably the most amazing thing I have seen,” and it seems the feeling is mutual: “The Jazz Bassment is a soulful club, and I got a great vibe with the audience when I played there,” DeFrancesco tells CBC Music.

The Bassment also hosts the Saskatoon Blues Society’s Mid-Winter Blues Festival and partners with the Saskatoon Food Bank & Learning Centre for an annual PianoThon, a six-hour extravaganza featuring as many as 20 pianists. “Patrons donate cash and food and are treated to way too much piano,” adds Griffith. The club also hosts a two-night annual High School Big Band Festival featuring bands from across the province.

The Oliver Jones Trio plays the Bassment. (Supplied by Don Griffith)

Artesian on 13th

Regina, Sask.

Formerly Calvary Evangelical Missionary Church, this 175-seat concert venue is situated on Regina’s trendy 13th Avenue. “People love the hardwood floors, the proscenium arch, the vaulted ceilings, and the pew seating,” says Dana Rempel, managing director of the Artesian on 13th.

It’s the place to see folk, roots, indie-rock, jazz, world and classical music acts, often before they’re famous. “There are a lot of posters hanging in the green room featuring Andy Shauf as an opener. In many cases I don’t recognize the name of the act for whom he was opening,” says Rempel. The Jerry Cans, Lemon Bucket Orkestra (“they really showed us how to party”) Belle Plaine and Marshall Burns have also headlined the venue.

The Artesian on 13th has become a very strong artistic venue where people are like, “I don’t know who’s playing there on Friday, but I’m going to buy tickets for the show because I know it’s going to be great.”

[It’s] one of those venues where you’re like, “Maybe for the encore we should step offstage or turn off the mics and just play acoustic and let the soundwaves enter the people’s ears as it’s meant to be heard.” And because it’s tiny, with tiered seating, everyone’s looking at you and it just feels warm and welcoming. I’ve had it jam-packed and it feels like a complete party in this old church, which is a surreal experience.

— Karrnnel Sawitsky, fiddler and member of the Juno Award-winning group the Fretless

The Jerry Cans/Pai Gaalaqautikkut perform onstage at the Artesian on 13th. (Hot Tag Films)
The interior of the Artesian. (Supplied by the Artesian)

Happy Nun Café

Forget, Sask.


The Happy Nun Cafe is like Nashville’s famous Bluebird Café but in the middle of Saskatchewan. — Tenille Arts


When it comes to music, the town of Forget, Sask. (population 55), punches well above its weight, its secret weapon being the Happy Nun Café. “When the Nun is at her full capacity, we have double the size of our little town all under one roof,” says owner and chef Gayla Gilbertson, “and we form, in one night, our own little special community.”

The Nun’s décor features a bar from Forget’s old general store, salvaged wood from the convent, pressed tin from defunct implement dealerships, and shelves of books from small-town libraries — “some are over 100 years old and they are great for acoustics,” notes Gilbertson.

A popular midway stop for musicians on cross-country tours, the Nun is primarily a country, folk and blues venue. It has also been a spot for Saskatchewan artists, such as Tenille Arts, to get their start. “What happened when Tenille and her guitar hit the stage, I will never forget,” Gilbertson recalls. “The world stopped in the best possible way. The entire room was captivated. Nobody moved, people barely lifted a drink — all they were concerned with was her voice, her message and that exact moment.”

December is huge at the Nun. “We host a Christmas concert series every year with four weeks of concerts,” says Gilbertson. “The artists change from year to year but one artist, Jack Semple, has not missed a Christmas concert series since the Nun first opened in 2007.”

The Happy Nun is a gig a musician can depend on in this undependable time of gigs. It is a bonafide concert venue. People listen, the food is fantastic and the atmosphere is wonderful. Gayla and her crew work very hard to create a world-class experience for the audience and the performers. I love the “Nun.”

— Jack Semple, Juno Award-winning blues musician

Tenille Arts performs at the Happy Nun Café. (Supplied by the Happy Nun)

Lorne Watson Recital Hall

Brandon, Man.

The Lorne Watson Recital Hall is a wonderful venue — wonderful acoustics, and a really nice and intimate feel. And really comfortable seats for the audience. It also has a wonderful Steinway D piano, taken care of by one of the best technicians in the world, Mark Cramer. It has been an important centerpiece of Brandon’s musical community for almost 40 years. I have a lot of special memories from there myself.

— James Ehnes, 30-time Juno Award nominee, 11-time winner

The 200-seat Lorne Watson Recital Hall is situated inside Brandon University’s Queen Elizabeth II Music Building, which opened in 1984.

“It’s physically at the centre of the school and that’s not a terrible metaphor for its place and its importance to the school of music, the university and western Manitoba,” explains Greg Gatien, dean of Brandon University’s School of Music. “It’s acoustically brilliant — there’s not a seat where you’re not hearing super clearly at any dynamic level.”

Of course, the hall is used primarily for student activities — from solo piano recitals to jazz big band concerts — but it also hosts the annual Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition (“a great tradition”) as well as a Pro Series, “so that students and members of the community have opportunities to see [concerts by] professional musicians that reflect the music that’s being taught in the school,” says Gatien.

“Jeremy Dutcher did an incredibly captivating performance,” he recalls. “It was an audience of young and old, regular attendees of our Pro Series and people who had never set foot in the hall before — you know, every seat taken. The music was beautiful, unlike anything we had heard before, and it just was an electric evening. Time stood still. That’s probably the most amazing thing I’ve heard.”

The Brandon Chamber Players give a concert at Lorne Watson Recital Hall. (Aren Teerhuis)

Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club

Winnipeg, Man.

A Q&A with John Scoles, who manages the 150-seat venue known for presenting roots and blues acts since 2001.

What makes the Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club unique?

The club is housed in one of Winnipeg’s oldest buildings, the Fortune Block, erected in 1882 by real estate speculator and expert curler, Mark Fortune, who would later die on the Titanic.

Tell us about your venue’s name.

The (d) in Times Change(d) was supposed to look like a musical note but emojis hadn’t been invented yet so there was never a way to type it in the newspaper listings so that idea never really worked out.

Does your venue host any annual events?

Our best-known annual event is NeilFest, our tribute to Neil Young, which is now in its 16th year.

Has an artist gotten their start at your venue?

We like to lay claim to the Sheepdogs, but they’re from Saskatoon, so we’ll go with the Perpetrators instead.

What about musicians who’ve ended a tour there?

The Sadies and Corb Lund like to end their tours in Winnipeg so they can spend a little extra time hanging out with us.

Are there any noteworthy regular patrons at your venue?

Most of our patrons are characters. “It’s always Halloween at the Times Change(d)” is a popular saying.

Have there been any mishaps in your venue’s history?

One busy Saturday night the power went out, and we had a full house. I quickly threw together some flashlights under a little pile of scrap lumber, we pulled out some acoustic instruments, and Campfire Night was born. It became a regular tradition for years afterward.

What have been the biggest operational challenges you’ve faced?

We battled the sale and demolition of our building for years, until the Pollard family purchased and restored the building in 2015.

When COVID restrictions are lifted, what are your plans for starting up again?

We’ll start by doing outdoor events in the parking lot this summer.

What’s the best feedback you’ve received?

It was once described as “loaded with Tom Waitsian glitz.” I liked that.

The Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club is located at 234 Main St. in Winnipeg. (Jenny Ramone)

West End Cultural Centre

Winnipeg, Man.

William Prince, winner of best contemporary roots album at the 2018 Juno Awards (edited for brevity):

“The West End Cultural Centre really represents my introduction to the Winnipeg music scene. As the story goes, I first experienced live music here when I went to a Serena Ryder show and my now best friend, Scott Nolan, was the opener for that particular show. And it put into perspective the world I wanted to be a part of.

“The first time that I inquired about playing here, I was so green. I was doing coffee shop shows and ... after a lot of work, I finally had an album in hand that I could give to friends and perform from start to finish. [So] I called [executive director] Jason Hooper and, you know, having almost no money, I said I would make good on the CD sales to rent the building and we could split some tickets. And then Jason kind of chuckled and said, ‘You know, William, we’d like to help you present the show here. We would like to help make it a success for you.’ And I was absolutely blown away at the idea that I could make money and not really have any overhead.

“It has always been the starting point for the records I’ve made — and I almost feel like a record doesn’t come out without a show at the West End now. We got to release Reliever here with three shows back to back over the course of a weekend and celebrated with three audiences full of people who’ve watched this evolution, watched the journey.

“The sound is really terrific when you dial it in for quieter shows such as mine. I’ve played here solo a number of times as well as with the band, and each performance is, sonically, special in its own way. This is one of my favourite-sounding rooms in all of Canada.

“The West End Cultural Centre has always been here for me, and the staff have welcomed me back a number of times. And that’s a wonderful feeling to have, being a Winnipegger.”

William Prince performs onstage at the West End Cultural Centre in Winnipeg. (Matt Duboff)

Ontario

Townehouse Tavern

Sudbury

A Q&A with Veronica Desjardins, general manager of Sudbury’s Townehouse Tavern, which has been serving up rock, folk and everything in between alongside its popular pub fare since 1987.

What makes the Townehouse Tavern unique?

I would say our wedge-shaped building and sign are pretty iconic, which has been around since long before we purchased the building. Our bandroom is definitely famous, or infamous — depends on who you ask.

Is the Townehouse host to any annual events or festivals?

We have been the offsite venue for the Northern Lights Folk Festival since 1993, as well as the Up Here Festival and Jazz Festival. During non-pandemic times we host the Elgin Street Craft Beer Festival, with live indoor and outdoor performances.

Who has given an especially memorable performance at the Townehouse?

One that sticks out was the Lemon Bucket Orkestra during the Northern Lights Festival. Our bar was overflowing with people and the band took the performance offstage, through the crowd and outside. The energy was incredible, and it was definitely a show that you know people will never forget.

The last Sadies show was also pretty incredible. Every ounce of space was taken up with a lineup outside. They had built such a following over the years at the Townehouse that we knew to some degree how much fun it was going to be, but we really had no idea. It had been a while since we had seen a show draw in the crowd that they did. I can remember how incredible it felt for all of the staff.

Tell us something few people know about the Townehouse.

We have always opened on Christmas day at 10 p.m. for our regulars. It used to be quite exclusive, but over the years it has grown to quite the event. Ultimately, we keep the lights off outside, we don’t answer the phone, and our calendar stays blank; but inside is a giant family of Townehouse-goers.

Wine Lips play the Townehouse. (Townehouse Tavern/Facebook)
'Our wedge-shaped building and sign are pretty iconic.' — Veronica Desjardins, general manager (Townehouse Tavern/Facebook)

Aeolian Hall

London

Founding artistic director Clark Bryan’s five outstanding moments from Aeolian Hall history:

2005: the first of many appearances by Buffy Sainte-Marie

“I remember going to pick her up in Toronto, and asking her, ‘After all these years, what keeps you going in this crazy industry?’ And she said something very wise like, ‘Well, I just try to do things that make me happy.’ She’s one of the reasons I’m still doing what I’m doing.”

2010: ‘giant musician’ Chick Corea took the stage

“I brought him [to Aeolian Hall] the first time in 2010 and he just fell in love. He showed up onstage in his sweatpants — like he was in his own living room. What a giant musician, the biggest giant I think I’ve ever met. He later sent me this unsolicited testimonial about the hall and the people and how he would recommend all his friends come and play here.”

2010: Stephan Moccio’s album release party

“His instrumental album, called Colour, really put him on the map. He did the album launch at Aeolian Hall and then a workshop, which was fascinating. He showed all the songwriting steps for the song ‘A New Day’ that he wrote for Céline Dion.”

2014: superlative pianist Fred Hersch’s first concert

“Astonishment, intrigue, a lot of superlatives. People came away feeling like they had really heard something different and special. It’s hard to describe how gifted he is. I said to him, ‘How can you make all those inner voices sound with the thumb of your left hand?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, it just has a mind of its own.’”

2017: Vienna Boys Choir ran their own show

“[The boys] all had their little wooden boxes with their patent leather shoes and they ran the show, basically. They had to get all the stuff out of the buses and be the roadies. It’s not the way we tend to run kids’ programs here, but it’s a good way and teaches us a lot.”

Aeolian Hall was designed by George F. Durand and built between 1883 and 1884 and served many purposes — town hall, fire station, courthouse and public school — before becoming a concert hall. (Supplied by Aeolian Hall)

The Casbah

Hamilton

Four tales from the Casbah, as told by owner and operator, Brodie Schwendiman:

1. “A favourite story comes from a band that formed among school friends at McMaster University circa 2004. Charlemagne was a great group of young guys, and they were getting gigs in our room opening for some of their Canrock heroes ([Joel] Plaskett, Cuff the Duke, Deadly Snakes) and studying for exams between gigs. It was their beginning. Eventually they changed their name, signed a record deal and became what we now know as Arkells. Others that got their start here: the Dirty Nil, Monster Truck, Young Rival, Ellevator.”

2. “In August 2009, a friend of the venue who works in artist management called us and asked if we’d be interested in hosting a ‘secret show for a very cool and popular band.’ This band was scheduled to play a few end-of-summer festivals but due to the nature of these shows being reunion gigs, they were, as you say, ‘out of practice’ and needed stage time together. The band was OK with having 100 people in the room, so we announced a show as, ‘Pay us 20 bucks for a band we promise you will feel was the best 20 you ever spent, but we can’t tell you who it is.’ We sold the 100 tickets within a day. On Aug. 28, 2009, we hosted a secret show for the Pixies.”

3. “Hollywood actor Juliette Lewis brought her band, the Licks, to our venue 12 years ago. During the day, her band rehearsed on our stage while she spent the day in our office studying for an online academic course she was taking. Hours later she lit our room on fire with her furious rock assault.”

4. “Just one year ago, in March 2020, Hamilton-based group Ellis was about to embark on their North American run of dates to promote their full-length Born Again. The band got their tour-launch gig out of the way to a capacity crowd here at the Casbah on March 5. That weekend everything was shut down. Greatest sold-out tour of all time — one gig of bliss.”

The Casbah is located at 306 King St. W. in Hamilton. (The Casbah/Facebook)

The Mod Club

Toronto

Toronto’s Mod Club first opened its doors in 2002, but one of its most famous concerts took place in 2011. A Scarborough R&B artist who went by the name the Weeknd had been gaining a lot of buzz thanks to his debut mixtape, House of Balloons. The release had captured the attention of local and international press, but the singer (real name Abel Tesfaye) remained a mystery. Barely anyone had even seen his face.

This mounting anticipation, as well as an almighty Drake/OVO co-sign, led to the Weeknd’s debut performance at the Mod Club being one of the venue’s most sought-after hot-ticket events. (The Mod Club’s capacity is 600 so the show sold out quickly.)

When Tesfaye finally stepped onto the stage on July 24, 2011, the moment felt like an immediate coronation: his mere silhouette emerging from the bright lights sparked an explosion of applause and Drake was spotted leaning over the second-floor balcony overseeing his protégé’s big moment. The Weeknd’s set was praised as a “perfect premiere” by Now Magazine, securing a spot in Toronto music history, which has since been memorialized with a mural of the Weeknd’s face inside the Mod Club.

When the venue announced its closure (one of its owners has since announced plans to reopen the venue under a new name), the Weeknd posted a photo of that 2011 concert on his Instagram. The post, which was liked by 1.1 million people, simply said: “Mod Club. The stage that changed my life.”

The Weeknd plays the Mod Club on July 24, 2011. (The Weeknd/Instagram)

Cameron House

Toronto

“It’s a labour of love,” says Cosmo Ferraro, whose family has been running Cameron House for 40 years. Situated in the heart of Toronto’s Queen Street West strip, the Cameron is an instantly recognizable landmark, its exterior covered in murals. “It’s routinely included in Toronto’s most ‘Instagrammable’ locations,” Ferraro notes.

Inside the Cameron, under the ceiling painted by artist Sybil Goldstein, you’ll hear a reliably excellent lineup of rock, indie, folk or country music acts. Ferraro says patrons often tell him, “If you’re in the mood for live music, you can show up and be confident there will be a great band playing, every single night.”

Cameron House offers residencies to musicians, who get to perform on the same day and time every week, for an extended period. “Through this, we’ve helped many artists develop their craft and build an audience,” Ferraro notes. One such artist was Juno Award winner Justin Rutledge.

I owe my career to the Cameron House. When I independently pressed my first album in 2003, I trudged up and down Queen Street handing out CDs to venues in the hopes of landing a gig. Paul at the Cameron House was the only one who gave me a shot. A regular slot was opening on Monday nights and he gave it to me. I didn’t even have a band at the time so I haphazardly threw one together somehow and started performing the following week: Monday nights at 10 p.m. til closing time, three sets.

After a while, the room started to gradually fill. After a few months, Bazil Donovan from Blue Rodeo started attending my shows. After one night’s performance he approached me and, handing out a $20 bill, asked if he could buy an album. I told him that I was a big fan of his band and gave him a CD, but said he could keep his money. Bazil shoved the cash in my pocket and said, “Listen kid, if you want to make it in the music business the first thing you have to learn is take the money, because it may not come around again.” A valuable lesson indeed.

— Justin Rutledge

Cameron House's exterior is decorated with murals. (Supplied by Cosmo Ferraro)
Ferraro plays the Cameron. (Supplied by Cosmo Ferraro)

The Horseshoe Tavern

Toronto

Many music fans in Toronto have an intimate relationship with the Horseshoe Tavern — the vandalized bathrooms, the fading stickers that adorn its walls, the employees you either know by face or name, and that much-coveted spot just left of the stage that beams down a blast of air conditioning.

But the most important part is the music: the acts that built the Queen Street bar’s reputation in the ’60s and ’70s (Stompin’ Tom Connors, the Band, Bruce Cockburn), the international stars who’ve stopped by (Loretta Lynn, the Police, the Ramones), those who got their start performing at the ’Shoe’s no-charge Nu Music Nights (Kathleen Edwards, Nickelback, Billy Talent), and many more.

The Horseshoe Tavern first opened in 1947, and the building itself dates back to 1861 when it was a blacksmith shop. It has evolved a lot over the years — its size has shrunk, its layout tweaked — but the one thing that has stayed the same is its vibrant musical spirit, which quickly became, as Jim Cuddy describes it to CBC Music, “a refuge for musicians.”

There have been too many legendary moments to name here, but the beauty of the Horseshoe is that everyone who has visited has had their own collection of memorable experiences. For me, it was seeing St. Vincent for the first time, dancing (and sweating profusely) to a Tune-Yards set, and spotting Ed Sheeran leaving a Much Music Video Awards after party.

They don’t call it the “legendary” Horseshoe Tavern for nothing. Its stories have been preserved in books and documentaries because it’s not just a music venue; it’s an integral piece of Canadian music history.

Melody Lau, CBC Music

Photos: Horseshoe Tavern/Facebook.

Hugh's Room

Toronto

In early March 2020, Hugh’s Room announced that it had been priced out of the Dundas Street West location it had been renting for nearly two decades, and was looking for a new home. “Please be assured that we have every intention of continuing to thrive as a music venue in Toronto,” read a message to patrons.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged out that relocation, but one senses that Hugh’s Room’s spirit is intact. “We are here to connect artists with audiences,” says Mary Stewart, the manager of the 200-seat venue known for its lineup of singer-songwriters and folk, jazz and blues musicians.

“There have been multiple legendary performances in the room,” Stewart recalls. “One that stands out to me was Jeff Daniels, who packed up his family and dogs and drove up to Canada to put on a show with his sons. Odetta performed one of her final shows with Ken Whitley during his gospel brunch series before her passing. Joni Mitchell joined Eric Andersen onstage for a duet.”

Stewart says Hugh’s Room’s annual Gordon Lightfoot tribute with Jory Nash is a highlight, as well as a “discovery” series that Jane Harbury hosted. “Serena Ryder, Moscow Apartment and JP Saxe, among countless others, participated in it,” she notes.

“Hugh’s Room has a very special place in my heart,” reflects two-time Juno Award nominee Dione Taylor. “I did my 2015 CD release party there for my album Born Free, and that’s actually where I debuted my prairie blues sound.”

Taylor describes Hugh’s Room as a “safe place” for people to express themselves. “It is really great for inspiring creativity and for diversity,” she says. “I’ve seen high school and college students. I’ve seen people come with their kids and have lunch while they take in a show. I’ve seen older people there. I’ve seen people who are veterans in the music scene. I’ve seen people who are just music lovers. It’s a great room for all types of people to gather together.”

A scene from the 2019 edition of Songs of Nick Drake, an annual event at Hugh's Room. (Supplied by Hugh's Room)

Lula Lounge

Toronto
Traffic whizzes past Toronto's Lula Lounge. (Anna Encheva)

There isn’t a place in Canada weaving a richer musical tapestry than Lula Lounge, operating since 2002 in a former theatre and Ukrainian dance hall on Toronto’s Dundas Street West.

The dinner club is especially known for presenting Latin, Brazilian, global roots, African and jazz music. “But we’ve hosted everything from classical, blues and new music to rock, klezmer and zydeco,” notes Tracy Jenkins, Lula Lounge’s general manager. Okan, Eliana Cuevas and David Virelles are among the Canadians who cut their teeth there.

“Presenting international groups like Korea’s Kim So Ra and the Zimbabwean group Nobunto for the first time in Toronto was very exciting,” Jenkins continues, adding a long list of memorable performances from Lula Lounge lore: “Cuban legends such as Isaac Delgado, Jesus Alemañy, Haila Mompai, Anacaona and Eliades Ochoa; Brazil’s Seu Jorge, South Africa’s Mahotella Queens, [and] going back a while, John Cale, Sloan, Broken Social Scene and Metric.”

A bonus: on Friday and Saturday evenings, you can participate in dance lessons at Lula Lounge and bust your moves to salsa, bachata, reggaeton and Top 40.

During the quiet months of the pandemic, Jenkins says they got busy building a new mezzanine area that will increase Lula Lounge’s capacity from 250 to 340. “We will be opening a patio this summer and hope people will visit and do some quality control by ordering mojitos — just to make sure we haven’t lost our touch.”

At Lula you can hear everything from jazz, pop and salsa, to ska, Brazilian and Jewish music and because of that it’s also a place where these genres collide and cross-pollinate. So many bands have played some of their very first gigs at Lula and come to feel like it is a home for them.

— Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne of Juno-nominated duo Okan

The Rex

Toronto

Three Juno Award-winning jazz saxophonists tell us what they love about the Rex.

“The Rex is vital to the mental health of musicians and music lovers. I started touring my music in 1999, and whenever I have had a chance to drop in with my ensemble from Canada, the U.S. or Europe, the Rex opened its doors wide for me. Memories include bringing in beautiful Swedish sounds with Maggi Olin, as well as numerous visits with my sister Ingrid in all sorts of formations, along with a keen listening audience (as long as there were no intense hockey games on the screen). One of my favourite memories, and most recent, was working with my longtime mentor Pat Labarbera there in January 2019. He schooled me hard on that stage yet again.”

— Christine Jensen

“Not many jazz clubs can afford to be in that prime of a location and remain an affordable option for most people. For a reasonable cover charge, audiences can hear the best jazz musicians from Toronto as well as from across Canada and around the world. The jazz community owes the Ross family, Tom Tytel, and all the Rex staff a big thank you for their dedication to presenting this music.

“One of the most memorable experiences for me was playing with my former teacher from New York, Dave Liebman, during the International Jazz Educators Conference in the early 2000s. The gig was packed with musicians from all over the world and the energy was incredible. These gigs with Liebman happened sporadically over the next decade and we ended up recording two albums together. The last one, Live at U of T, was nominated for a 2019 Juno, and marked the end of Liebman’s tenure as a visiting adjunct professor there from 2016 to 2019. All of this was sparked by that first Rex gig and I am incredibly grateful for the experience.”

— Mike Murley

The Rex is situated at 194 Queen St. West in Toronto. (The Rex/Facebook)

“Prior to the pandemic, the Rex hosted two to four bands on any given day. With such a high volume of band and artist turnaround, the majority of jazz musicians in Toronto, and across Canada, end up performing there at some point in their career. Jazz musicians also flock to the Rex to listen to their peers or touring acts from the U.S. or abroad. As a result, the venue has become a hub for the community where jazz musicians congregate to perform, listen and socialize with others.”

— Allison Au

The Grad Club

Kingston

While the Grad Club looks like any other heritage home nestled in the heart of Queen’s University’s limestone campus, hiding behind its charming façade is a nearly 60-year-old concert venue — one of Kingston’s only tour-stop staples.

If the Grad Club’s walls could speak, the stories would be rich — but next best is manager Virginia Clark’s vivid memories from her 21 years as manager of the club.

With a capacity of 200 (100 in the music area), the intimate old house breeds a sought-after feeling of grassroots connection, with Clark noting that you “can literally have a chat with the artists between songs, if you wanted.”

During her storied tenure, Clark has witnessed a fallen tree kill power during a Cuff the Duke set (remedied by many extension cords), crowd-surfing during a Death From Above 1979 show, spontaneous open mic with members of Broken Social Scene, a surprise Neko Case cameo during a Sadies show and a particularly memorable Bruce Cockburn bribe (the singer-songwriter was permitted admission to a sold-out Sarah Harmer show, on the condition that he played a little something).

Most famously, however, the Grad Club stage nurtured burgeoning local rock band the Tragically Hip, who would play three-night residencies, Thursdays through Saturdays, during their earliest days.

While the venue is a second home for many students, its name is accurate — non-students and locals also cherish the Grad Club as a laidback haven for good food and music. Locals Dan Webb and his partner Phileen commonly host touring artists at their home — providing them with meals and a fridge full of beverages, while always insisting on paying for their own tickets and vinyl after the show.

Through the decades, the club has seen its fair share of obstacles — namely, winning a 2005 fight against the university’s proposed demolition to make room for a traffic circle, and now, a COVID-19 closure. But, undoubtedly, a venue with roots so strongly embedded in the musical fabric of Ontario’s oldest city won’t go down without a fight.

“We just want to send our love to all those venues who, like us, are so very afraid of closing our doors forever,” says Clark. “We cannot wait until the day comes where we can come together to hear live music and experience the joy of a concert at the Grad Club.”

Photos by Johnny Lam.

Alex Cuba plays the Grad Club.
The Grad Club exterior.
The Grad Club patio.
Staff serve beverages at the Grad Club.

Wilno Tavern

Wilno

“One of my most memorable nights was a Christmas concert with the Good Lovelies — a magical evening,” reminisces Corinne Higgins, who runs Wilno Tavern, situated in Ontario’s Madawaska Valley.

“Although the Wilno Tavern has been operating for almost 130 years, we only started hosting music events in the mid-1980s, beginning with neighbourhood players such as Barney McCaffrey, the Wilno Express and Stoppa Lake Melodiers,” Higgins explains. “We evolved to more regular scheduled sessions with our weekly Tuesday Nite Blues Jam, a monthly country jam and nights featuring blues artists from all over Canada and the U.S.”

The 85-seat establishment is also known for its traditional, rib-sticking Polish cuisine. “Our friends and regulars are enthusiastic supporters of all genres of live music and they love to dance,” Higgins notes. “Visiting musicians are often blown away with the appreciation they receive from our community and love our intimate rural atmosphere.”

I remember the show being hilarious, the audience being one of the most interactive crowds we’ve ever had — lots of banter back and forth between Caroline, Sue, and I and the crowd — and I remember eating my weight in pierogies after the show.

Small venues across Ontario and Canada (and the world) are the places where we honed our craft and developed our show, and figured out what songs and jokes worked, and it’s how we met some of our biggest fans. Some of the folks in the crowd at the Wilno Tavern still come to our bigger theatre gigs these days, and I think it’s equally fun for them to see how we’ve grown as it is for us to remember where we started.

— Kerri Ough, member of the roots-pop trio the Good Lovelies

Tuesday Night Blues Jam is a popular weekly highlight at the Wilno Tavern. (Supplied by Wilno Tavern)

House of Targ

Ottawa

Nestor Chumak, bassist in Juno Award-winning rock band Pup:

“April 16, 2014. We rolled into Ottawa a day before the grand opening. At the time, and probably still to this day, we were not what you’d call a ‘professional’ touring group. We’d miss a soundcheck if we could; the bare minimum being our modus operandi. This time was different. We used our band van to do liquor store runs with the newly minted liquor licence; we helped sand the wooden bar countertop before the final coat of varnish; we even soundchecked the new backline. There were at least 20 to 30 others volunteering their time. Punks, metalheads, pinball enthusiasts, bartenders. Everyone knew this place would be special and we all wanted to work hard to make it succeed.

“Pup was the first band to play at the House of Targ, at least the Bank Street location. But I’d be remiss if I did not mention that Targ existed for years before 2014. The old spot on Main Street was a DIY rehearsal space, recording studio, band flat, arcade and venue to countless noise/punk/metal shows. We played, recorded and slept there a handful of times. When I think of our wilder early days, it would likely be our times at the old Targ. And when I’m thinking about our most fun and memorable shows, it’s the new Targ. Targ has evolved but what was special then remains to this day. Since Targ is run by people in bands, the level of care and support for the music scene is unreal. They offer a safe space for all-ages shows when not a lot of other venues do. Every lineup is considered and interesting. Not to mention there’s pinball and pierogies. I know we can’t wait to hear the clacks of the dozen pinball games in between songs, then having our lead singer, Stefan [Babcock], slammed into the ceiling, crowd-surfing, while a tray of hot dogs goes flying through the audience — trust me, a uniquely Targ experience.”

Joyful Talk plays House of Targ on April 11, 2019. (House of Targ/Facebook)

Quebec

Venturing Hills Concert Studio

Luskville

Climb the stairs to this converted hayloft about 40 minutes outside Ottawa–Gatineau and find yourself in a 100-seat recital hall that’s home to the year-round Pontiac Enchanté chamber music series, run by local musician brothers Carson and Tait Becke. The 20-odd horses in the stables below can often be heard neighing and stomping during concerts. “The farm is nestled into the base of the Eardley Escarpment on the border of Gatineau Park,” explains co-director Carson. “When guests arrive at the venue, they’re spellbound by the imposing cliffs rising up hundreds of metres directly behind the barn.”

Carson describes an intimate concert experience: “There is a sense of total connection between the performers and the audience. This is how chamber music was meant to be performed and listened to: in a small, informal venue, where people can relax and feel as if the musicians are playing to them directly.”

With an emphasis on introducing emerging classical musicians to new audiences, the Venturing Hills Concert Studio also prides itself on making environmental sustainability part of its core mission.

“The interior of our venue is all unfinished wood that came from an Ottawa-based company called Log’s End, which retrieves ‘lost’ timbers from 19th-century Ottawa Valley logging operations from the bottom of the Ottawa River,” says Carson. “So, contained in the floors and walls of our space is a major piece of the Ottawa Valley’s lumber history.”



Carson and Tait Becke's hard work to make live-streamed concerts possible [during the pandemic] has paid off. It's an incredible feeling as a performer to share live music from this intimate space to people in real time around the world! — Amy Hillis, violinist


Musicians await their performance at Venturing Hills Concert Studio. (Supplied by Carson Becke)
Venturing Hills Concert Studio is nestled into the base of the Eardley Escarpment. (Supplied by Carson Becke)

Blacksheep Inn

Wakefield

Overlooking the Gatineau River in picturesque Wakefield, Que., the 150-seat Blacksheep Inn has been presenting art-pop, folk, blues, R&B, soul and funk to enthusiastic crowds since 1994.

And not just music, either: “For many years we’ve been the village community centre and have hosted countless political events, meetings, debates, even Justin Trudeau’s leadership campaign launch,” explains owner-operator and self-described parking attendant Paul Symes.

“This is exactly like Preservation Hall!” exclaimed Jeff Healey from the stage of the Blacksheep Inn during a concert with his Jazz Wizards, comparing it to the venerable New Orleans jazz establishment — the “highest/best compliment ever,” Symes says.

In September 2004, Arcade Fire kicked off its Funeral tour at the Blacksheep. Jim Cuddy launched his first post-Blue Rodeo tour there, too. Serena Ryder and Kathleen Edwards both started out doing opening sets for established acts at the Blacksheep before making names for themselves. Symes has especially fond memories of concerts by Patrick Watson, Half Moon Run, Mac DeMarco, Do Make Say Think, Grizzly Bear and Final Fantasy, to name a few.

By day, it’s a tavern serving pub food, but by night, the Blacksheep is a juke joint cabaret where you’re as likely to catch an acoustic trio (“pin-drop silence and audience attention are legendary,” says Symes) as a full-throttle rock or soul band that packs the dance floor.

The Blacksheep Inn overlooks the Gatineau River in the small rural village of Wakefield, Que. (Supplied by the Blacksheep Inn)

La Sala Rossa & Casa del Popolo

Montreal

“Without Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa, there would have been no international Montreal indie explosion in the mid-2000s,” argues Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner.

First established in 2000, these sister venues, which are located across the street from one another on the popular St. Laurent Boulevard, played an integral role in the development of the indie-rock scene that launched the careers of Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, the Dears and the Unicorns. (The venues, which also act as a cafe and restaurant by day, were founded by Godspeed You! Black Emperor bassist Mauro Pezzente and his wife, Kiva Stimac.)

According to Boeckner, one of many musicians who cut their teeth playing in these spaces, Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa provided a “middle ground between the DIY all-ages venues most of us were used to playing and the more standard dive bars and rock clubs that were hostile or indifferent to the type of music we were making.”

“Playing at Sala or Casa meant you could perform on a real stage, with a real sound system, and get paid to do it by people who were in the community,” Boeckner continues. “By the time Wolf Parade played our first show at Sala Rossa, I’d seen dozens of bands there and the feeling of being on the other side, of being wired and nervous with pre-show adrenaline and looking out to see a packed house full of friends, is something I’ll never forget.”

In June 2020, Pezzente and Stimac closed one of their other spaces, La Vitrola, due to mounting debt. While Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa remain safe from closure for now, Boeckner urges cities to protect spaces like this that he says “encourage a scene to be born.”

He adds: “If cities care about the benefits of the cultural products they produce, they need to start thinking of places like Sala and Casa as investments and support them as much as possible.”

Sun shines on patrons at Montreal's Casa del Popolo. (Casa del Popolo/Facebook)
A band performs for a packed crowd at Montreal's La Sala Rossa. (Casa del Popolo/Facebook)

Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill

Montreal

“A jazz club is more than a venue. It is a place where the community comes together,” muses Joel Giberovitch, who has been at the heart of that community since taking over Montreal’s Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill in 1995.

“The room is rectangular with a mixture of stone and wood walls,” he explains. “Over the years, a lot of music has been absorbed by the walls. Although it’s not tangible, it definitely adds to the ambiance and sound of the club.”

Highlights from 25-plus years include performances by Jeff Healey (“gracious, larger than life and a natural entertainer”), Sheila Jordan (a friend of journalist, radio host and Upstairs fixture Len Dobbin) and — believe it or not — Supertramp (“they were on tour in Montreal, came and jammed on a Monday night [and] hung at the club all week”).

Upstairs also hosts shows during the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the Off Festival, presents weekly jam sessions and enjoys a close association with McGill and Concordia universities.

Giberovitch tips his hat to chef Juan Barros: “He has been alongside me for more than 22 years. One of his joys is to feed the musicians and listen to their stories.”

I have a special place in my heart for Upstairs and for Montreal audiences, having lived in the city for four years and played in the club numerous times. Upstairs has an intimate vibe, great sound, great food, wonderful staff and of course warm and enthusiastic audiences — all perfect ingredients for sharing great music. Owner Joel Giberovitch has made it a place for musicians to showcase their own music and it remains one of Canada’s most important venues for jazz musicians.

— Mike Downes, Juno Award-winning jazz bassist

Christian Scott plays Upstairs. (Supplied by Joel Giberovich)
Benny Golson plays Upstairs. (Supplied by Joel Giberovich)
Azar Lawrence plays Upstairs. (Supplied by Joel Giberovich)

Club Balattou

Montreal

The story of Club Balattou is basically the story of Lamine Touré, a former dancer in the national ballet of Guinea who moved to Montreal in 1974 and became a godfather of African music in Canada.

In 1985, when he opened his night club with its iconic black-and-white sign on vibrant St. Laurent Boulevard, Touré dreamed of a place where people from all backgrounds would come to dance to the music of Africa, the French and English Caribbean and Latin America. It was to be a bal à tous, which is how Club Balattou got its name.

Touré attracted top acts from abroad to play his Montreal club, with a capacity of 150. “Most of these artists would play in stadiums in Africa and then they would come here and we had them in an intimate venue with such good music,” says Suzanne Rousseau, managing director of Nuits d’Afrique, the annual summer festival that started at Club Balattou and soon expanded to outdoor stages, partly so children could attend and absorb the culture, too.

Touré and Club Balattou have been immortalized in a number of songs, such as “Balattou à Montréal” by Congo’s Dally Kimoko, and when musicians arrive to perform at the club they’re often amazed to see a man of Touré’s reputation humbly greeting patrons at the door.

Those patrons often include other musicians. In a photo hanging in Club Balattou’s entrance, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler can be seen enjoying a performance by famed group Bombino from Niger. “The intimacy, the soul and the exchange with the public — artists love that,” says Rousseau.

Photos: Club Balattou/Facebook.

Bourgie Hall

Montreal

Before Bourgie Hall became Montreal’s premiere chamber music venue, it was Erskine and American United Church, an impressive stone structure on Sherbrooke Street, where it looms over the shops, restaurants and nightclubs of the nearby Crescent Street strip. As a student at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in the 1990s, I made “beer money” singing in that church’s choir. (I also made lifelong friends, honed my musicianship and gained a deep appreciation for sacred choral music along the way.)

I was saddened when dwindling attendance caused Erskine and American United Church to close its doors in the early 2000s, but then relieved when it was acquired by the next-door Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and transformed into a first-rate, 462-seat concert facility, named after philanthropist Pierre Bourgie, that presents a well-curated lineup of mostly classical music, but also global music and jazz.

Bourgie Hall’s 10th anniversary celebrations were subdued by COVID-19, but during the past decade I’ve heard unforgettable performances there by Louis Lortie, La Nef, David Jalbert, the New Orford String Quartet, Stéphane Tétreault, Les Violons du Roy, Karina Gauvin, I Musici de Montréal, Pentaèdre and Charles Richard-Hamelin, to name just a few. Bourgie Hall also hosts the quarter-final and semifinal rounds of the Montreal International Musical Competition, an annual binge for classical music obsessives, and regularly presents concerts in conjunction with exhibitions at the MMFA.

Each time I attend a concert at Bourgie Hall, under the gaze of the characters depicted in the gorgeous Tiffany stained-glass windows, I’m reminded of my choir days and am grateful for the music that still resounds there all these years later.

Robert Rowat, CBC Music

Montreal's Bourgie Hall celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2020. (Supplied by Bourgie Hall)

Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Montcalm

Quebec City

If you’ve ever visited Quebec City, you’ve walked past Palais Montcalm, the elegant art deco structure that dominates the public square right outside the gate to Old Quebec. Built in the 1930s as a sports and cultural facility, Palais Montcalm was completely transformed and reopened in 2007 as a “maison de la musique,” the centrepiece of which is the 962-seat Salle Raoul-Jobin, a state-of-the-art facility named after the famed Canadian tenor.

Les Violons du Roy gave the inaugural concert at Salle Raoul-Jobin and have been the ensemble in residence at Palais Montcalm ever since. The venerable Club musical de Québec presents its classical recitals there, too.

Palais Montcalm curates more than 60 concerts a year, ranging from jazz to global music to rock and pop. Anoushka Shankar, Tanya Tagaq, Rick Wakeman, Wayne Shorter, Agnes Obel, Stacey Kent, Pat Metheny and Johnny Clegg have all made memorable appearances. Visiting musicians are often captivated by Salle Raoul-Jobin’s Casavant organ and incorporate it into their shows. These include Chilly Gonzales and the Montreal-based rock band GrimSkunk.

In November 2019, Salle Raoul-Jobin was the venue for a 50th-anniversary celebration of Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The concert, which featured Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, the Paul DesLauriers Band and l’Orchestre symphonique de Québec, won a 2021 Prix Opus.

With its excellent acoustics and piano, Salle Raoul-Jobin also serves as a recording studio for Canada’s leading classical record labels.

It has always been a joy and privilege to make music in that space. The hall feels spacious and intimate at the same time and the sound is both clear and warm whether you are onstage or in the audience. The piano (the most important feature of any concert venue in my case) is one of the finest in the whole country: a wonderful Steinway D from Hamburg that is maintained by Marcel Lapointe, the best piano technician I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

— Charles Richard-Hamelin, four-time Juno Award nominee

Atlantic Canada

The Caveau

Moncton, N.B.


The club has an awesome vibe, almost like performing in a dungeon. A perfect setting for metal, and music of all types. — Ken Cook, member of Juno Award-winning rock band Anciients


It can be difficult at first to locate the entrance of the Caveau. Situated across the street from the Moncton Public Library, the front door of this music venue is around the back corner of the 700 Main St. building. Once inside, you are treated to what Anciients guitarist Ken Cook describes as a “dungeon”: gothic archways and Medieval-style stone walls. It’s the perfect setting for punk and metal acts — genres that this venue specializes in — but the Caveau books an array of artists in different genres. Cook also shouts out the “great staff and crew, which made the evening great on all fronts,” noting that, even though Anciients have only performed there once, that they would be excited to return in the future, backing the idea that this is indeed “Moncton’s raddest live venue.”

Photos: J.P. Chiasson; supplied by Kyle McDonald.

The Cap

Fredericton, N.B.

The Cap is small; it feels small as soon as you walk in,” explains Penelope Stevens, current booker for the venue and member of Fredericton band Motherhood, which has played the Cap regularly over the last decade.

“That kind of small that makes you think, ‘How the heck could Braids, Chad VanGaalen, Weaves or Ben Caplan ever have played here?’”

Established in 1998, the Cap (formerly the Capital Complex) is made up of three intimate rooms, with capacities of 80, 120 and 130 people. The small-but-mighty spaces each have exposed brick and are adaptive, with the main floor operating as a record store/retail space by day, then “when we flip to the evening, our record bins have lids placed on them to create table tops” for a show space, as former venue booker and now owner Zachary Atkinson describes. The two rooms upstairs — the Nest and Wilser’s Room — act as a co-work space by day/seated lounge by night and host weekly open mic nights and other events, respectively.

“The Cap is an increasing rarity in the Canadian music scene — a dedicated music venue that’s artist-run and [artist]-friendly,” says Stevens, who added that Motherhood has likely played the Cap more than 100 times, including for her first-ever show. “In a small, sleepy town like Fredericton, N.B., its very existence defies the odds as so many small venues across the country continue to fold.”

Motherhood plays at the Cap. (Brody LeBlanc)

Seahorse Tavern

Halifax, N.S.

The Seahorse is both a legend and an anomaly, as it’s one of Halifax’s oldest bars — but it’s only lived in its current home below the Marquee since 2015. Owner Victor Syperek moved the Seahorse from downtown Halifax to the north end to take over the basement space that used to be Hell’s Kitchen, also a storied, smaller-sized live music venue.

It’s where Joel Plaskett and his band, the Emergency, started coalescing their shows, prepping for a bigger room upstairs at the Marquee. One winter they hosted what Plaskett called “the month of Mondays,” where he and the band would play the smaller basement stage four Mondays in a row before giving the larger stage upstairs a shot.

“It’s really unique to have a venue that has the Marquee [but] that has another venue beneath it,” says Plaskett, while sitting in the Marquee space. “And so on New Year’s Eve there would be bands down there and there’d be bands up here and they’d ought to be staggered. So the set would end downstairs. We’d start our set up here and then when we’d break, there’d be another [band]. You try and line things up so people would go up and down the stairs if they wanted just to keep the music going, without a break.”

While the basement has transformed from Hell to the Seahorse, its cozier, lowered ceiling space still works perfectly as more of a starter gig for bands. And when an artist who could fill a bigger space still plays the Seahorse, the energy from the jammed crowd is unbeatable — like when Haviah Mighty played the Seahorse just a month after winning the Polaris Music Prize.

“It is amazing that the venue is still standing,” says Rose Cousins, whose early career saw her performing on both the original Seahorse’s “sticky floors” and Hell’s, with its trademark late-night pizza. “It is a testament to the scene and to the owner and the number of times that [it] almost had to be defibrillated. And I hope that it’s here forever. It really is significant.”

Enjoy this typical scene from the Seahorse Tavern in Halifax. (Seahorse Tavern/Facebook)

Marquee Ballroom

Halifax, N.S.

The Marquee Ballroom has lived at the corner of Gottingen Street and Portland Place since 1997, its unforgettable ceiling — decorated with mannequin legs, bikes and a shattered, concave disco ball — watching over the blossoming careers of Sloan, Rose Cousins, Thrush Hermit and, later, Joel Plaskett Emergency, as well as visitors like Jane Siberry, Feist, Beach House and Japanese Breakfast.

“It has been the premiere spot for a really long time,” says Cousins, whose first show at the venue was in 2001. “It certainly was in the years that I was coming up.”

The Marquee has undergone a few transformations over the last 25 years, even closing briefly and reopening temporarily as the Paragon Theatre in the late aughts. It’s a space where a band can get its start or put on a sold-out, end-of-tour show.

Plaskett, who started playing the Marquee with Thrush Hermit in the ’90s, has given so many shows at the venue that they start to blend together. But one in particular sticks out: when he was set to play a New Year’s Eve show with the Emergency (a tradition for a few years in the early 2000s), and he had the beginnings of bronchitis.

“The middle of my voice was gone. I could shout at the top of my lungs, but everything else was just gone in the middle. I wasn’t really talking to anybody [backstage] because I was just trying to get my voice going. And I was really nervous. But it was a sold-out Marquee. Eight hundred people in here, all ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve together…. So there was this expectation that this was going to be a night. And I knew I couldn’t cancel the show at that point. But I felt like I wanted to because I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to disappoint, you know? I’ve lost my voice.’ But we get up on the stage and I go to the mic and it’s like everybody’s raring to go. And I’m like [to the crowd], ‘I’m having a hard time singing, but you’re going to have to help me out.’ And we kicked into a song [and were] just grooving. And then I started to kind of sing and the audience just started singing at the top of their lungs, like [it] just filled in the room. And it was like this weight fell off my shoulders…. But the energy just lifted my spirits and took me right outside of my own head, you know?”

Joel Plaskett and the Emergency play the Marquee on one of those New Year’s eves. (Supplied by Joel Plaskett)

St. Matthew’s Church

Halifax, N.S.

St. Matthew’s Church in downtown Halifax opened its doors in 1749, boasting “the oldest congregation in Canada,” as Dora McGrath, the facilities manager, tells CBC Music. In 1998, the church also opened itself up as a performing arts venue with a capacity of about 450, while continuing to serve as a church and community cornerstone, providing free breakfast on Sundays and acting as an emergency warming centre in the winter months.

Singer-songwriter/composer Rich Aucoin has grown up in the venue as both a performer and fan, and he credits the special feeling of the church to its sense of community.

“I think that it’s the open-mindedness of the staff that book the church and invite the community in to share the space,” says Aucoin. “It’s pretty uncommon to get that sort of support and cooperation from churches and other places of worship with those beautiful spaces and acoustics because of fear of the event sullying the sacredness of the space. St. Matt’s has always been welcoming as long as I can remember. The church organ, its intimacy and yet beauty and acoustics of the space are like no other venue in Halifax.”

While Aucoin has attended plenty of shows at the church — Owen Pallett, Hey Rosetta!, Jenn Grant, Jerry Granelli — the release show for his debut full-length album, We’re all Dying to Live, is the one that stands out most, a decade later:

“Not my first EP release in 2007, which was also a great experience and first time performing there, but the [Halifax Pop Explosion] show in 2011 for my album, which had around 500 guest musicians on it, had an orchestra of 87 musicians that night and really was the most connected I felt to anything in my life,” Aucoin remembers. “It was a difficult performance as we only had soundcheck as our one and only run-through of the show, which was very, very shaky and yet somehow came together an hour later in front of a sold-out audience. The show was also crowned ‘Best Live Show of the Year’ by Halifax’s weekly, the Coast. I had just turned 27 and this show kind of felt like the last time I’d ever be that connected to a community, as it’s really that period of your life when those sorts of things can happen.”

Rich Aucoin performs at his 2011 album release concert at St. Matthew's Church. (Scott Blackburn)

Red Shoe Pub

Mabou, N.S.

In 2005, sisters Cookie, Genevieve, Raylene and Heather Rankin opened the Red Shoe Pub in their hometown of Mabou, N.S., as a dining establishment where tourists could mingle with locals and enjoy traditional Cape Breton instrumental music with Scottish and Irish roots.

“Originally, in the early 1900s, it was a general store where you could buy everything from eggs to shoes,” explains Heather. “The façade consists of two large store windows. The old floors are hardwood. At the centre of the pub sits an old stand-up piano used regularly by musicians. There are no bells and whistles at the Shoe — no TVs, no Wi-Fi. There is no ocean view or clover leaf fields. The magic is in the vibe when the space is full and the tunes are playing.”

That vibe is created by a whole array of fiddlers, pianists, pipers and dancers who’ve played the Shoe during its 15-plus years. “We’ve been blessed with performances by the crème de la crème of Celtic music,” Heather recounts. “Many of these performers were born and raised in Cape Breton, including Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, Buddy MacMaster, former Nova Scotia premier Rodney MacDonald and many of his musical relatives.” International acts such as Dàimh, a band from Scotland, and Ireland’s Tony McManus round out the Shoe’s lineup.

Weekly events at the Shoe include a fiddle matinee on Sunday afternoons, a Monday night jam session, a steak-and-wing special accompanied by music on Thursdays, and on Friday, a ceilidh.

The Red Shoe Pub is a seasonal business, with the Rankin Sisters themselves often providing the official opening or closing concerts each year. Heather says she beams with pride when locals stop her and say, “When the Shoe opens it’s like the light has been turned on after a long, dark winter.”

The Red Shoe Pub is located on the west coast of Cape Breton. (Red Shoe Pub/Facebook)
Rodney MacDonald plays the Red Shoe. (Red Shoe Pub/Facebook)

Baba’s Lounge

Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Baba’s Lounge is conveniently situated upstairs from one of the East Coast’s finest restaurants, Cedar’s Eatery, whose kitchen supplies Lebanese cuisine to both establishments.

A cozy spot with room for 80, Baba’s Lounge opened in 1991 and has hosted performances by the Sheepdogs, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Skratch Bastid, Sam Roberts Band, Buck 65 and Wintersleep, to name only a few. Due to Baba’s size, performances are intimate and everyone has a backstage pass with the opportunity to chat with band members after the show. “It’s like someone’s living room,” says owner/manager Ryan Abdallah.

Intimacy does have its disadvantages though, as Abdallah recalls: “White Cowbell Oklahoma did pyrotechnics in our very small room and served Jäger out of the bottle in front of a liquor inspector [who] shut us down for a few days.”

On the bright side, Baba’s Lounge has given many artists their start. “Two Hours Traffic played here a few times and then left their album for Joel Plaskett after one of his shows,” Abdallah explains. “He took them under his wing.”

The place was packed tight. The energy felt like a controlled chaos. And it was the kind of fun that, in the moment, you hope never ends. Fun like that is something that only happens once or twice in a lifetime because that’s probably the limit of what our minds can handle. I remember feeling loved. That night at Baba’s stands out as a top 10 sort of experience. And I really believe that had more to do with the room and the good people of Charlottetown than anything I did.

— Rich Terfry (Buck 65), Juno Award-winning musician

Andrea MacDonald, Catherine MacLellan, Dan Currie, Katie McGarry and Dennis Ellsworth perform during a songwriter circle at Baba's Lounge in December 2017. (Baba's/Facebook)

St. Mary’s Church

Indian River, P.E.I.

The church sits stoically in an open field, with no other structure in sight for miles around. It’s almost as if nature prepares you for the transcendental experience you’re about to undergo with the music-making inside. Singing inside is special as well: the church, with its warm wood-panelled walls and high vaulted ceiling, empowers me to take bold risks in dynamic choices and inspires me to experiment on the spot because a) the acoustics are so good, even mistakes are gorgeous, and b) I’m singing in a church so angels are watching over me and giving me wings to soar — a truly magical experience.

— Isabel Bayrakdarian, four-time Juno Award winner

“The prominent Maritime architect William Critchlow Harris built St. Mary’s in 1902 using layers of thin wood at the back of the altar, which vibrate, as does a stringed instrument,” explains Robert Kortgaard, artistic director of the Indian River Festival, which has been based at St. Mary’s Church since 1996. “Apparently he had music in mind when designing the building.”

It’s the largest wooden structure on P.E.I., and Kortgaard says the acoustics are ideal for classical music (“singers and choirs love it”) and there’s a sound system to “subtly enhance” singer-songwriters, jazz groups and spoken word.

“New Brunswick blues singer Matt Andersen is a huge hit every time he appears,” Kortgaard says. “Also, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is a big festival favourite.” At the 2019 festival, the Saskatoon Children’s Choir performed alongside the Indian River Festival Chorus. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Kortgaard recalls. “A perfect example of how the festival provides a community experience for so many.”

Despite the “occasional plague of mosquitoes,” as Kortgaard puts it, the Indian River Festival recently erected a pavilion next to the church, “where audience members gather for a drink or some strawberry shortcake before a performance.” He adds, “We definitely look forward to being able to open that up again for people to mingle and socialize.”

St. Mary's Church is the largest wooden structure on P.E.I. (Wikimedia Commons)

Holy Heart Theatre

St. John's, N.L.

When asked to tell us something that few people know about Holy Heart Theatre, operations manager Leslie Martin really delivers: “The venue is supposedly haunted by a former teacher and nun who is called Sister Beads. Legend says late at night her footsteps can be heard as she roams the halls with her rosary bead jingling.”

Don’t let that spook you: Holy Heart Theatre is a St. John’s staple, established in 1962 and capable of holding 1,000 for an acoustic dream of a show. Associated with the local high school of the same name, Holy Heart has boosted the budding careers of former high school students Tim Baker (Hey Rosetta!), Mary Walsh and Damhnait Doyle, to name a few.

But one of Martin’s most treasured memories is from 2008, when Leonard Cohen did a three-show stop at the theatre. Below is an edited version of a Facebook post she made in 2016, just after Cohen’s death.

At the time I was a fairly green theatre manager and was quite intimidated by the magnitude of the show. Not just the tractor trailer of sound and lighting equipment that was arriving, but also the legendary artist. His tour manager had assured me that Mr. Cohen did not like “a fuss.” He was a man of simple means. The larger dressing rooms were set up to house the band and female backup vocalists; Mr. Cohen would be happy with the only quiet place to call his dressing room, a 6x8 office with a shelf for his hats. He was 74 at the time and going back on the road with a world tour, starting at the small and intimate Holy Heart Theatre before moving on to the O and other stadium-size venues.

He arrived at the dressing room door, lugging something for his own hospitality table…. When I offered to carry it for him he declined and asked me to tell him about the Holy Heart Theatre. I gave him a brief history of the school and the theatre and relayed the fact that the school was slated for closure, which would, in all likelihood, mean the demise of the theatre. He was both shocked and sympathetic that such a lovely old place could be overlooked as the jewel it was… I saw very little of him over the next three days. He arrived quietly at supper time each night through a back door, ate a catered meal in one of the classrooms with his band and spent the hours before his shows in quiet preparation. I delivered mail to him at this time, each night from adoring fans who had dropped letters and various other items to me at the box office, begging that I saw he got them. When I brought him these things he was, as ever, gracious and humble. During each of the three shows he mentioned what a jewel the Holy Heart Theatre was and that St. John’s should do everything in its power to preserve this treasure. He got his wish. Many of [the] 3,000 people who saw his show over those three magical nights have said to me that it was, without doubt, the best concert they had ever seen.

Leonard Cohen performs at the Holy Heart. (Alexandra Fox)

The Ship

St. John's, N.L.

Tucked into an alleyway between Water and Duckworth streets is the pub that gave the late folk singer Ron Hynes his start. The Ship Pub, colloquially referred to as the Ship, was established around 1975 and is made for music lovers — Tony Murray, entertainment manager for the venue, even said, “If you are not a music fan, you can’t work there.”

With a capacity of 140 people, the Ship can host all manner of events, from punk to folk shows to lecture nights, and is a key spot for special events including the Newfoundland Folk Festival, Lawnya Vawnya and the East Coast Music Awards weekend. Asked about a legendary performance at the Ship, Murray goes back to the 2002 Juno Awards, hosted in St. John’s.

“Daniel Lanois wandered in during an open stage event, borrowed a guitar, cut his finger, leaving blood everywhere, stood up and left without a word.”

More recently, in late 2015, the Ship held a packed memorial when Hynes died at 64, with a gig at the Ship still on the books. The singer’s friends and members of the music community played the gig Hynes booked in his honour, covering beloved songs from the songwriter. “Did you know there are 30 people on this show tonight and nobody picked the same song? It’s incredible,” said guitarist Sandy Morris, who played the event.

Credits

Produced by Robert Rowat.

Written by Holly Gordon, Jess Huddleston, Melody Lau, Robert Rowat and Andrea Warner.

Illustrations by Ben Shannon.

Web design and development by Geoff Isaac.

Additional web production: Ruby Buiza.

Related:

  • Tune in to If These Walls Could Talk, a one-hour special taking you inside Canada’s iconic live music venues and hidden gems, on Sunday, June 6, at 6 p.m. ET on CBC-TV.
  • Wherever you are in the world, you can tune in to the 2021 Juno Awards on Sunday, June 6. You can watch live on CBC-TV and CBC Gem, listen on CBC Radio One and CBC Music and stream globally at CBCMusic.ca/junos.