Musicians remember local venues that shaped their careers: The 2000s

For the Juno Awards 50th anniversary, CBC Ottawa has spoken to some past winners and nominees with ties to the national capital region about the venues that helped them hone their chops. This week, we look at some of the clubs and other venues that shaped the scene in the 2000s.

In the 2000s A Tribe Called Red developed their distinctive sound, while Kellylee Evans found a place for jazz

Ehren 'Bear Witness' Thomas and Tim '2oolman' Hill are The Halluci Nation. Bear Witness says venues like Mercury Lounge and Babylon helped the group develop its distinct sound. (Rémi Thériault)

For the 50th anniversary of the Juno Awards, CBC's Alan Neal reached out to 50 Juno winners and nominees from Ottawa, asking them what venues and stages they remember most.

Ehren "Bear Witness" Thomas says the ByWard Market's Mercury Lounge is a smaller stage than what he's used to now.

He's one half of electronic group The Halluci Nation, formerly A Tribe Called Red, which has been nominated for six Junos and has won three.

But the Mercury Lounge still had its charms, he said.

"One of the things that I really miss being on big stages is not being able to reach out and touch somebody," he told All In A Day host Alan Neal. "That's what ... my roots are in DJing."

Kellylee Evans, who's been nominated for three Junos and won for vocal jazz album of the year in 2011, describes the Mercury Lounge as a welcoming place for jazz, soul and world music. (Xavier Chauvet)

Bear Witness first came to the venue not only as a DJ but also as a promoter. He remembers nights like when Gil Scott-Heron was booked to play a set but missed his plane.

His band still showed up and played multiple sets, only for the jazz poet to walk through the venue's doors in the early morning hours and perform for staff.

Kellylee Evans, who's been nominated for three Junos and won for vocal jazz album of the year in 2011, describes the Mercury Lounge as "a dark, comfy cocoon."

"It wasn't like a bright, airy place," she said.

It was somewhere the jazz musician would go to feel welcomed, even when she wasn't performing.

It was also one of the few listening rooms in Ottawa that gave jazz, soul and world music artists a place to play, something she says is missing from the city today. 

Mercury Lounge owner Claudia Balladelli made the nation's capital a more interesting place, Evans said.

"She brought colour to the city."

Centretown's Babylon was another venue that helped A Tribe Called Red develop their distinctive sound. Bear Witness calls it "the quintessential dark club."

During its earliest days, the group's Electric Pow-Wow nights would be packed with Indigenous people, and the DJs wanted to create music to reward that hungry fan base. 

"So many people from our community came out and just took up space," Bear Witness said.

He said these venues provided a space for the group to push its sound further and capture something about the community and the time. 

Mixing powwow music with dubstep meant created the sound of the moment, and that appealed to a wider audience, he said.

"It was really important that we weren't just talking to our own community," he said. "We're making something for our community, supported by our community, but that everyone could enjoy."

Wherever you are in the world, you can watch 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

(CBC Music)

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