Alt-rock star power helps the beat go on at Parkdale bar as it reopens for live music

A bar on Queen Street West bar is getting some star power to help bring back live music in the wake of COVID-19. Members of the Strumbellas, a Canadian alternative rock band, are playing twice a month at the Tonight Bar.

Members of the Strumbellas to help relaunch live music at the Tonight Bar

Members of Canadian alt-rock group, the Strumbellas, play their first show behind the Plexiglas barrier at the Tonight Bar on Friday, July 16, 2021. (Submitted by Morgan Clamp)

A bar on Queen Street West is getting some help from members of the Strumbellas as it reopens for live music in the wake of easing COVID-19 restrictions.

Guitarist Jon Hembrey and violinist Izzy Ritchie have formed a group that goes by the name Full Rigged Ship. Percussionist Matt Marshall has joined forces with the two members of the high-profile Canadian alternative rock band to round out the trio. They're set to play their third live show at the Tonight Bar on Friday at 10 p.m.

"It's a very New York-style kind of venue," said Hembrey of the spot located just east of Roncesvalles. "It's just such a cool-looking little bar, with all the cassette tapes and stuff, and I kind of thought, 'What a cool little location for the videos.'"

Musicians playing at the Tonight Bar are surrounded by a background made of vintage cassettes. There's also a Plexiglas barrier, separating the stage from the audience. (Submitted by Morgan Clamp) (Submitted by Morgan Clamp)

So began a serendipitous series of events — one that would lead to a mini-residency of sorts for Hembrey's trio.

The Strumbellas selected the Parkdale space as the location for a series of live performance videos. During filming, Hembrey started to think it could be the perfect spot to debut his new group, which plays an eclectic take on traditional Irish music.

"If I start clapping along to a song, people usually clap along, too, because you're five feet from someone, as opposed to being on a big stage and you're 100 feet away," the guitarist said. 

"It's pretty easy to interact with people; you can almost have a conversation."

The cozy intimacy of the venue is amplified by nostalgic walls of cassette tapes. To help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, there's a Plexiglas barrier at the edge of the stage.

"I would love to see a world where there is no Plexiglas, for sure," Hembrey said.

"But actually, because it's all acoustic, it means we're actually insulated from the noise of people talking, so we can hear ourselves just great."

If you're not quite comfortable with watching the show indoors, you still have the option to take it in live from outside.

Creating a hybrid concert experience

Tonight Bar patrons enjoy the venue's back patio, where indoor shows are projected and livestreamed. The feed from an additional camera on the patio means musicians can see and interact with outdoor spectators in real time. (Submitted by Morgan Clamp)

Morgan Clamp, the owner of the Tonight Bar, says his team has implemented safety measures that allow patrons to watch the show inside the venue or on the patio, where a live camera feed is shown on a screen.

"We're able to film the audience on the back patio as well, so the artists can see them back there," Clamp explained.

The outdoor experience feels like an interactive Zoom show, with a significant upgrade on ambience. The venue had only been open for six months before the pandemic.

"In any business, that first year is still about getting known, so to be disrupted halfway through, that was pretty chaotic for us," said Clamp. 

"Now, we're opening the doors again and it's just a matter of hitting the ground even harder than we were before."

Music industry slow to recover, expert says

The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN), which tracks artist registrations, has noted a nearly 50-per-cent increase in new membership over the last year, with 7,500 members joining. 

CEO Jennifer Brown says though the pandemic halted most live music, it presented an opportunity for more musicians to take advantage of subscription services like Spotify and Apple Music.

Jennifer Brown is the CEO of SOCAN. (Photo credit: Steve Carty)

"There were very content, deep, heavy and relevant songs for this period," Brown said.

"I'm very curious to see if that's a trend. Do we move into more escapism?"

Brown says the music industry in Canada will take a lot longer to recover than it has in the United States, where tens of thousands of people attended Lollapalooza this past weekend. Brown anticipates the recovery here at home could stretch into late 2022, and even 2023.

"Music really helped us get through the pandemic," she said.

"It's going to help us get out of it."