A few weeks ago I and perhaps a dozen other local music-lovers took in CKCU host Dick Altavista‘s monthly musical presentation at the Elmdale House Tavern. With changes pending at the Wellington Street watering hole, the show was at the time slated to be the penultimate in what had been a dandy showcase for local bands. It turned out to be the last. A dozen or so people will be disappointed. Possibly more. And that’s not counting the thousands of locals eager to voice support for live music but unwilling to leave home to experience it. So yes, it’s a loss.
Hintonburg is rapidly ridding itself of all vestiges of its gritty roots, with things moving in a decidedly upscale direction. Hence, the gritty Elmdale will next March be reborn as the neighbourhood’s latest locale for finer dining. It’ll be a dramatic break from the once-seedy establishment’s blue-collar past. But then, so was the room-without-a-view’s conversion five years ago into a prolific live-music venue. Once the Whalesboners take charge early next year, we are assured, the Elmdale will continue to be home to live music. Just not as often.
Many are mourning the loss of Hintonburg’s live-music hub, and the tributes flowing in speak not only to the pace of change in Hintonburg, but to the ever-accelerating pace of change in society. The Elmdale has been a respectable joint for barely five years; yet, its passing is being mourned as the death of an Ottawa live-music institution. A long tradition of five years, gone. Again, not entirely. But near enough. Live music two or three nights a week is a considerable drop from as many as seven. Hence, while similarly short-lived clubs such as the Liquid Monkey, the Cave, or the Sunnyside/Underground/Bayou/New Bayou were feted by the few, the Elmdale’s passing is seen as cause for concern by the many. (Though, a number of hungry and thirsty musicians were reportedly becoming disenchanted with the club’s lack of such common band-perks as a meal and a bar tab. Perhaps the timing is about right.)
So the Elmdale Tavern is changing. Again. Live music two nights a week? There are dozens if not hundreds of rooms in the city that feature live music two nights a week; most are not considered to be live-music venues, as such.
Or, at least, they weren’t considered to be live-music venues.
Indeed, it may be time to step back and assess exactly what defines a live-music venue. News last month of the Elmdale’s next phase was initially greeted by some with a shrug. Questioned about the matter on CBC Radio, one local musician — whose band Micarza Camaro will help to bring it all home next Friday at the Elmdale House Tavern’s final blowout — opined that while the Elmdale will be missed, there are at present more live-music venues in the Hint0nburg/Wellington West area than ever before. Yet, that conclusion inevitably relies on the notion that art galleries and coffeehouses that occasionally welcome bands and singer-songwriters to their space, qualify as live-music venues.
Does moving a table or two for someone to set up in a corner, a live-music venue make? Surely, to be a proper live-music venue one must at the very least have, say, a stage for musicians to stand on. Ducking, diving and craning one’s neck in an unsuccessful effort to see a band should not be standard practice for all in attendance save for a handful of lucky customers standing directly beside the performers. A PA is also nice, and perhaps lighting for said stage. But if to be considered a “live-music venue” a room must merely have at some point in its history presented live musicians, every pub and most restaurants in the city would likely qualify. In which case, Ottawa can state with pride that it has hundreds of live-music venues. (In your face, Austin!) So there, musicians. Stop complaining and get on the phone to see if the Royal Britannia Pub or Derringers is available for your next CD-release party. Rooms whose primary purpose is the presentation of live music, be damned!
Or, and I’m just putting this out there, perhaps bands are just not looking hard enough for appropriate venues. Sure, a coffeehouse willing to make room for you and your friends is fine. But will it provide the local music-enthusiast (audience and performer alike) with the thrill of a for-real rock concert? Will the headliner experience that rush of adrenaline that comes with bounding onto a stage and bellowing a fond “Hello, Ottawa!” to an awestruck crowd hungry for both rock and roll? Will it do a third thing that would allow me to refer once again to the power of rock? Or should we consider looking further afield, to rooms awaiting their chance to become the next, uh, Elmdale House Tavern?
Like, say, the cavernous east-end Lone Star. Live music has been known to take place there. Ditto, the Concorde Motel on Montreal Road, whose sizable stage is lined by a cool string of party-lights. Not so long ago, bands were content to book community centres, legion halls and church basements for shows. Any of those can be a live-music venue if you declare it to be a live-music venue. High-school auditoriums? Why not? Most have sturdy stages that enable a musician to properly look down on the crowd, as all true rockers should. And just what is going on with the former Yuk Yuk’s on Albert Street, once home to a legendary local club called the Fife and Drum? No signs of life there at the moment, but here’s hoping the stage is intact. And, come to think of it, how ’bout the aforementioned Sunnyside/Bayou/Underground/New Bayou? It was briefly transformed into a nightclub, but could easily accommodate live music performances, one suspects.
And then there’s my favourite dark horse of a venue: the fine room at the Ottawa Police Association Hall, a venue seemingly and curiously reserved for the low-key Valleygrass annual series of bluegrass concerts. You might not know about those, because most efforts by supporters such as myself to promote the series have been actively or passively discouraged by organizers. The audience Valleygrass now has is, it seems, precisely the audience it wants. Newcomers need not apply. Perhaps the Valleygrass folks are worried that if outsiders learn of the Hall, everyone will want to book it.
After all, good live-music venues are not easy to find — depending on how you look at it.