Over the decades, and especially over the last couple years, Edmontonians have watched Downtown music venues fade, leading to something of a winter for the local scene. But now, in the spring of 2016, new life is sprouting from the core. In the past seven months, the Needle Vinyl Tavern, 9910 and the Chvrch of John joined relative newcomers Bohemia, Rocky Mountain Icehouse and Stage 4 plus the mainstays like the Starlite Room, Brixx and OTR. It looks like the start of a live music renaissance, at least for the core.
In fact, the Edmonton Live Music Initiative—a new program endorsed by the municipal and provincial governments—is strongly considering designating it the “Live Music District.” Might we be witnessing the revival of something absent from this side of the river for the last 50 years?
Back in the 1960s there were no fewer than 15 venues on Jasper Ave. between 100th and 109th streets. They had names like the Old Bailey, the Shasta Upstairs, the Midtowner, the Embers and Tita’s. Each hosted musicians seven nights a week. They were so close to each other that bands could cross the street between sets to watch another show. Musicians flocked to our city to earn a living doing what they loved—no side job or supportive spouse required.
And it happened practically over night. The Edmonton of the 1950s was a dry city where men and women were expected to socialize in separate nightclubs.
“No entertainment was offered or, for that matter, necessary in these dismal establishments,” recalls Tommy Banks, who began his career in local clubs before becoming a nationally recognized jazz pianist, talk-show host and senator.
But to his and many other musicians’ fortune, Alberta broke away from prohibition. “Edmonton’s nightlife scene changed suddenly and dramatically,” he explains.
The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission’s antecedent was created to maintain a tight and orderly nightlife. Part of this control included prompt midnight shutdowns every night of the week. But the 1960s was a time when dancing was the social function, so the liquor board said if a venue provided a band of three members as entertainment, it would allow drinking until 2:00 am. After some quick calculations, venue owners grabbed their telephones to hire as many bands a week as their rooms could hold.
But, as is apparent today, the gig didn’t last. Cliff Minchau, a bassist who has been gigging in Edmonton for nearly 50 years, says venues began replacing musicians with strippers and installing VLTs. He says it brought a seedy tone that turned audiences off clubs, and the payout from venue owners kept shrinking.
“Bookers wanted two guys who sounded like five guys that they could pay like one guy,” Minchau says. And with the advent of turntables, the DJ and disco movements overtook live music as abruptly as a record scratch.
No downtown venues founded before the turn of the century remain. Modern mainstays, such as the Starlite Room (established in 2004), have continued to host performances every other day, but these hangers-on are the exception—the live industry decline is practically rote at this point, not only in Edmonton but also abroad.
London, England, went from 430 venues in 2007 down to 245by 2015. Austin, Texas—which often earns an Edmonton comparison as a similarly sized, liberal bastion in conservative, oil-soaked America—officially reported last year that the once-heralded “live music capital” was full of musicians living below the poverty line. Closer to home, the core’s Four Rooms, Sidetrack Cafe, New City Suburbs and the Artery (recently revived in McCauley as the Aviary) remind us that closing venues in this city is nothing new.
“From our conversations with a number of venues, promoters and musicians,” says Jenna Turner, communications director of the Edmonton Arts Council, “two [hindrances] arose: the red tape as far as zoning and development, and the not-so-simple issue of building a value and appreciation for live and local music.”
Bylaws, such as minimum parking and closing times, are currently being challenged by passionate citizens. But the latter? Local musicians have the talent, venue owners have the drive and our reinvigorated core is regaining its former glory.
Now all the music scene needs is an excited audience showing its support. This means going to see bands you haven’t seen before or buying an extra beer or meal to offset the venues’ costs and help increase musician fees. It means taking a photo of the band and posting it to your social media with a link to the band’s music and a shout-out to the club. It’s dancing with abandon when the moment hits. (It’s definitely not talking during a song.)
Really, it just comes down to truly enjoying music. And what could be easier than that?
The Yards’ Guide to Live Music: Stages, People and Issues