There seems to be a growing sentiment that live music on the local scene has lost its lustre as a preferred entertainment option. This disturbing trend has caused countless clubs that were once considered iconic, to shut their doors permanently. Some would blame the growing affection for cover bands, claiming their lack of professional prowess and individuality. Others choose to point out that younger generations are flocking more to the DJ style club scene, and are less interested in live artists. Whichever the case, the epidemic closing of local live entertainment venues in Canada should at the very least, be forcing us to re-evaluate how we present live music as a viable piece of our culture. After all, there are other places in the world where local live music continues to thrive.
I recently had an opportunity to visit London, England, and while there I chanced to take in some of the local musical culture near the Soho district. The venue of choice was a tiny pub called ‘Ain’t Nothin’ But’ on Kingly Street. My friend and I arrived at around 7.30PM where a trio featuring a singer songwriter named Jack J. Hutchinson were completing an early set. There were about twenty people in the bar at the time, which actually made it look half full (This is a really tiny place). The age range of the patrons, and the band spanned from mid-thirties to late sixties.
Hutchinson played mostly original compositions from an album he was touting for sale at the bar. His artful mix of folk and blues acoustic was compelling, to say the least. I would later learn that Jack and his band, ‘The Boom Boom Brotherhood’ have actually produced nine recordings for sale on his website. In fact, this artist who was playing what was essentially an early evening jam session is an accomplished and well-travelled musician. Today, Hutchinson was performing an acoustic set with two local musicians from the area. After the group completed its final tune of the set, three older gentlemen who were seated in front of the stage, thanked the musicians for the entertainment, had the CD they just bought autographed by the recording artist, and left the premises with smiles and waves to all.
My buddy and I took advantage of the vacated seats, and sipped on our ales while we waited for the next act to perform. The songwriter, Hutchinson stayed at the bar for a time talking with some mates. The bass player having already packed up his instrument, rushed out of the club claiming he had to sprint to another gig down the street. The elder of the trio, the harp player, disappeared into a back room. Evidently he was either the owner of the pub, or he worked here. It became immediately clear to me there was something quite different about this place from my experiences at home.
Soon, the evening’s featured artist arrived to set up their equipment on the tiny stage. The drummer appeared with two snares and symbols under his arm, which he attached to the house supplied bass drum and symbol stands. He contorted himself behind the kit in the left corner as the bass player took up position a mere foot away. The lead guitar player was setting up at stage right, which couldn’t have been more than eight feet away. All three musicians appeared to be in their early thirties. A few minutes later a thin but muscular man, appearing to be in his late fifties or more, took the stage to stand between the bass and guitar players. He brought two saxophones and a harp with him for the performance. As the band’s leader, he introduced ‘Sub Atomic Souls’, and they broke into the first blues number.
The foursome continued playing a stellar set of blues and funk numbers; incorporating solid solo offerings from each member. The seats around us were quickly filled during the first few songs, and in no time it seemed, the joint was rocking. What I didn’t realize while enjoying the band in front of me on stage was that the entire standing area around the bar had completely filled with music lovers. There was literally no room to move. As people clambered for space, the bar for another pint or visiting the restroom became an arduous task, but the crowd made their best effort to accommodate everyone.
There was one particularly astonishing thing about this throng of people, though. For the most part they all seemed to be ‘millennials’. Not only was this tiny venue jammed with young people, their collective attention was firmly riveted to the musicians on stage. Now I had just come from a place where I was told that millennials don’t care about live music, let alone classic blues. I had also been lead to believe that audiences were growing tired of acts featuring only cover sets. Why was this place across the ocean so different? Certainly, the UK has nurtured a vibrant local music scene for decades longer than we have in Canada. What can Canadian live entertainment learn from our ancestral home?
That’s when it hit me.
A couple of distinct differences occurred to me about the UK and Canadian local live scenes. Unlike most Canadian bars and clubs, ‘Ain’t Nothin’ But’ resided in a strictly pedestrian urban area, and the venue itself was purposed designed to promote music only. Though there was one lonely sign on the wall suggesting that customers sample the ‘Fabulous’ nachos, I can’t remember seeing a single person ordering food in this place. Yes, there was plenty of alcohol flowing from the ample size bar (mostly beer in fact), but no one appeared to be getting remotely out of hand. That may have had something to do with there being only walk up service for drinks. There simply wasn’t room for wait staff. One bartender spent most of the evening wriggling between bodies to collect glasses for washing.
The music was the thing here, the only thing, and this crowd of young people were lapping up every delicious morsel. Something else then struck me that was so different here from the Canadian scene. Not one single television screen hung from any wall in the entire place. The performers on stage weren’t being forced to compete for the audience’s attention with some sporting event. I’m sure there was no shortage of ‘Premiere League’ action to be witnessed that night, but that’s not what this crowd was here for, and neither was this club. Walking out on to the pedestrian street later on, I discovered several spots that catered to varying interest. Some were food emporiums while others were sports pubs.
So, when was it decided in Canadian venues that it was a good idea to have a live band playing at the same place where we could watch a play-off hockey game at the same moment? Is that fair to the artist, no matter what their talent level? If you went to a comedy club, which there are precious few left, would you expect a comedian to compete with TV screens? When we buy tickets for hockey games, all we expect to see is hockey, right? You wouldn’t want scores and updates interrupting a live theatre performance, would you?
A focused, singular form of entertainment experience is a large part of what makes the club scene in London and other places so successful. If you travel to great musical cities in the US, places like New Orleans or Chicago, you will find numerous clubs dedicated to the sole purpose of offering live music to their patrons. As well, go to any club where a DJ pumps out dance music until the wee hours in almost any city in the western world, and you would be hard pressed to find a television anywhere in these places. The only video experience on display will be part of the show.
Pubs and restaurants in Canada are only doing whatever it takes to compete in an environment of too many choices. I understand the challenges forced on small business people. But, perhaps then we can learn something from venues that thrive with specialized themes. If club owners around Canada were willing to take a calculated risk by not being all things to all people, but by providing a special venue again for performance art, then maybe there’s a chance to rekindle a vital aspect of our own culture.
Artists like Jack J Hutchinson still return to places in Britain that were once proving grounds for his work. How cool would it be to see members of The Arkells or The Sheepdogs returning to clubs where they started for an acoustic set? Chuck Jackson of ‘Downchild Blues Band’ fame still does a Sunday afternoon set at Roc’N Doc’s, as well as other venues in his hometown of Port Credit, Ontario.
When will we return to a time when the music is the only show? There must be enough enterprising club owners who would at least be willing to test the theory. Many sports bars thrive by being only about sports entertainment. One less will hardly be noticed. Let’s make live music about the musicians again, for all our sake. All good intentions aside, if we aren’t prepared to take appropriate action to repair this vital cultural dilemma, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. If local live still matters; let’s show it by giving musical talent our full attention.