Photo Credit: Bob Steventon
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
There’s nothing quite like coming in from the cold to a venue full of expectant audience-goers. The sudden warmth, the buzz of voices, the smells, the sounds of activity.
When I was a kid, I was fortunate to be taken to the symphony fairly regularly. Live music is unlike anything else and I could never get enough of it. It’s full of art, performance, unpredictability, skill, unspoken communication between instruments and their players, and—in many ways the most compelling aspect—a sense of it always being a one-time experience. What you hear, feel, smell, and see at one concert will never be repeated. Sure, the same songs will probably be played again, but being there in that moment is ephemeral. At the symphony, I always marvelled at the audience itself. The orderly fashion in which an audience takes its seat in a concert-hall like Victoria’s Royal Theatre is almost a performance itself. And the quiet hum of hushed conversations, intimate but shared through the acoustics of a room designed for sound, is like a strange kind of improvisational, experimental music.
In other words, the situation, the venue, and the crowd itself all contribute to the overall experience of checking out live music. Punk, country, jazz, folk, electronic, soul, blues, you name it, they all have their particular situational vibe. Every venue is different, every performance unique. Whatever genre tickles your ear, live music is a gift.
When the winter weather sets in, our priorities change. From gardening, backyard barbeques, and excursions deep into rugged landscapes, we often turn to creative projects, cosy potlucks, and good books read in the flicker of firelight. The outdoor adventures don’t stop for many of us up here, of course—exploring the transformed terrain by skis, snowshoes, or boots is an ingrained part of northern life. But with winter’s long dark nights and brief chilly days, often our adventures are shorter and leave us with a lot of time on our hands. This season is a great time to seek out shows, concerts, and coffeehouse gatherings. As writer Haruki Murakami put it, “Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.”
Cultures all over the world are often defined, or characterized, by their art—including, or especially, music. Northern BC is no exception. The music scene is alive and well up here and all across this vast region are dedicated, passionate people playing music or supporting it in other ways. This then is a quick—and by no means comprehensive—look at the music scene in the North, with some helpful hints on how to track down performances this winter that will keep you warm on a cold night, and get you out into the ever-evolving cultural landscape of our shared home.
Prince George has a bustling music scene. As northern BC’s largest centre—and home to the region’s biggest venue—they book a number of national and international artists. Musicians along those lines include the Tragically Hip, Bryan Adams and Sir Elton John, among many others. Stadium shows can be a ton of fun, but for local music look to smaller venues supporting the scene. Places like Nancy O’s, Westwood Pub, Twisted Cork, and Books & Company all regularly showcase live music. One local favourite is the juggernaut of a band known as Black Spruce Bog. These folks are loved all over northern BC for their high-energy performances and a sound that’s simultaneously accessible and rough around the edges. Featuring musicians Spencer Hammond, Danny Bell, Amy Blanding, Jeremy Pahl and Eric
Wynleau, Black Spruce Bog plays shows all across our region, and when they tear up the stage in their hometown, you can be sure it’ll be a great time.
Speaking of Danny Bell, the musician is also a promoter. “I started booking at the legion because they were struggling to keep their doors open and downtown Prince George needed a new space for live music,” he says. His company, Mad Loon Entertainment, books both local bands and touring artists. “It’s gone really well for both the Prince George music scene and the legion,” he continues. “It has also helped to bring music from all across Canada to the community, which is great.” Bell has a few shows booked for January already—the Saltwater Hank Band, Crones and Andrew Judah—and more in the wings.
The city is also home to a resident symphony—Prince George Symphony Orchestra. This organization has been around since 1970 and is the only professional orchestra in northern BC. Its upcoming winter concerts include Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Pastoral, and a love-themed performance on the Valentine’s Day weekend.
Then there’s the winter festival, of course. Coldsnap is an annual event that sees local and regional acts take the stage alongside touring musicians for a week of performances at a variety of venues around the city. This year, the PG Legion is hosting a couple of days of regional bands, and the event is featuring a free workshop series all week. Check out coldsnapfestival.com for more info.
Last, but not least, CFUR—the University of Northern BC campus radio station—is an organization actively supporting local and touring musicians. You can often hear live on-air performances by artists booked to play a show out at one of the city’s venues. Alumni include the Horsefly-based Juno Award-winning duo Pharis and Jason Romero, Williams Lake’s Blocktreat, and fearless locals, Crones. Find CFUR online (cfur.ca) to watch and listen to some of these past performances.
Up in the Peace region, Fort St. John features a number of regular open mic nights at pubs like Underdogs and On the Rocks, plus the occasional bigger performance at the cultural centre or the Lido, a converted theatre. In Dawson Creek, it’s a similar story, with several smaller venues and a couple of big ones, including the Encana Events Centre. These small, intimate coffeehouse-style shows are a great way to see and support new talent. Jumping up on a stage during an open mic night can be pretty daunting for a young performer, but it’s the best way to learn. Being part of an audience at an open mic is both entertaining and fun and a great way to show your support.
Perched on the edge of our region like the cool kid leaning against a brick wall at a show, Jasper’s got a few tricks up its sleeves as far as live tunes are concerned. Its local legion regularly showcases some great bands—local and touring alike—and both the De’d Dog Bar and the Whistle Stop Pub are favourite spots to catch some kind of live performance. If you find yourself in the park this winter, make sure you pop in and check out the scene.
Between Smithers’ concert association, folk music society and community radio—among many other promoters of music in the area—the little mountain town seems to always have some kind of live music going on. Out-of-towners regularly mingle with local performers, the latter sometimes just a crew of music fiends who throw a band together at the last minute. There’s a lot of talent in the valley and there’s no one predominant style of music being played and performed. In a given month, you might be able to check out a bluegrass band impressing the audience with toe-tapping tunes, a few DJs spinning dance records to a sweaty crowd, some dirty indie rock, an evening of singer-songwriter folk, a classical piano concerto, an all-ages fiddle ensemble, and maybe even some experimental improvised art music. That diversity of sounds serves to continually propel the local music scene to new places.
Elucidating examples? Well, right about when this issue first hits the streets, Smithers’ legion will be the site of a crazy post-punk, experimental art-rock show featuring three bands out of Vancouver—Softess, Other Jesus and Shearing Pinx—bands on the forefront of a music scene that owes its origins to punk, but is firmly and defiantly its own thing. That show is co-hosted by Smithers Community Radio (CICK) and the Bulkley Valley Concert Association. Then, in January, the latter of those two non-profits will be showcasing Joëlle Rabu, a Canadian performer who has been compared to the likes of Edith Piaf. She’ll perform her critically acclaimed repertoire at the Della Herman theatre accompanied by her son, Nico Rhodes, on piano. Variety? Oh yes, Smithers has that.
For local artists, one group to keep your eyes on is Mob Bounce, a politically conscious hip-hop duo, consisting of Craig Edes (aka The Northwest Kid) and Travis Hebert (aka Heebz the Earthchild). These guys are great performers and have nailed down a perfect blend between lyrics that make you think and beats that make you move.
“In Terrace I think the trend for the music scene was kinda set by King Crow and the Ladies from Hell,” says musician Marty Christiansen. “My band, Ranger Dan, has continued with the same folk-themed music with some punk and indie influences.” King Crow and the Ladies from Hell are a nine piece band, self-described as an “untethered dance party where folk music meets gypsy punk and loud Irish drinking songs.” They often play the festival circuit in the summer and are taking a break right now—but keep an eye out for shows in the spring.
Ranger Dan has, as Christiansen alludes, picked up the torch and are playing shows fairly regularly, including venturing beyond Terrace itself. Part of that is due to a lack of venues, he explains. “We really have nowhere that great to play at,” he says. “Sherwood, Thornhill Pub and the Elephant’s Ear all have great vibes and are more than willing to accommodate musicians—but they are small rooms. The legion has been Ranger Dan’s main venue as it’s a big enough room and the members have been amazing, but again it is a venue that isn’t really primarily set up for music.” That hasn’t stopped Christiansen and others from playing live, of course. Musicians are nothing if not driven. “50 Shades of Plaid and Late Night on Air also add to the folk flavour,” he says. “The Rats, The Coastal Drifters, One Match Fire and The Brazen Harlots are keeping the indie and/or rock scene alive. I could see the trendturning more towards punk music in the future as I know of several musicians on the verge of creating something in that genre. All in all, we have plenty of talented musicians and an audience for all of them, we just need a good place for shows to happen!”
Despite the venue woes, Terrace’s support for the scene is strong, both within and outside the core crew playing and promoting live shows. The venues Christiansen praises all regularly feature performances and while they might be smaller spaces, that elbow-to-elbow vibe can be a lot of fun. To find out what’s happening this winter, ask around or track down any of the bands or venues online.
In Rupert, live venues range from restaurants and coffee shops to the small but excellent Tom Rooney Playhouse and the massive 700-seat Lester Centre. The latter will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in February with a gala evening, featuring lots of local talent. It’s a beautiful theatre and past shows there include the likes of blues legend Jim Byrne and indie rockers Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer.
Dan Hendrickson, co-owner of Cargo Kitchen + Bar, has just kicked off weekly live music events every Friday. It’s a laid-back affair but, as he explains, the intent behind it is to support and encourage the music scene. “We hope to provide a space for aspiring performers from all genres to try their hand,” he says. “We also hope that the intimate setting will attract a steady following that wants to enjoy live music without paying a cover charge.” If you’re a musician and that vibe appeals, find them online and give them a holler.
Down the road is the Wheelhouse brewery, where periodic shows pop up and are known for being a blast—local lubrication plus live music in a strange (and awesome) setting is definitely a recipe for success. Even further down the road is the legendary coffee shop Cowpuccino’s, not a spot known for its role in promoting live music, but every so often it does happen. And according to Northword writer Frances Riley, these are shows worth checking out. “I have been to some serious shakers there,” she says. “The Racket played ‘til 3 a.m. once and Barefoot Caravan had a guy in a cow suit playing the accordion and dancing on the tables. I was waiting for the floor to cave in, to be honest!” Other spots of note include Javadotcup, another coffee shop that puts on themed nights, sometimes with live music, and—a growing trend in the touring music culture—house concerts. Check out homeroutes.ca to find out more about those.
“The music scene on Haida Gwaii used to consist mainly of (very talented) old timer rock bands,” says Blair ‘Dub Jackson’ Weinberg. “Dub Jackson Band formed in late 2014 around the same time that our friends James and Graham started making original music, and our two bands coming together for the first Guy Fawkes Yourself show created a whole new music scene.”
That scene is firmly rooted in punk.
Jason Camp & The Posers are SG_aan Kwah.agang James McGuire (Sandwich Launcher) and Graham Jaahljuu Richard (Cultural Interpreter). Both musicians are of Haida descent. “Our music is informed by a refined familiarity with the directionless rage that plagues all baffled inheritors of the post-colonial legacy,” they write of their music. “We were born into the anthropocene, on the cusp of human civilization’s ultimate hemorrhaging, scarcely able to comprehend our existence prior to atmospheric incineration. Our dooms are at the whim of a confederacy of dunces, as the state of modern politics will prove.” Playing and performing for these guys, then, is a release, a reaction, and—from the sounds of things—an inevitability.
“Haida Gwaii musicians like Tsinaay Har and Andy Spiller cleared a space for our generation of rock and rollers,” they continue. “Organizers like Janet Rig, Caroline Schooner and Carrie Laidlaw created the spaces we needed to incubate our musical mélange until its half-finished form rose to life again as the tireless Shelleyan monster we extol today.” Between these bands and others like them, a new scene is evolving. But this punk movement isn’t supplanting other styles of music as it grows—it’s complementing them. Caroline Schooner has for a number of years spearheaded a monthly coffeehouse concert, currently held at Queen B’s Café in Charlotte. With an open mic slot and a variety of feature performers, the full gamut of genres is regularly represented.
For Weinberg, the DIY nature of music on Haida Gwaii was a good fit. Originally from Ontario, he’s been playing music since he was a kid and took to punk after discovering Nirvana and similar bands, a style known for that DIY ethic. Organizing events when he moved to the North just made sense.
“We started doing our own shows, getting a liquor licence and playing different venues, such as the QC Legion, a heavy machine shop, a backyard, local bars and house parties,” he says. “Just this past weekend we had our biggest show yet at the QC Community Hall, with six local musical acts plus the Masset Razor Clams roller derby demonstration, and over 200 people in attendance. It was an all-ages show, featuring draught beer on tap from our friends at Wheelhouse Brewery in Prince Rupert, and went off without a hitch!” He explains that opening the show to all ages is important. “A huge part of what we want to do is inspire kids and teenagers to get into music and maybe start their own bands here.”
Many of northern BC’s musicians—including those mentioned—travel throughout the region, playing shows as they go. That connectivity between our communities through music is something that enriches the region as a whole. “I would say just get out there and if there’s live music being played near you then you should go see it,” says Weinberg. “Good venues will have good crowds, and good musicians will be playing there, so somewhere like Nancy O’s in PG is a place that will always be worth checking out to see who’s playing.”
These days, most venues and promoters primarily get the word out about events via social media and other online methods, so your best bet is to start there. Many communities have other means of communicating concert dates, too, of course. Posters are still alive and well as are community events boards and the like. Ask around, keep your ears open, and when you find some live music, get in there and have some fun.