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Will Calgary Be Canada's Next Music City?

With a new national music centre and a crowd of offbeat music venues, Cowtown is becoming a bopping destination.

Russell Jackson; a room of 45s at Recordland

Left to right: Russell Jackson playing a set at the Blues Can in Inglewood; a room of 45s at Recordland, two blocks away on 9th Street SE.

“Thank you for coming to the world’s loudest hot-dog shop.” The words are no sooner out of the guitarist’s mouth than the drummer starts up again, thunderous, and the guitarist hits his strings. Their joyful commotion explodes through the mustard-yellow and ketchup-crimson room. The hot-dog shop is called Tubby Dog, and tonight the place feels like a clubhouse: patrons scarfing down dogs next to punks rocking out, cooks along the grill sporting toilet-paper earplugs. The band, Cope, is from Lethbridge; they’re here to play Calgary’s premier all-ages club, which happens to serve the city’s best slaw-, chili- and peanut-butter-and-jam-slathered wieners. Songs with names like “Bed, Bath & Beyoncé” echo out into the night, where the city’s as flush with music as at any other point in its history. While oilmen fret about the price of petroleum, others in Calgary are reimagining their home as Canada’s new Music City – grounded in festivals like Sled Island, a recently rechristened concert district, and the city’s new $191-million palace of sound, Studio Bell.

Inglewood’s murals

Even Inglewood’s murals are all about the (navy) blues.

It wasn’t always like this. “In the 1990s, everyone wanted to leave,” remembers Dan Northfield, a long-time booker and venue owner. For years he watched artists, chefs, musicians and friends decamp for Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal. But as Calgary blossomed in the oughts, investing in culture and shedding its Cowtown image, people started coming back. “Calgarians have had to make their own

King Eddy Hotel

The brick-by-brick restored King Eddy Hotel anchors Studio Bell, which was built around the beloved music venue.

I join Northfield at the Palomino Smokehouse, a red-brick barbecue spot downtown. Soft-spoken, with a shaggy haircut, he co-runs the restaurant and helps book shows in the basement. “There are no rules here,” he says, referring to the breadth of artists who perform downstairs. But, in fact, there are rules on signs posted everywhere among the saloon posters and hockey jerseys: “No homophobia, no sexism or racism... and no general hatefulness.” It’s an explicit expression of welcome. Northfield shrugs; they just try to stay real, he says, and to make sure everyone – the bands, audience and staff – leaves with smiles on their faces.

Wonderland outside downtown Calgary’s Bow Building; Bob Chartier

Left to right: Spanish artist Jaume Plensa’s Wonderland outside downtown Calgary’s Bow Building; Bob Chartier, the “mayor” of Music Mile.

The Palomino is a 15-minute walk to Calgary’s new monument to music, Studio Bell, and its sole tenant: a one-of-a-kind museum and artist facility opened last year called the National Music Centre (NMC). Straddling 4th Street SE, the building looks part Rodin, part piano bench, burnished by 220,000 terracotta tiles. Inside, a swirl of canted balconies and curving staircases links curated exhibitions, interactive artworks, performance venues, recording studios and a breathtaking treasury of musical artifacts. Hidden speakers lure me from Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” piano to Randy Bachman’s “American Woman” guitar, past Mellotrons, clavichords, cimbaloms, theremins and Hugh Le Caine’s electronic sackbut – the world’s first voltage-controlled synth. Standing in a vocal booth, I sing along with Coeur de Pirate; sitting at a drum kit, I’m taught by a digital tutorial to play “New Orleans is Sinking”. I see an 1820 pedal harp as tall as Michael Bublé, and Corey Hart’s sunglasses (the ones he wore at night).

Donald Ray Johnson; the Mandates

Left to right: Grammy Award-winning Donald Ray Johnson on stage at the Blues Can; the Mandates, Calgary’s own, play a setat the Palomino Smokehouse.

I also spot notices posted here and there: “This instrument is currently being used by an artist in residence.” The pride of the NMC is that theirs is a living collection: A visiting musician can borrow Anne Murray’s guitar or a 162-year-old piano, using either to make music on site. They can even wire their session to the largest item in the collection: the Rolling Stones’ massive “mobile studio” truck, still in working order, which was used on albums like Exile on Main Street. Passing through its swinging doors, hand-painted with the Stones’ iconic tongue and lips, is like stepping into rock ’n’ roll history. It even smells as it should – like the morning after a party.

Armand Cohen; the Rolling Stones’ signature tongue and lips

Left to right: Armand Cohen, the owner of Recordland, a music store with an impressive shelf life; the Rolling Stones’ signature tongue and lips, hand-painted on the doors of their 1968 mobile studio, now part of the National Music Center collection.

Studio Bell marks the start of Calgary’s Music Mile, an unmarked stretch of 9th Avenue that passes east from downtown into Inglewood. These were not always nice parts of town. Karen Anderson, who leads an Eat to the Beat walking tour, describes how blues-club bouncers used to ask guests to check their knives at the door. Armand Cohen, owner of a staggering labyrinth of vinyl called Recordland, remembers chasing off ne’er-do-wells with a plank of wood. Today it’s a bustling pedestrian district in mid-gentrification, where fine-dining restaurants like Deane House and craft breweries like Cold Garden share the vicinity with car lots, autobody shops and the legendary Ironwood Stage & Grill.

Terracotta tiles adorning Studio Bell; National Music Centre organ

Left to right: A few of the 220,000 custom terracotta tiles adorning Studio Bell; more than a pipe dream: an organ that’s part of the National Music Centre’s permanent collection.

The Music Mile was conceived by the man known as its mayor, Bob Chartier, and inspired by a trip he took at age 67 – visiting American music districts like Beale Street in Memphis and the French Quarter in New Orleans. Over the past three years, Chartier and friends have put songwriters in coffee shops, folk singers in hair salons, garage bands in garages, ukulele lessons in the streets – all while championing the stages that made the place what it is.

Fashionism at Calgary’s Palomino Smokehouse

Vancouver’s Fashionism bring their glam-punk sounds to Calgary’s Palomino Smokehouse.

Foremost among these venues is the Blues Can, a modest Quonset hut that seems to ring, to have its own weather, on Saturday evenings. Its manager, Teena Wilson, weaves past hipsters, grannies, refrigerator-size men wearing sunglasses (at night), everyone tilting to the sound of bluesman Russell Jackson and his band. “I ain’t drunk, but I been drinking,” he shouts, and it’s as if the clouds have opened up. “We do our Thanksgiving in this room,” Wilson says. “It’s our kitchen. It’s our living room.” This isn’t metaphor; there’s no exaggeration. Every visitor feels right at home.

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CALGARY     MUSIC    

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