LYNN SAXBERG Ottawa Citizen
There’s been a proliferation of new, or newly renovated, music venues in Ottawa in 2019. Here are three worth checking out:
If you have yet to see a concert at the newly renovated Bronson Centre, prepare to be blown away. Not since the days of the Capital Music Hall, some 15 years ago, has downtown Ottawa had such a versatile, spacious and well-equipped mid-size venue with a capacity close to 1,000 people.
After the first phase of what’s projected to be a $1-million renovation, the auditorium of the former Immaculata High School on Bronson Avenue no longer feels like, well, a high-school auditorium. The big, open space now has the vibe of a big-city showbar: Rows of seats have been removed, the floor slopes towards the stage, the sound and lighting equipment is vastly improved, and there’s bar service on three sides of the room.
For music fans, the beauty of it is that you can get close to the stage if you want, or stand back and enjoy an unobstructed view of the show. And if you really need to sit, there are still rows of seats in the second-floor balcony.
Since the venue reopened this fall, there’s already been a string of shows, including appearances by pop darling Carly Rae Jepsen, melodic rockers Big Wreck and ’90s alt-rockers I Mother Earth, to name a few. What’s more, most of them have sold out, a fact that demonstrates a healthy appetite for live music in Ottawa.
“Ottawa is such a great music city,” says Lisa Zbitnew, co-owner of the Phoenix Music Theatre, which struck a long-term partnership with the Bronson Avenue facility earlier this year.
“It’s great to see the level of excitement in Ottawa,” she added. “In Toronto, there are so many shows at any given time, but because downtown Ottawa hasn’t really had a mid-size venue in a while, I think a lot of tours just passed by the city. People are genuinely excited that there’s a ton of music coming that might not have otherwise stopped in this market.”
Under the deal, operation and management of the music venue is handled by the Phoenix group, in partnership with Toronto promoter Collective Concerts, while the centre maintains its role as a hub for not-for-profit community groups. Forty such organizations, ranging from the Elizabeth Fry Society to OrKidstra, operate out of the centre.
The rejuvenated venue’s official capacity is 978, which may increase slightly after the next round of renovations. The centre will be closed for shows in January to allow for much-needed improvements to the washroom facilities. Later in the year, air-conditioning will be installed.
“We’re looking at what we can do to make everyone’s experience better, including the artists,” Zbitnew said, noting upgrades to the dressing rooms and production offices. “We’re going to bring the room up to the level of other major tour market venues.”
Shows already booked in the new year include Beaches on Feb. 19, Bedouin Soundclash on Feb. 21, Theory of a Deadman on Feb. 24, two nights with Matthew Good on March 18 and 19, and Jimmy Eat World on April 29.
Zbitnew is also hoping to forge relationships with other promoters to bring more diverse shows to town, including worldbeat, hiphop and reggae acts.
Across town, the Overflow Brewing Company is carving out a niche as a go-to spot for country, blues and tribute acts.
With a big stage and a capacity of 356 in the taproom, the brew pub/music venue has been gaining a following with an older demographic, generally ranging in age from about 35 to 65, says booker Matt Sobb, who’s also the drummer for Ottawa blues trio MonkeyJunk.
Located on Kaladar Avenue in the Bank Street south area, it’s drawing patrons who live in the area as well as rural residents who balk at driving all the way downtown.
The venue has been open for about a year, averaging about 10 to 15 shows a month. The most successful nights have featured vintage Can-con (such as The Odds and Northern Pikes), bands that pay tribute to the classics, including the ever-popular Fleetwood Mac act Big Love (formerly Rumours), and country or blues groups from Ottawa and beyond.
“One thing that’s been consistently great for us has been the technical side of things,” Sobb said. “All the shows have sounded great. We’re really knocking it out of the park with sound and lights, and the bands really like the stage.”
Sobb says they’re still working to build the audience, but the brewery owners are committed to live music. “I’m focusing on booking as many quality shows for the next four months as I can,” he said. “It’s all about putting bums in seats and getting beer in people’s bellies, and keeping it a viable business.”
Food is another key part of the vision: A pop-up taco stand operates Thursday through Saturday, and there are plans to build a kitchen in the coming months.
The venue also supports local musicians such as soulful singer-songwriter Kyle Ivan, who performs with his band on Dec. 14.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Cinqhole, the Hintonburg space formerly known as General Assembly, is a floor-to-ceiling wall of books.
That’s the first indication of the book-loving new management, a partnership between Ottawa Showbox and Black Squirrel Books that was struck this year. Cinqhole’s grand opening was a parking lot party in September.
According to Showbox’s Matías Muñoz, the vision is to maintain the 70-person, all-ages venue as a place that “uncovers what’s out there in Ottawa,” with a focus on indie music and visual art.
“We want people to feel welcome and discover new things here,” he said. “It’s a place where things are cultivated and people can really see what’s happening at the base of Ottawa’s music and arts community.”
The new team has undertaken some renovations, including constructing the bookshelves, sealing the concrete floor and keeping the walls white to brighten the room. There’s no stage — bands are set up on the floor — but the floor is slightly slanted to allow for better viewing.
Plans for the new year include the creation of an art gallery in the back, and pursuit of a permanent liquor license. For now, temporary permits are secured as needed.
Upcoming shows include New York City’s synth-noisemongers Pop. 1280 with Scattered Clouds on Dec. 14, and a New Year’s Eve punk night featuring four bands and a DJ.