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August 26, 2010

Guest blog: Where to find great live music in Ottawa

Today's guest blog is from Aaron Sadhankar. He's a local software developer and entrepreneur. Music is one of his big passions, and so is "anything tech". He also takes beautiful photos of local concerts.
There are few things I love more in life than live music. It is the original form of music. Before we had variable bit rate audio compression, before we had Top 100 charts, before even songwriting became prevalent, you had people simply being a part of the shared experience of live music. You are there for the music. You aren't just listening to pass time on your commute or as a background to that work you have to get done. I would go so far as to say the recorded medium is a mere shadow to a good live show.

Which brings me to living in Ottawa. If you were to talk to those who claim to be in the music know, you wouldn't get many saying Ottawa is the modern cultural hub of music. Although we're the fourth most populous city in Canada, the three cities that come ahead of us (Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto) are world-class in terms of the artists that have come out of them. When bands book world tours, more likely than not their Canadian stops will include at least of those cities. In terms of venues, Ottawa just can not compare to the magnitude and cachet of those cities. We have no Commodore Ballroom, no Metropolis, no Massey Hall.

And then…there are the fans. Ottawa has a bad rep for having boring audiences. And I've seen this first hand. A lot of shows at Scotiabank Place I witness people actually leaving before the show ends to avoid the traffic after the show. Maybe it's because Ottawa is a government town (no offence to public servants), maybe it's because of Ottawa's relatively large urban sprawl for it's population size (no offence to suburbanites). I've also walked into random bars that are almost empty, and there will be a great band on stage.

So, I'm not trying to extol Ottawa as some great mecca of music culture. But, there is a lot more here than most would give thought to. And actually if you just look hard enough, I would say Ottawa is one of the great music cities in Canada. It really comes down to three things.

1. Festivals
The Ottawa area has a TON of great festivals, big and small. And other than a few bumps here and there, these are all superbly run and have outstanding performers.

  • Bluesfest: This gets bigger every year. Some people may complain about the line up, and sure it's not really a 'blues' festival anymore. But the lineup certainly stands up against any other major Canadian festival, and even many world festivals. It's a great two weeks of summer for music in nation's capital.

  • Jazzfest: If you like jazz (and more, there is some rock and some funk and blues too), this is a superb festival. The names get bigger and more varied every year, and the little things such as nightly jazz jam sessions in a hotel bar, make it that much more special.

  • Folkfest: There are a multitude of great, albeit lesser known, artists and bands at this festival, and a few well known acts as well. It's a great contrast to the two big festivals.

  • Chamber Music Festival: I haven't quite found a penchant for classical music, but I intend to change this. After all, classical music is best enjoyed live. Hearing an orchestra at full volume is phenomenal.
These are just some of the main festivals, but there are bunch more, like the Franco Ontarien Fesitval, the kitchy and free Westfest. There is honestly something for everybody (ok, so maybe we don't have a dedicated electronic music festival yet).

2. Great small venues.
Some weeks and months are busier than others, but on any given night there is a plethora of shows to check out at small venues. It's unfortunate that my favourite music venue in Ottawa is no longer host to live music, but there many other venues that at the very least have some great acts.
  • Live Lounge/Capital Music Hall: There are many that lament over Capital's former venue, but in recent years (a lot driven by local radio station Live 88.5) the new venue, which includes the smaller Live Lounge, has been an excellent location for shows. I've seen tons of great acts here.

  • Bronson Centre Theater: This former high school theater turned music hall is actually a great place to sit down and watch a show. It manages to draw some fairly big names for its 900 seat capacity. (Lady Gaga even played there in 2009.)

  • Civic Centre: It's a bit hit and miss here (I honestly do not like the acoustics of either the arena or the hall), but no there's no denying some pretty cool acts that play here.

  • Mavericks: Great club to see some intimate shows from touring bands, or to catch some great local acts.

  • Babylon: I've witnessed some pretty energetic live shows here, usually driven by a small but crazy audience.

  • Zaphods: Although most nights feature a dj, this place features tons of bands most people have never heard of. It's a pretty neat venue to boot.
And that's just the short list. I've walked into many a bar just wanting a drink, and been pleasantly surprised by some great live music. Mercury lounge, The Pour House, The Manx, The Laff. Also, it's not in Ottawa (but close, just a short hop over the border) but I really need to honorably mention The Black Sheep Inn. It has become something of an establishment for live music in the Ottawa area.

3. There are fans here. There are people that actually care about music. And there are great musicians.

If you do attend one of the many shows at a festival or at a dingy bar, you realize that there are people here that care about music.

The festivals draw great numbers year after year, the small venues get packed, and on any given weeknight you have people showing their talent at small cramped bars or even at open mics (if you want to see something cool, visit an open mic such as the one at the Umi Cafe on Friday nights).

Artists do stop here, not just Toronto and Montreal, and I would argue that shows here might actually be more intimate than the much larger shows played in top cities. Sure, you can go see Bruce Springsteen or Metallica over at Scotiabank Place, but it's nothing different than other arena shows they will play in other cities. It's that show you see in a bar with all of 10 strangers and a beer, it's that field you stand in to hear one of your favorite bands while it rains.

We have a small but enthusiastic music scene going on here. There are tons of local bands doing their thing now, and hey some of them are actually really good. I've seen some serious talent and passion, and they are there to be found; don't rely on some chart to dictate what music there is to be discovered.

If I look back at this past year alone, and it's barely half way done, it's amazing to think of the range and quantity of great shows I've been to. To name just a fraction, I've been able to see indie rock superstars Arcade Fire, jazz legend Herbie Hancock, even get my mashup dance on with Girl Talk. There are not many places in the world I would be able to say that about.
(Aaron's been featured before on our blog. Check out his great pic of one of the Bluesfest in the Byward concerts from earlier this year.)

Related:
Ottawa Music Guide

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