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Victoria club owner saddles up for country fans

As the Duke Saloon has its oversized Jim Beam poster mounted, its burnt-wood table tops installed and its final paint job completed, Joel Friesen is almost ready for the very last touch: clientele.
The Duke Saloon

As the Duke Saloon has its oversized Jim Beam poster mounted, its burnt-wood table tops installed and its final paint job completed, Joel Friesen is almost ready for the very last touch: clientele.

Friesen, who also runs Upstairs Cabaret, is confident that Victoria is ready for the new country bar.

“Some people who don’t know anything about the genre obviously think you’re nuts,” he said.

“[But] a really cool thing about the country music crowd is that they’re very supportive.”

The Duke officially opens tonight at 7 and Friesen is counting on what he sees as a wave of interest in country music to buoy the new business.

Evidence lies in the success of monthly country nights such as the one Friesen hosts at Upstairs, he said. When he started the country night in 2009, inviting local band the Southerners for a regular set, the first patrons to arrive were already loyal fans. Gradually, it grew.

“It slowly built. The clientele, you could tell, was real, true longtime country fans,” Friesen said.

“It built and built and built. Then it started getting a bit of mainstream attention in town and with some students.”

Friesen can’t explain what changed in June 2012. University was out for the summer and it shouldn’t have been a remarkable night for any obvious reason like increased marketing. But something did change.

“One summer, it just exploded. We had a massive lineup out front. And from then on, it was just like that.”

Country night became Upstairs’ most popular specialty night, he said.

The test will be seeing if Friesen can translate a monthly country night at a nightclub into a steady audience Thursdays through Sundays at a pub-style country bar. Friesen described the Duke as rustic, without being a dive bar. It will feature specialty bourbon cocktails and local craft beers on tap, as well as local resident bands the Tumblin’ Dice and Bucko & Toad.

There are a few red flags to consider. Past country nights and bars in the city have folded, including Crossroads, a country bar that was housed in the same brick building that the Duke will occupy at 502 Discovery St.

Damian Cownden, who also hosts monthly country nights as owner-operator of both Touch and Sugar nightclubs, voiced uncertainty but good wishes. He said his country nights — which have been known to include line-dancing instruction, a mechanical bull and even live horses tied outside the bar — do very well with the university crowd from September to April.

“It can be quite popular. It will be interesting to see how a regular venue does that, tries to cater to that on a regular basis. In my opinion, once a month is enough,” he said. “But, of course, I wish them all the best.”

Cownden said he’s watched interest in country music rise and fall over the years.

“I think it’s steady right now,” he said. “I’d say in the last 15 years, I’ve seen a couple of spikes, but I don’t really see it going anywhere or taking over the scene per se.”

Still, there’s strong evidence that southern Vancouver Island can support a country music venue.

Sunfest, a country music festival in Duncan, has grown to become one of the largest on Vancouver Island. The four-day festival sold out early this month, with about 15,000 audience members per day to see acts such as Tim McGraw and Cassadee Pope, making it the largest country music festival in Canada outside of Alberta.

“Without a doubt, it was our busiest Sunfest ever,” Charlotte Fisher of production company Wideglide Entertainment said at the festival’s close.

“Before, we were on the radar. Now we’re firmly planted on the map.”

Country music concerts, such as those by George Canyon and Aaron Prichett in 2013, have also sold out at Upstairs despite higher ticket prices.

“Both sold out with an expensive ticket price, $40 to $45. Selling a ticket that expensive for anything at Upstairs, it’s a pretty hard thing to sell out. So the country crowd is super-supportive of everything that we do.”

Beyond the region, he pointed to the sheer scale of country music awards shows and its proliferation into pop culture, from Taylor Swift’s massive following to the presence of country musicians on televised talent show contests like The Voice.

But from Friesen’s perspective, success will depend mostly on his own dedication. And in that, he has faith.

“I’m a believer that businesses in Victoria succeed for the most part if they’re driven by someone who has a passion for what they do,” he said. “The root of it all would be my love and addiction to country music.”