Punk rock shows find a new home in Saanich

While live music in the downtown core struggles to rebound, a working class Saanich bar with a family foundation has quietly become a hotspot for punk rock in the city.

A non-descript building on upper Quadra Street, sandwiched between an industrial food equipment supplier and a furniture manufacturer, houses the Phoenix Bar and Grill, where punk shows have taken off of late. In recent weeks, the establishment has been selling out every weekend, with socially distanced shows on Fridays and Saturdays staged at 50 per cent capacity.

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Once home the Nautilus Club, where athletes from the nearby squash courts would enjoy a post-match libation, the Phoenix is where the music-loving crowd from the former Logan’s Pub on Cook Street, which closed in 2020, congregates nowadays. General manager Jen Turner allows organizers to keep all the door admission on show nights, which will grow even further when the bar returns to its full 150-person limit once the pandemic eases.

“The community is massive,” Turner said. “They had their venue taken away, now one has been given back to them. They’re thankful.”

Turner’s father, owner-operator Mike Turner, purchased the business 13 years ago. The liquor-primary establishment has maintained a steady daytime clientele in recent years, but keeping the room busy at night on the weekends was always a problem. That is not an issue today: Turner says Friday and Saturday nights at the bar are booked through December, thanks to its recent switch to punk, metal and hard rock acts.

“We had one punk show, and it just blew our minds,” Turner said. “And then from there, it almost just became a respect thing. These bands were like: ‘Is it OK for us to be in here?’ It took off from there.”

The Phoenix tried its hand with one-off punk shows as far back as 2016, but the majority of acts that played the room in the intervening years were traditional cover bands aimed at older audiences. “It was a little harder to sell live music to a generation that was asleep by the time the bands started to play,” Turner said.

She was approached in the summer of 2019 by local punk bands, “when our shows weren’t really making it over the halfway mark.” After a few successful test runs, she took a hard look at punk shows and the community they attract as a viable entertainment option. Fans of local punk acts like Fully Crazed and Class of 1984 didn’t have a problem coming early and staying late, which helped boost the bottom line on nights when Turner booked punk bands.

“We’re a family business, always have been,” she said. “We’re here six days a week, double shifts, the whole nine yards. So when something gets throws in your lap like that, I’m putting 150 per cent into it.”

The majority of historic local punk shows — from D.O.A. and the Dishrags at the Dominion Hall in 1978 to The Subhumans and Black Flag at the O.A.P. Hall in 1982 — took place in and around downtown Victoria, but outlying areas have always been incubators for music with an edge. Sooke, Esquimalt, Central Saanich and Sidney have birthed some of the area’s most influential punk and metal acts, with Saanich — once home to the legendary Nomeansno — in the mix as well.

The Phoenix Bar and Grill is adding to the legacy of Saanich by giving punk rock a much-needed home in the COVID-19 era. And business is booming for the only venue in the city — let alone the suburbs — to book predominantly alternative, punk and metal acts.

“It’s important, especially for our type of music, because there are no places in town for that,” said guitarist Jono McGee, whose band, Rival Gang, played at the Phoenix on July 31. “Logan’s was our home, and they let us run with it. I have that same type of feeling at the Phoenix. Our first show there in 18 months was great. Everyone respected the staff and respected the building. [The Turners] have opened our arms to us. They are embracing it. And our community couldn’t be happier.“

Turner was nothing but complimentary of the attendees, who often get an unfair rap for the way they look, she said. She certainly doesn’t have a problem with how they act; Punk shows are neither violent nor dangerous, she said. During the pandemic, everyone is required to sit, but even when the pandemic subsides, and more people populate the venue, she doesn’t expect problems.

As a business owner, it wouldn’t make sense for her to put the bar or bar staff in danger.

“If anything, it’s the opposite. Very rarely do I even need extra security on these nights, because the people in the crowd are like in-house security. There’s no entitlement. They’re sweet, they’re happy to be here. It’s perfect. We had a show, and a mirror accidentally got broken, and not even 12 hours later someone [from the punk community] had replaced it.”

As for the impact on the surrounding area, which is more commercial than residential, it is minimal. Sound does not travel far outside the second-floor venue, which has concrete walls. “We have some wild punk and metal shows in here, and there’s not a peep outside. It’s the perfect location for it.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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