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Pubs give new life to local live music

There has been a paradigm shift in Victoria’s live-music community of late, the beneficiaries of which are the highly skilled musicians who entertain audiences — every night — in pubs and clubs in this city.
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W. Dale Mallock of Darcy's Pub: "Everybody wanted to be original. But I could give them a steady paycheque."

There has been a paradigm shift in Victoria’s live-music community of late, the beneficiaries of which are the highly skilled musicians who entertain audiences — every night — in pubs and clubs in this city.

Some play only cover songs, while others focus on original material. Regardless of the scenario, it appears that Victorians who play music professionally have it pretty good at the moment, with a range of nightspots committed to offering live, local music on multiple days per week.

It’s a win-win for Victoria. Pubs are full, musicians are getting paid and music fans aren’t often required to pay admission.

Canoe Brewpub, Bard & Banker, Irish Times, Swans Brew Pub and Darcy’s Pub are leading the way. Popular attractions in their own right, each venue offers a considerable amount of locals-only live music, much of it the cover-band variety. That’s an about-face from a decade or two ago, when the emphasis for promoters was on booking out-of-town acts or local heroes who could play a 90-minute set of strictly original music.

In the end, given the popularity of Swans and Darcy’s Pub, it would appear that pub owners are simply giving the people what they want: local bands playing live music, be it their own or that of someone else.

“This city has become very supportive of local cover bands,” said Jets Overhead singer-guitarist Adam Kittredge, who plays in bands of both the original and cover variety.

“Pretty much every musician who plays in a cover band has a lot of other irons in the fire. I don’t think they would be able to do that as effectively if it wasn’t for the support of the pubs and patrons who frequent the pubs.”

W. Dale Mallock, co-owner of Darcy’s Pub in downtown Victoria, moved to the city in 1996. What he saw back then was a city unsure of its live-music identity. He took the reins of the popular Wharf Street pub in 2003 and saw an opportunity waiting to be explored. At the time, Darcy’s was doing live music two nights a week. He wanted to change its approach, but found himself out of options with regard to live music.

“There were only two cover bands out there that I could hire,” Mallock said with a laugh. “We needed more bands.”

With the well already dry, Mallock hit the pavement. He eventually coerced Kittredge into hosting a jam night each Monday, out of which a number of cover bands began to take shape, including the Southern Urge and the Broken Strings, which Kittredge fronts to this day. But even with the help of Kittredge, Mallock had to sell the appeal of Darcy’s to potential musicians.

“When I would suggest they start up a cover band, I would see their nose curl up. Everybody wanted to be original. But I could give them a steady paycheque. I want to be fair to these guys, give them a regular gig and a reasonable dollar figure.”

After two years of tinkering, Darcy’s went live seven nights a week in 2005. The scene is now crowded with competition, though it appears there is enough room for everyone. Not since the heyday of the late ’80s, when bands would play a run of nights at a local nightspot, has the city been so full of musical activity.

 

Some will bemoan the presence of cover bands and their ilk, which could be perceived as cutting into the territory of musicians who slave over their own original music. But for acts like Electric Timber Company, which performs multiple sets of mostly original music every Sunday at the Bard & Banker, the opportunity to perform freshly written songs before a supportive crowd is invaluable.

That sentiment is echoed by drummer Matt Johnson. He has been playing original material with Vancouver hit-makers 54-40 since 1986, but he’s on-board with the new regime. Though he still tours with 54-40, the Saltspring Island-based musician plays in several Victoria cover bands on a weekly basis.

Johnson believes there is a sense of originality at play, even in the cover-band realm.

“Musicians who also have recording careers just want to play,” he said. “There is a culture here in Victoria, which I noticed when I first started playing here. Bands that were doing cover gigs aren’t necessarily trying to make the song perfect or sound exactly like the song everyone is familiar with. They put their own spin on it.”

In the past, that wasn’t always the case. Gangs of musicians in pursuit of some free beer and a place to house their friends for a night was the territory of weekend warriors, rockers with day jobs who cut loose with instruments on Friday and Saturday nights. Though the spirit was there, at times the results were barely rudimentary.

In the late ’90s, when times were tough and money was tight, bar and pub owners across the city cut live music in favour of DJs playing Top 40 hits. That tide turned in recent years and has swung back in favour of musicians with instruments, cover band or otherwise.

In fact, the business model is such that Mallock is opening a second Darcy’s Pub location next week on the West Shore. He hopes to replicate at the former Station House Pub the success he has had on Wharf Street. “We’re going to start with bands three nights a week — Monkey Wrench, the Broken Strings and the Southern Urge — but if the demographic dictates, I’ll go seven,” he said.

“If I can get a 100 people out here on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, I am going to put a band on stage, no doubt about it.”

Stages are getting more crowded by the month. Bartholomew’s — a live-music mainstay for decades — is set to reopen following renovations, and local haunt Hermann’s Jazz Club is back in action with a mostly local lineup of music on every day of the month.

Competition only fuels more interest, and more people spending money at pubs offering local music is never a bad thing.

What often gets lost in translation is the quality of the musicians behind the music. Bassist Aaron Scoones has a decade of exemplary experience behind him, including studies at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music. Though he plays in one of the city’s most visible cover bands, the Timebenders, he also splits his off hours between the Electric Timber Company and another popular original act, Towers and Trees.

He’s making a living playing music, which isn’t something he took as a given while studying at Berklee.

“If you’re willing to say yes to everything, you can make a living. And that’s important, because you never know who is going to call you for an opportunity. It may be a person who saw you play at a pub, or another band who needs you to fill in. It’s all a matter of saying yes.”

Johnson says the two sides of his performing personality complement each other. He gets his fill of original music in 54-40 and gets to try out new things with bands like the Riverside, which features another popular Can-rock performer, Tom Hooper of the Grapes of Wrath.

“The calibre of talent in a lot of the bands around Victoria is so high. People in Victoria might even be a little spoiled. When they are going to see these so-called cover bands playing other peoples’ songs, the actual calibre of musicianship is something special. I don’t think you get that in other cities.”

Johnson, who has toured the world, says it is important to remember who makes it all happen. Without the support of the pubs and clubs, the new culture wouldn’t exist.

“You wouldn’t have that without the availability of the venues. There are these rooms that take music seriously, have great sound systems and pay people well enough that you get a great talent pool.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com