The Royal Albert courtesy of Heritage Winnipeg
In 1871, with Queen Victoria on hand, a gorgeous theatre called the Royal Albert opened for business in London, presenting the finest in entertainment for a who's who audience of well-heeled toffs and their molls. One day, the Who would play a dazzling concert there amidst the sweeping columns and intricate classical friezes, under the glorious circular roof with its breathtaking architecture.
by Melissa Martin
Unfortunately, the Royal Albert that I now find myself in is absolutely nothing like its British namesake. Haphazardly thrown up in boomtown Winnipeg, Manitoba at the turn of the 20th century, the Royal Albert Arms is a quasi-legendary dive bar: Nashville Pussy's Ruyter Suys and Blaine Cartwright fell in love here while tripping on LSD. Instead of sweeping columns, there are exposed water pipes, dripping bleakly. Instead of plush balcony seats, there are torn, standard issue office chairs. And the audience of well-heeled toffs and their molls? Not here- instead, you'll find a smattering of largely alcoholic, largely unemployed vagrants who keep up residence in the hotel's cheap, reeking rooms.
Yet somehow, this is the last stand of Winnipeg hip, a joint that on alternate nights is a haven for punkers, rockers, goths, mods, activists, and the other assorted cliques of aspiring cynics. Sometimes there's good music here. Sometimes it's brilliant, sometimes it's an act that is too terrible to be dignified with the title of "garage band." Sometimes it's even a circus freak from the Jim Rose Sideshow passing through.
This is what it's about to be caught between the coasts, in a sleepy not-quite-metropolis of 700,000 people stuck smack-dab in the middle of the Canadian prairie. Sure, we listen to all the right bands: the International Noise Conspiracy, the Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Frank Black, the Pixies, the White Stripes, the Moldy Peaches, and until recently the Strokes (who have, of course, been replaced by the Hives and the Vines in recent months). We strut about in our one-of-a-kind duds designed by New York's indie fashion houses. We order our platform boots online from gothic London boutiques and we cop super-edgy hair colors.
But we're not hip: we're more a hip replacement. No matter how glossy the sheen, it's obvious that it's faux. No matter how aloof our attitudes, it's obvious we're really pretty naive. And with one eye cocked to the unfathomably, astoundingly, cosmically hip goings-on in New York, Los Angeles or Seattle, we insulate ourselves against envy the only way we know how: by playing increasingly better music and pretending we don't really care that no one else in the world cares about us.
After performing to a mostly empty house at the abovementioned Albert one night, songwriter Ian Somers of the sublime indie band Brundlefly contemplates the dilemma. "I don't think it's just in Winnipeg," the Vancouverite says, sipping his only complementary beer. "I think all of Canada has that problem."
He's probably right. Living in Canada, its legions of certified Can-Con (AKA Canadian content: a regulation imposed on radio demands a certain percentage of Canadian artists are played) rock heroes' names sound impossibly quaint to American ears (think Our Lady Peace, I Mother Earth, Matthew Good, and of course the very inventors of Can-rock, the Tragically Hip). We are caught between a rock and a rockin' place. Sometimes we manage to export a few bands South of the border, but they tend to be the antithesis of anti-commercial hip: Nickelback and Sum 41, or Winnipeg acts like Chantal Kreviazuk and Remy Shand. In a huge deal, local act Sonic Bloom just became the second band signed to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger's record label, 604/Roadrunner Records (after the insipidly derivative Theory of a Deadman), but they don't represent the heart and soul of the true Canadian sound.
Here's the real deal: we've got something going on here. Sure, the music scene in Winnipeg (or most other Canadian centers) looks like a regular ol' barn-raising next to the glittering orgies of cool that major Stateside cities boast: but diamonds do come from coal seams. Amidst all the Nickelback knock-offs are a smattering of astoundingly unique, irrepressibly creative bands. Maybe you've heard of some of them: you'll probably never hear of the rest.
So let's take Winnipeg, my beloved little not-quite-metropolis, as a microcosm of the country. Sure, you can blame us for the Guess Who and Neil Young but don't think it ended there. As Damon Mitchell, guitarist extraordinaire and frontman for successful local jam-rock outfit the New Meanies once said, "in Winnipeg during the winter, you're basically stuck inside the house the entire time. So there's only two things to do: have sex and play music." He was right. With no mountains to block the shrieking winter winds, temperatures in Winnipeg during January regularly drop below minus 30 degrees Celsius. Call it creativity by confinement: but when the summer hits, the city starts rocking.
John K of the Weakerthans
We have our version of Greenwich Village here: Osborne Village and the Exchange District, two areas spanning a few square blocks, perpetually swarming with various creative types. Upstairs from the local anarcho-communist cafe stands the offices of the G-7 Welcoming Committee who, with their vociferously radical politics, have become one of the biggest underground labels in the nation. Their torch-bearing bands are familiar to many: political punk icon Propagandhi (which has sold over 250,000 records worldwide) and its less political, more romantic indie-pop counterpart, the Weakerthans. When the Weakerthans' John K. Samson wrote an enchanting little ditty called "I Hate Winnipeg," he was being tongue-in-cheek. But when he wrote "my city's still breathing (but barely it's true)," on the title track from the band's indie-smash record Left and Leaving, Samson summed up the inferiority complex of an entire culture.
Harlots photo by MasterAndy
But Samson is far from the only voice or tone of the Winnipeg music scene. There are the rockers, an informal family of local veterans who have been kicking around the scene for years. Between the Harlots (who could possibly be the hottest independent band in Canada with their brisk, passionately creative take on guitar rock) and the spritely pop-rock progressions of the Paperbacks, between the sassy old-school "cunt rock" of the Vagiants and the dreamy '60's pop psychedelia of the Waking Eyes, is a world of diversity. Of course, our little town is also home to Duotang, a veteran drum-and-bass duo that invokes the spirit of the Mod revival with unparalleled emotive intensity, and to Loco, a heavy-rock outfit that regularly outplays half of the Korn sound-alikes on the market. The Lovedaddys, with their highly literary take on a sort of Nirvana-meets-Donovan rock, may have disbanded but songwriter Michael Thibault is still sending out his intellectually challenging lyrics in the company of Mike Trike. There's also Projektor, with its atmospheric, accessible take on Radiohead and local legend Jason Churko, whose Chords of Canada project dishes out some of the most intelligent and evocative indie-pop in the nation.
Our roots scene is thriving too: songwriters Christine Fellows and Greg MacPherson have been household names across Canada for several years. The Scott Nolan Band recently released its masterfully authentic dive into vintage country and on any given weekend, you can find the D-Rangers dishing out delightful doses of bluegrass at the smoky blues bar down the street. And that's to say nothing of Nathan... a band, not a man... whose quirky carnivalesque folk has won them international acclaim. And let's not forget the Winnipeg Folk Festival which, after almost 30 years, has become one of North America's most respected and high-profile folk events, with almost 40,000 paid attendees yearly.
It hardly ends there. We've got Frek Sho and Mood Ruff for the hip-hop fans out there, Rudimentale with the funk, the Hummers with the experimental ambient funk, Big Dave McLean and Billie Joe Green with the blues and the Wedgewoods with the ska. We've got dozens of thrash and grindcore bands, a vociferous community of punks (fronted by the Insaniacs and, on the pop-punk side, Burn The 8 Track, which is a reformation of the defunct but internationally beloved Guy Smiley), a tight jazz community, and enough talent packed into one tiny little city to make one's head spin.
But try shipping that across the border: it's tremendously expensive for a band to get the papers together that will allow it to make an extended tour of the U.S. Short jaunts to the border states mean playing to largely empty clubs in say, Fargo (which, by comparison, makes Winnipeg look like Greenwich Village itself).
And as for the rest of Canada? Couldn't be bothered. They're too busy puzzling out the chords to "How You Remind Me." And anyway, a national population of 35 million focused in about ten major population centers spread across an impossibly vast nation, it's harder to get outside of your hometown than it is south of the border.
Meanwhile, Winnipeg acts, who frequently surpass the best that rock radio has to offer, languish in obscurity. Winnipeg isn't exactly a hopping tourist destination: despite the beauty of the city, its character-laden turn-of-the-century buildings, cheap beer, and vibrant alternative culture, not many people put a year's savings into coming here. Major-label presence is close to zero: so with only the vaguest dreams of one day playing in front of a frothy New York crowd, artists just keep banging away, writing progressively more intelligent and unique music, and playing for no-one but themselves.
So, sitting here in the Albert, one ear cocked to the cute Apples in Stereo derivative band onstage, and one ear desperately straining to hear some cosmic reverberation of whatever new hot band is hitting the stage in New York at precisely the same time, I'm officially making a stand: it's OK to be unhip. It's okay to cut your musical teeth in a sleepy not-quite-metropolis stuck smack-dab in the middle of the Canadian prairies. And it's OK to find the most sublime musical variations while you're sandwiched at the bar between two surly, likely alcoholic vagrants pounding back their cheap draught beers.
Meanwhile, a bleary-eyed, dirty Royal Albert Hotel resident taps me on the shoulder as he absentmindedly bangs away at his VLT. "Hey, you a groupie?" he slurs. "'Cause you sure look like one."
Sorry buddy. Maybe in New York.
Essential Manitoba Music Links:
Note: the Harlots do not currently have a website. However, they being my pick of the best straight-up rock band that possibly all of Canada has to offer, please keep an eye out for one, coming soon.
- The Paperbacks: http://www3.mb.sympatico.ca/~pacer/
- Projektor: http://www.geocities.com/projektormusic/start.html/
- D-Rangers: http://members.shaw.ca/d.rangers/
- Christine Fellows: http://www.christinefellows.com/
- Greg MacPherson: http://www.gregmacpherson.com/
- Frek Sho: http://www.freksho.com/
- The Vagiants: http://thevagiants.tripod.com/
- The Hummers: http://www.the-hummers.com/
- Loco: http://www.locox.com/
- The Wedgewoods: http://www.wedgewoods.com/
- Weakerthans: http://www.theweakerthans.org/
- G-7 Welcoming Committee: http://www.g7welcomingcommitee.com Activist and political punk, rock, and hardcore
- Endearing Records: http://www.endearing.com Indie-pop and indie-rock
- Smallman Records: http://www.smallmanrecords.com All subgenres of punk
- Bacteria Buffet: http://www.rwpo.freeservers.com/ All-Winnipeg ska label
- Winnipeg Folk Festival: http://www.winnipegfolkfestival.ca
- Manitoba Audio Recording Industry Association: http://www.manitobamusic.com/ (this is a brand-spanking new, huge website dedicated to Manitoban musicians of all genres)
- Prairie Music Week: http://www.prairiemusicweek.com/ (this website contains numerous audio clips of bands who showcased at the recent PMW, hosted in Winnipeg, including a number of the bands mentioned in this article)
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