Making A Scene: Calgary

By: James Callsen

Making A Scene: Calgary

Calgary is a cowboy town.

There. I said it. There are hundreds, if not thousands, in the Stampede City who are trying to kill the 1000-foot tall cowpoke that seems to tower over this city, but they can't. Calgary is built on the spirit of the cowboy. Not your gun-slinging John Wayne, George W. Bush cowboy spirit, but the independent, hard-working, who - gives - a - fuck - what's - happening - everywhere - else - let's - do - it - OUR - way spirit.

It's that mindset that's created a scene that's incredibly unique, full of attitude and heart and always ready for a challenge. In fact, challenge is actually a word I would use to describe this affluent city of a million. It's a challenge to get to work through mind-splitting gridlock. It's a challenge not to punch Abercrombie & Fitch-wearing douchebags with their gold-digging oil bunnies strolling down 17th avenue on a Saturday night. It's also a challenge to be a musician, or a music fan, in a city where anything artistic, gutsy and above all else, original, permanently sits on the back burner next to things like development, profit and some mega-millionaire club owner's idea of what entertainment should be. (Hint: It seems to involve fake breasts, waitresses wearing holsters and bars named after vaguely "western" things.) A venue trying to promote original music is going to have a hard time convincing their landlord not to increase their rent when a sports bar could easily make five times the profit in the same spot.

But we're here to talk about music, not real estate, aren't we?

The independent streak that runs through Calgary has resulted in some of the most original music you've likely never heard. Take a stroll into one of the dozen (or so) venues on a Friday night, and you could find a '60s girl pop band like The Lovebullies mashed up against the brunt force of an alt-country powerhouse like The Culls. And you know what? The mixture of accountants, construction workers and coked-out kids sporting American Apparel don't care if it doesn't seem right on paper. It works.

Broken City is seen by many as the epicentre of Calgary's downtown scene. Here you'll find wood floors, cheap cans of Lucky Lager and kids in skinny jeans getting off at the Celebrity Hot Tub dance party, or getting down to The Ostrich (one of Calgary's biggest bands that even Calgarians don't know exist). With their tall cans in the air, there's sometimes a fake aura of hipster cool . . . You get the feeling the hipsters are dressing how they think the kids do in Brooklyn, wearing ironic moustaches and praising whatever Spin says is cool. Scenesters aside, you're likely to find something good to dig at Broken City, five days a week.

If there's one place that sums up Calgary's rise to a challenge, its independent spirit and its western roots, it's The Palomino. Sometimes going there feels like you're entering the Alamo because it's basically crack central on the 7th Avenue C-train line. Going outside for a smoke involves scaring away crackheads and drunks. Get inside and it's everything about this city in a bundle. Old Nashville show prints on the wall, lots of rough cut wood, southern smoked BBQ and some of the city's best, diverse music on its basement stage. In a span of a night you could wind up seeing the intelligence of metal/riot girls Kilbourne backed with the poppy-mod-nice guy punks The Neckers or the surf cum spaghetti western-flavoured Ramblin' Ambassadors.

If one wants to venture further out into the suburbs, four miles from downtown, you can find music's last stand in open country. The Stetson has been booking . . . well, basically anyone who wants to play for the past three years, and if there is a sense of "fuck y'all, I'm from Calgary," it's the bunker on McLeod Trail. The Stetson feels like you're at your dad's bar or in Pantera's basement, but it plays home to some of the hardest, most honest acts in the city – folks who don't care they're not playing downtown, or playing to the cool kids.

Oiltown even has a hip hop scene. Yes it's small, but its epicentre is fresh. A guy like Nova Scotia native Ricca Razor Sharp sums up the cross section of Canadians making their home here. Rhyming in his east coast twang, Ricca (aka Jonathan Stoddart) sets Cowtown stereotypes on their head, proving to anyone who cares to listen that we're not all a bunch of oil drilling hicks.

Rolling through town any day of the year (save the ten days of inane debauchery known as the Stampede) you'll find a city based on energy dollars and commercialism, but underneath the layers of concrete and suburbia, you'll find pockets of the real. When one listens to The Evidence, you feel the urgency of the city. It's ever-changing and ever-growing. Turning on The Dudes transforms a sunny afternoon on The Ship & Anchor patio (bar none, the best patio on earth) where all is good and righteous. Cranking The Martyr Index brings out the frustrations in all of us, when rent is sky high and homelessness is on the rise.

Our neighbours to the east and on the coast may sneer, but when you peel away the layers of plastic, polish and oil money, the substance is real. Vancouver may be more open minded, Montreal may have the scene and Toronto could be where it happens, but you can take your western stereotypes and burn them. With original music, no bullshit and welcoming faces, Calgary comes second to none.

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