10 under the radar folk, blues & roots venues in Toronto
On any given night of the week, Toronto has no shortage of folk, roots, and bluegrass music. The Tranzac in the Annex, College Street's Free Times Cafe, C'est What on Front St., the Dakota Tavern, and Hugh's Room, all guarantee a mix of established and emerging artists to fit the bill. As Toronto music lovers know, though, you don't always have to go to a bar to see great bands in the city.
For music audiences looking for less traditional, unexpected, and even off-downtown options, here are 10 under the radar folk, blues and roots venues to hit up in Toronto.
The treasure trove of exotic instruments lining the walls of the Musideum are enough alone to create a sense of appreciation for the music store owned by Donald Quan. But display and sale of unique instruments from around the world are only part of what the shop is: on select evenings it transforms into an intimate performance space featuring musicians from across Canada and the world. Events are ticketed with a general limit of 40 seats. Many performers make use of the beautiful Bechstein grand piano on the mini-stage (the Beatles recorded "Hey Jude" on a Bechstein). Musideum also offers a full recording studio.
The multi-use Gallery 345 measures in at over 2,000 square feet with 12 foot wood beam ceilings and a stage area towards the back. Brightly lit, the performance space has excellent acoustics, live recording capacity, and a 9 foot grand piano. The space is located steps near the Roncesvalles shops in the Toronto's west end. Constructed in the 1890s, it was originally built to manufacture pianos. Now owned by Edward Epstein, it features art exhibits, private events, and concerts.
Set in Scarborough near the Toronto Hunt Club, Acoustic Harvest is a monthly concert series originally developed by (the late) musician Rick Fielding. The history of Acoustic Harvest dates back to 1997 when Fielding and wife Heather and Rev. James Allman presented the first concert at the Greenwood United, then called The Scarborough Acoustic Music Society. The space is currently set in the basement of Robinson Hall/St. Nicholas Anglican Church with established sound-man Jason LaPrade. Featured musicians perform folk, blues, Celtic, bluegrass, and old time music to audiences of 60-100. Advance tickets are available and events have a desserts/refreshment counter, product table, and a quilted banner on display by Pat Armour.
Dominion On Queen
The Wee Folk Club runs on the first and third Thursdays of each month with an emphasis on song and story folk singers. Line ups include established local musicians of some renown and those making their way through Toronto. Each artist performs a shorter set followed by collaboration (often the performers have never met each other before the showcase) and audiences are inspired to join in. The Wee Folk Club is situated in a small room in the back of the Dominion On Queen in Corktown. Founded by Enoch Kent and Alex Sinclair, the concert series pays homage to the tradition of British Folk Clubs.
The Toronto Centre for the Arts
The Toronto Arts Centre near Yonge and Sheppard plays host to Bare Bones & Up Front every Thursday this year from September 11th to October 30th. Produced by Elana Harte (Hartfelt Muisc) and Kim Jarrett, the 8 week series will feature some of the GTA's best independent artists-songwriters. Each evening showcases 2 musicians "stripped down to the essence of their songs and musical concepts." Past alumni of Bare Bones & Up Front series are: Kristin Sweetland & Paul Reddick, Arlene Bishop & Elana Harte, Sarah Burton & Kim Jarrett, Rehan Dalal & Wendell Ferguson, Fergus Hambleton & Tim Bovaconti, Patrick Ballantyne & Meredith Shaw, Melanie Brulee & Julian Taylor, Blair Packham & LINDY.
Village Vinyl Music Emporium & Cafe
Village Vinyl in New Toronto pairs new releases, rare items, DVDs, used CDs, music memorabilia, and vinyl albums along with baked goods and espresso. But it also features live music every Sunday afternoon (2:30-4:30pm) of all genres. Looking to recreate the feel of the 50's and 60's Village Coffee Houses, Village Vinyl continues to support and discover local independent music. Three quarters gets you a play on the jukebox.
The family run Humble Beginnings serves eat-in and take out meals in the heart of the Junction. They also showcase live acoustic music every Saturday (12:30-2:30pm). Seating in the back is a modest 15-20 patrons and often filled for each performance. Folk, jazz, blues, and Flamenco are all featured in generally solo or duo format. Artists are local talent, many known through local open stages.
If the inside of the Kensington Lodge looks like the inside of someone's house, it's because it once was. The owners of the Lodge have renovated a Victorian house (built in 1888) in Kensington Market. The inside is cozy with a fireplace, seating, a bar built from wood from the house itself, and a back patio. Soups, panini, a fully stocked bar with wine and draft beer is available (it currently has a cash only policy). On Thursday night open mic night is hosted by Derek Mok, and other calendar events include jazz, folk, singer-songwriter, a last-Friday-of-the-month Euchre night, and private bookings.
Fat Albert's Open Stage and Coffee House
Fat Albert's has been Toronto (if not North America's) longest running open stage. For over 30 years Fat Albert's called the basement of the Bloor St. United Church home, where Canadian folk greats Bob Snider, Neil Young, and Ron Sexsmith all made their way on the open stage. Following a rental disagreement over a decade ago, Fat Albert's was briefly locked out, and the open stage moved locations to the United Steelworkers Hall on Cecil St. Open stage is every Wednesday night with sign up at 7pm and music at 8pm. Welcoming of all levels of musicianship, talent, and society, the venue has kept the feel of the 60's songwriter era. Each performer usually gets 1 or 2 songs with a featured performer. Coffee, tea, and biscuits are provided with the $2 cover charge (originally $1 for many years). No one has ever been turned away for lack of funds.
More and more common House Concerts offer a solution to continuously playing the usual bars, music rooms, and concert halls, and a chance to hear some of the finest performing artists in an intimate setting. How often can you hear Brent Mason, Dave Gunning or Emilyn Stam in your neighbour's living room with your closest friends? With no hard rules as to how to host a House Concert, guidelines provided by Acoustic Roof and/or Home Routes are a good jumping point to put on successful shows. Generally these concerts are fully acoustic (no amplification) with performances in spaces for 25-40 (sometimes 60) people. Lists of touring/available artists and event host info is also provided by Acoustic Roof and Home Routes.
Writing by Ryan Ayukawa. Photo via Village Vinyl.