Canopy Music Theatre is Toronto's secret concert venue and it's changing people's lives
It was the lure of the big city which inspired Winnipeg-born Josh Piché to move to Toronto, where a decade later he is a respected musician, recording artist, host and community leader.
"It was a great music centre, and I wanted to be where the action was," he tells me over a patio pint. "I really fell in love with the pace of the city and the energy."
"Dave's was this really special little scene with songwriters and jazz musicians and folk musicians and blues guys and everyone collaborating and a very 'Cheers' vibe where everybody knows your name."
"You're always waiting to see who's walking through the door next. Usually someone you know or someone that you're about to know. The pandemic ended all of that and it definitely left a hole in our neighbourhood. It was a special moment in time," Piché reflects.
Together with his friend and talented sound engineer Terry Jenkins, last year they founded the Canopy Music Theatre. Perhaps the most charming element of this socially distant space is that it is in fact Josh's backyard.
"The theatre is a bit of a hush-hush secret in terms of its location. People who want to see a show get secret instructions on how to find the place, so it has a bit of an underground vibe."
"I guess creating the theatre here was a natural decision when we were talking about what you would need for live music....it had to be outdoors, spacious enough for social distance, and before we knew it, this yard checked a lot of those boxes."
Adds co-founder Jenkins: "Pretty much after every show we asked ourselves, how do we improve? We found that creating the atmosphere visually was really important – so we added candles, for example, and that helped to establish a vibe and tone. We worked on improving the sound, not only for the physical audience but also for online."
"The reaction from the community has really been nothing but positive. The neighbours love it, we have people popping their heads over their fences and yelling from a distance, cheering from a distance, setting off fireworks at the end of a show."
"We originally did this for the musicians but quickly realized that the neighbourhood has been finding peace from it just as much if not more."
Piché, who currently pays the bills by working construction for the film industry, has insisted not to take a booking fee or a cut from musicians, leaving it up to them to tip the sound tech if they are able.
Audiences are explicitly encouraged to bring generous cash contributions for the artists, who include a diverse array of seasoned indie talents such as troubadours Derek Downham and Marcus Walker, Abenaki Franco-Ontarian roots musician Mimi O’Bonsawin, bluesmen Sean Pinchin and Lucas Stagg, to name a few.
Says O’Bonsawin: "I've played at Canopy Music Theatre two summers now. Canopy is a glimmer of hope during these times where we have seen our industry fall apart and venues closing in Toronto. It shows how musicians take care of musicians, Josh being a very talented musician himself."
"Canopy has a magical energy and provides the perfect place to connect people back to songs and stories. I love Canopy with all my heart. It drew me out of the darkness of this pandemic and reminded me of how much I love playing music."
Since the venue is not yet weather-proof, bands typically are booked to perform on a given weekend with performance date confirmed on Monday based on local weather forecast. This is grass-roots community building at its best, and could easily happen anywhere.
"Our biggest hope is to have imitators," says Piché with an earnest smile.
"We want those imitators to reach out to us and to know that we are a source of information on how to do this…'cause we had to solve a thousand problems to get to where we are now and we are going to have to solve ten thousand more."
"Some nights we dealt with wildlife – baby raccoons, a cat, a possum who walked through a show – it kept us on our toes. Bottom line is we are on to something that's working for lots of different parties involved, so we want to share that. And we want to see a new scene come out of this."
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