Looking back, it’s not always the what, but the where. Here are Calgary’s 10 best music venues for 2015, along with a signature show for each.
In the vein of hipster dive bars, Broken City is a classic, and remains a staple of the city’s rock scene. No matter how long it’s been since your last visit, things haven’t changed a bit.
Best of 2015 – Windigo
Barry Mason’s manic lead guitar playing was softened by the measured pop sensibilities of Anthony Kameka on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. On breakdowns and slow songs when bassist Jen Severtson offered vocals, they sounded for a second like a psychedelic, prairie London Grammar.
Commonwealth Bar & Stage
Commonwealth’s main room is serviceable enough as a dancefloor (and that built-in fast food takeout window has been a godsend more than once) but it’s excellent as a stage—and intimate as any in the city. Although it hasn’t been around long, Commonwealth is quickly establishing itself as a popular booking for touring international acts.
Best of 2015 – Onra
The room came alive when he started spinning material from his impressive Chinoiseries halfway through the set, remixing 1960s Vietnamese folk music into short, uber-unique club cuts that make you feel like you’re in some kind of hip hop kung fu film.
This is Calgary’s most elusive venue. Confoundingly, it was purpose-built for music by the Calgary Folkfest organization only a couple years ago, but hosts shows very irregularly—case in point: there are only four events currently scheduled for all of 2016. Festival Hall’s most impressive aspect is its series of false walls that adjust the size of the space to match the attendance of each concert, making every show as intimate as possible.
Best of 2015 – Lisa Leblanc
Asked to categorize her uber-unique sound, Leblanc remarked “folk trash”. Her show was a whirlwind of energy, oscillating between tenacious and tender almost as fast as she switched between French and English. The icing on the cake: an audience-requested Motorhead cover as an encore—on a banjo.
Jack Singer Concert Hall
Bar none, this is the city’s most beautiful venue. Shows here have a sort of reverence, as aspects like the terraced balconies and antique pipe organ give a sepia-tinged air of yesteryear.
Best of 2015 – Bahamas
Afie Jurvanen’s warm, sometimes melancholic folk rock seemed a perfectly fit for the venue—tried but enduring. The moving atmosphere of the evening was only enhanced by a stunning opening set by a solo John K Sampson of the Weakerthans.
It’s the home of the Alberta Ballet, yes, but it’s also renown for state of the art acoustics and is Calgary’s best theatre-style music venue.
Best of 2015 – Ryan Adams
Adams’ live show was as versatile as he is, drifting effortlessly between brash garage rock bangers and delicate singer-songwriter heartache.
The HiFi Club
For years, HiFi has been the go-to dancefloor for Calgary’s DJ community. It’s the city’s most prominent dance club for true electronic and hip hop fans.
Best of 2015 – Cyril Hahn
Passing through Calgary from Vancouver on his way to a European tour, Hahn demonstrated why his star is still rising. Although he made his name with airy, atmospheric pop remixes, his set was filled with clubby, melodic techno cuts consisting of wholly original material.
Nite Owl is the new kid on the city’s night life block, but it’s quickly establishing itself as a prominent venue. It’s not-so-secret weapon is double barreled: a big, rowdy stage upstairs (complete with glowing disco dancefloor) and a small, low-key, library-themed stage downstairs have bands five nights a week.
Best of 2015: I Am The Mountain
I Am The Mountain were only openers, but they charmed everyone in the room with their soulful folk nostalgia right down to the framed watercolours as stage accents and stoic trumpeter. A close second place goes to Whitey Houston, a side project of members of Shout Out Out Out (complete with full time maraca player!) who shared a birthday cake with the entire crowd. The first hand in the cake? The Dudes’ Dan Vacon wearing an oversize fur vest.
Bonus points for the occasionally used upstairs stage (not to mention the house made barbecue sauces), but strolling downstairs to the Showroom is to uncover a Calgary music gem. The space itself is nothing to speak of, but it’s the chosen haunt of many of the city’s burgeoning indie bands.
Best of 2015 – The Mountaineer
Coupling expressive songwriting with shimmering guitars, their energetic set showed how The Mountaineer might be the best Calgary band you’ve never heard of.
Sadly, 2015 marked the end for Republik, which hosted events on iconic 17th avenue for the last time this Fall. Republik was a unique room (what did that building used to be anyway? A haunted mansion?) and leaves a unique hole in the Calgary nightlife scene: a great venue for shows too big for smaller clubs (like Palomino and Broken City), but too small for more sizable halls (like Mac Hall). So long, old friend.
Best of 2015 – The Jezabels
Although the Jezabels’ brand of indie pop is often moody-broody, their live set was spirited and uplifting. Silky smooth lead singer Hayley Mary was nothing short of mesmerizing during the bands’ many anthemic choruses.
Some bands just outgrow theatres, and for any audience bigger than a couple thousand people, this has to be the venue of choice in Calgary. Yes, it’s all arena shows, but the lack of seating on the floor means more floor tickets and closer proximity to the stage, like a real show. And, because the place isn’t too big, even if you can’t get on the floor you still feel like part of the show.
Best of 2015 – Alt J
Alt-J’s textured blend of fuzzy space synths and falsetto hoots and hollers make for an oddball rock and roll show, but their impressive stage lighting and gigantic drum tone set an atmospheric tone from the first note to their haunting rendition of Hunger Of The Pines to end the set.
Calgary, it’s been swell. See you in 2016.
Calgary, it’s been swell. See you in 2016.
WORDS: Brett Fillmore
LEAD IMAGE: Tourism Calgary