After a summer return of live music, Hamilton artists thank the venues that ‘stuck around’

After a summer return of live music, Hamilton artists thank the venues that 'stuck around'

When psychobilly and horror rock bands The House of Haunt, The Brains and Gallows Bound took the stage at This Ain’t Hollywood on March 12, 2020, little did music fans in Hamilton know It would be one of the city’s last live shows for some time.

The show would in fact be the final one for the venue. The iconic Hamilton bar was sold that spring, just as the pandemic started hitting the city’s arts and culture sector hard with closures.

“This Ain’t Hollywood was on the verge of closing for quite a while,” House of Haunt vocalist and guitarist Matthew ‘Fang Binite’ Vörös said, looking back. 

“The strength of the scene and the strength of the people kept it alive.”

The venue’s closure ushered in a difficult time for the industry, but more than two years later, COVID restrictions on live music venues are fully lifted. Hamilton artists are emerging from a summer nearly back on track, after navigating a music scene deeply impacted by the pandemic.

Well-known venues in the city — The Casbah, Mills Hardware, Doors Taco Joint and Metal Bar, and Corktown Pub, to name a few — are back to near-regular programming.

Thousands of music fans caught many a live act on stage, as Supercrawl returned to James Street North in September.

The city has also seen new venues enter the scene, such as the Sonic Unyon Records-owned Bridgeworks, which opened last year. Underground DJ venue Sous Bas was sold to new owners, who relaunched it as Andthenyou in June.

But the industry which relies on live performances for revenue also saw many losses over the past few years.  This Ain’t Hollywood and the Cat N’ Fiddle closed permanently. Absinthe also closed, although it hinted on Oct. 7 on Facebook that it was ready to re-open.

“I am very grateful for those venue owners that stuck around,” musician Andrew Adu Amoah said in an interview earlier this year. Amoah is the lead singer and composer of the Hamilton post-apocalyptic funk band Papa Skin Freak.

“Hats off to those who didn’t just quit. But who believed in musicians and artists and are architects of hope really,” he said.

The band went back to playing live throughout the spring and summer. This return included shows at Hamilton’s Corktown Pub and Toronto’s Supermarket. Looking back on the band’s performance at Corktown, Amoah said the show’s atmosphere reminded him of the magic of live performance.

“That interplay between the artist with the band members and the artist with the audience was beautiful to watch,” Amoah said. “It felt really good, especially because [the band played] original music. [The crowd] hadn’t heard [those] songs before and yet, we got people dancing.”

‘The world missed going out’

Performing allows artists to build relationships and connections within the music scene. The pandemic put a dent in that ability, as several Ontario artists told CBC Hamilton.

Kingston-based singer-songwriter and Hinterwood vocalist Sadie McFadden said the uncertainty of the pandemic made booking shows difficult.

“I remember when we were trying to book a show and the people who I once knew were no longer doing booking,” she said. “There’s a loss of connections that are really important to the music industry there, but there’s also the loss of money at the physical venues. With these things together, there’s financial hardship on the venues that also gets passed down to musicians.”

Hats off to those who didn’t just quit. But who believed in musicians and artists and are architects of hope really.

Not only did the pandemic take a financial toll on venues and artists but McFadden, who has played Hamilton in the past, said the loss of longstanding venues has been emotional for artists like her.

Places like This Ain’t Hollywood are often “like home base for a lot of different musicians,” she said. “There’s a lot of places that, even if they didn’t close down, they might not be offering live music anymore. So, it’s a loss of community as well.”

Hinterwood vocalist Sadie McFadden says the pandemic cost her important connections in Hamilton’s music scene. (Kate Pichora/submitted by Sadie McFadden)

For Kitchener singer-songwriter Alyssa Mikuljan, who also goes by Alyssa DVM, venues like Corktown offer the space to bring a passion project to life. Over the last few months, Mikuljan has been teaming up with artists from across genres to put on a series of shows celebrating women in music.

“Unless you’re in the music industry, [the presence of women in music is] not something that’s really talked about,” Mikuljan said. “Everyone [who attended the first shows at Corktown] loved it, to my knowledge.”

McFadden, Mikuljan and Vörös all said they’ve noticed revitalized enthusiasm toward live music among audiences, even as some feel unsure of being in a crowd and interacting with performers.

“The world missed going out,” Vörös said. “They missed live music. I find shows are attended more post-pandemic than they were pre pandemic.”

Mikuljan says artists are more thoughtful about what they are offering an audience and are careful not to overbook a venue or city, so people still come out. 

“You don’t want super close performance days at the same place,” Mikuljan said, adding it had been harder to draw in crowds as pandemic restrictions lessened. “People want new and unique experiences.”

As the winter months draw near, musicians like Mikuljan, McFadden and Vörös look to focus on writing and recording new songs. Amoah is also shifting focus towards developing Papa Skin Freak’s social media presence and, by extension, their audience.

“We will do a couple shows in the region,” Amoah said. “But as far as I’m concerned, we’re all full speed torpedoes, spreading the gospel and trying to get in the pockets of people from around the world who love that little bit of funk soul hybrid the way we do it.”

Mikuljan said she’s optimistic, despite the uncertainty the winter months may bring.

“I hope people will continue to support live music,” Mikuljan said, “because I’m glad that it’s back.”

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