August 06, 1999 Features & Images » Feature Story

live scene 

Alive and kicking, for now Can Whistler sustain the current boom in live music? By Paul Andrew Fifteen years ago, Whistler wasn’t a place where you’d expect to find a lot of live music. It was a place for city folks to party on the weekends, but not necessarily to see a live band. If there was live entertainment in one of the clubs, then so be it. If not, who cares? Let’s ski hard during the day and party harder at night. But in recent years there’s been a shift toward better and more consistent live entertainment in Whistler. And with two new clubs opening this summer, the live music scene appears to be healthier than ever. The owners of Moe Joe’s, which was briefly known as Capone’s and before that as The Rogue Wolf, have promised a live band every week for at least the first few months to see how it pans out. No cover charge either, which makes it even more attractive. The other new face is AlpenRock House, which will charge an admission to most if not all of the "big ticket" shows it has planned. With more than 400 licensed seats in its night club section, AlpenRock has the capacity and the financial clout to attract bigger name bands that other clubs in town can’t afford. But you can’t book a $5,000 band and let people in for free. Whether Whistler club patrons will be willing and able to pay the comparatively higher cover charge to see these bands on a regular basis is one of the unknown factors in the current night club scene. On the surface, these two clubs only add to the healthy variety of weekly entertainment in Whistler. It’s safe to say up to 10 night clubs in Whistler will book a band almost any night of the week. Some clubs have bands in on a regular night; others at random. The Boot Pub has been the most consistent place for live music in recent years, offering at least one and usually two bands a week. A Whistler institution and known as the "Local’s Living Room" for its rustic, old-style almost indestructible interior, The Boot has at least a couple of nights a week where it fills up. Admission to most live shows is $5-$10, and manager Eli Milenkoff has no plans on competing with AlpenRock or Moe Joe’s. Milenkoff says AlpenRock could saturate the village if it holds a big ticket show in the middle of the week. "Take Jimmy Cliff, for example," Milenkoff said. "The $25 ticket price will draw people away from other places, if another club holds a live band. You have to factor in the price of the ticket, a cab, drinks inside the club. So people, locals anyway, will save up for that and won’t be able to go out for anything else that week." Milenkoff says The Boot will continue to contribute to the well being of the overall live entertainment in Whistler and concentrate on drawing locals in to see Mark Hummel, Hip Hop Mecanix, Green Room and other bands of similar stature. But he does see a positive side to AlpenRock opening. "I think AlpenRock is good for Whistler though," Milenkoff said. "It will draw people up here from the city because there is a big name band." That may eventually be the case, but just because there are people in the village doesn’t mean there is enough business for all the clubs and bars to do well. "Did you see how it was last night?" Dale Schweighardt, manager of Buffalo Bill’s Bar & Grill and president of the Whistler Food and Beverage Association, said last Thursday. "None of the clubs were that busy. The village may have been busy with people cruising from club to club, trying to find out where the party was, but it wasn’t really busy anywhere. I mean, the Crab Shack has its thing going on but that was about it." Schweighardt’s analogy of the club scene — "the pie gets bigger but the pieces of the pie get smaller" — applies well to the Wednesday in question: The Crab Shack, Moe Joe’s and the Dubh Linn Gate all have live entertainment on this night as a regular weekly attraction, and all three offer free admission. A year ago in Whistler that just didn’t happen in the middle of the week. "As the president of the WFBA, I can state the obvious and say these new licensed seats will make it more competitive," Schweighardt said. "The obvious is it will expand the options for the public. The AlpenRock is good as long as they don’t try to operate as a bar. It also means that everybody in Whistler, bars and restaurants, will have to fine-tune their business. Options are good," he explained. "But on the other hand it’s scary. Who’s to say we won’t see strippers back in the village as a way to bring people into a club?" During its brief run earlier this year, Capone’s night club planned to have exotic dancers several nights a week — their way of distinguishing themselves from the rest of the clubs and drawing customers. The experiment didn’t last long, as Whistler council introduced a bylaw (never passed) to prohibit strippers in village clubs. But with some clubs complaining Whistler was already over-licensed prior to the opening of AlpenRock — the town currently has 28,000 licensed seats and there are applications for at least another 700 licensed seats from the new Westin hotel — is live music really anything more than strippers or some other gimmick to draw customers from one bar or club to another? In the late ’80s and early ’90s, before the Village North expansion, Buffalo Bill’s was the place for live music in Whistler. The club hosted young, up-and-coming bands on a regular basis and occasionally brought in some big name acts. But for financial reasons the club was closed in 1994. Buffalo Bill’s reopened in November 1995, just in time for the ski season, under new management. Live music has been a periodic, rather than a regular, occurrence at the new Bill’s — until this summer when Cease & Desist, a cover band with experienced musicians, began a Thursday night run at Bill’s which has lasted more than two months. It’s not drawing people by the hundreds, but it does have its "hot nights." Schweighardt says Bill’s is happy with its Saturday night, catering to the late 20s and older crowd coming in for a convention or a weekend away from the city, dancing the night away to Big Steve in the DJ booth. "The philosophy is: At least have something going on. Don’t change anything unless you can replace it with something right away. The worst thing you can do is have nothing going on," he said. Schweighardt was referring to the one-year run local band The Whole Damn County has had on a weekly basis at Garfinkel’s Pub in Village North on Tuesday night and the Sunday night show at The Crab Shack Sports & Oyster Bar. Joe Kovacs, who turned the Crab Shack from a dormant side attraction into an active locals bar last summer by booking the popular Whole Damn County, said the scene was not pretty at the Shack until he began booking live entertainment regularly. "Oh, it was ugly — you don’t want to go there," Kovacs said about the subject. "But yeah, now we have Guitar Doug Tuesday, Big Root Wednesday, Leanne Lamoureux (with Phil Richard) on Thursday and of course The Whole Damn County Sunday. We don’t make a lot of money on those nights. We do it just to keep the interest up... to have something going on, and we don’t charge cover." It’s becoming a familiar refrain: clubs and bars have to offer more to bring in customers, and live music is one of the tools that can help do that. Kovacs has also introduced a Spring and Fall Music Festival at The Shack which features at least five live bands, bar games, cocktail making contests and a variety of side-shows, such as Jell-O wrestling. "I think AlpenRock is a welcome addition to Whistler’s live scene," Kovacs said. "I think people will benefit from the live music. I’m not sure locals will support it. If I’ve talked to 30 people about that place, 28 have said something about the fact that you can’t move from one level to another with a drink in your hand. But if that’s all it is, people will get used to it." What may now be considered Whistler’s smaller clubs, Tommy Africa’s, the Savage Beagle and Maxx Fish, are occasional contributors to the live music scene but they are largely dependant on DJs. Tommy’s new manager Dominic Smith says he can’t afford to bring in live music more than two nights a month. Thrasher Thursdays have re-invented the club, but at a price. "We don’t have the money that say, Maxx Fish does," Smith said. "So we have to be creative and design props for the show ourselves, build them ourselves, and involve the crowd." When smaller clubs such as these do have live bands, they must also hire a sound man, a DJ to play tunes between sets, and pay the band. It’s a huge risk, but one they say they must take from time to time. Maxx Fish paid the price last month when Maestro, a $3,500 a night performer, attracted only 40-50 people. Jorge Alvarez said he’s going to be more careful in the future, but he’ll still book live bands to mix up the entertainment. The alternative to a cover charge for live music is to build the price of the entertainment into the price of drinks. Matt MacNeil, who imported the Dubh Linn Gate Pub into Whistler brick by brick more than a year ago and plunked it at the base of both mountains in the village, says he’s the most expensive drink in town and for good reason: seven nights a week, MacNeil has musicians crankin’ out the Celtic tunes free of charge. He says he plans on doing apres and evening entertainment every night of the week in the 1999-2000 high season. Business, he says, is good. "It’s been great," MacNeil said. "You have your soft nights. The bands aren’t cheap — I pay for the accommodation, meals, performance. But I will never lower the price of my drinks. The clubs can battle it out at 2 a.m. if they want. But to charge a cover in a pub is wrong. You pay for the atmosphere and the ambience when you pay for your drinks." MacNeil has a lot of seats to fill inside and outside his pub; 150 in the pub proper and 70 on the patio, half for the restaurant and half for the pub. The consistent business of The Dubh Linn Gate might be a blip in the Whistler entertainment scope, but MacNeil has proved seven nights a week live entertainment will work if you hold your ground on the price of drinks. Maintaining prices on drinks, as opposed to discount drink specials, has been achieved through an informal agreement among village club and bar owners the last few years. It has helped maintain an equilibrium among the clubs to date, but some owners are worried that with all the new licensed seats coming on stream that balance will be upset. It could only take one club offering a happy hour special to send the whole village into a price war. But for the time being, the battle for customers seems to be in the live entertainment field. AlpenRock GM Dave Branigan, who at one time managed the Longhorn Saloon and brought in expensive performers such as Bif Naked — whom he admitted to "taking a bath on" when less than half the house was filled — will be standing his ground for the next few months, building up a live music reputation for the night club. He admits the big ticket concept might not work, but feels that sort of commitment to music is needed in a world-class resort such as Whistler. "The first weekend didn’t turn out as good as we wanted it too," he said. "Johnny Favourite was good, but we could’ve seen more people. Chris Sheppard’s equipment broke down so that was what I would call a bad night. But The New Meanies on Sunday was good. "We wanted to come out of the gate as a live venue. Jimmy Cliff is selling well right now so I expect that to do well. We have to see what the market will be like over the next few months." AlpenRock’s combination A and B liquor license is why it has achieved the 415 licensed seats in the night-club area (600 for the whole complex). The liquor licence is not new; it was granted years before Toronto’s MagicCorp and Switzerland’s Flughafen-Restaurant poured $6 million into the space below Whistler Village Centre. AlpenRock’s night club itself, as far as that feeling in the village that something of a big ticket show is about to happen? The stage is far larger than any other in Whistler. Stretching at least 30 feet, it easily accommodated the 12-piece Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra. And having a stage built with the entertainer in mind also benefits the crowd. With 38,000 square feet of space the club has the room to make a show a pleasant experience for both the performer and the people who pay the ticket price. And in addition to bringing in big ticket live acts, AlpenRock is attempting to fill a cultural void in Whistler, Branigan says. AlpenRock House recently confirmed it will host Romeo and Juliet, a locally produced play which opens Aug. 26. Maybe AlpenRock will do for the community what the community couldn’t do for itself: provide a licensed venue for the arts. But for now the live music scene may be the best overall barometer of the club and bar scene. It’s definitely a buyer’s market at the moment, with a choice of live bands and various types of music on any given night. How long that continues may depend on how deep some clubs’ wallets are. "It will definitely take more people than it used to, to fill the clubs," Schweighardt said. Whether more people take in live music, and whether locals will support the "big ticket" acts remains to be seen. One of the first tests was this week’s mid-week show by reggae star Jimmy Cliff. At $25 per ticket, on a Wednesday, it was symbolic of the whole new dimension that Whistler’s very competitive club scene has entered.

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