A Journey Through Fort McMurray’s Music Scene

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When I moved up to Fort McMurray in March of 2013, I certainly did not know what to expect as far as an arts scene. Sure, I remember hearing KISS played here at MacDonald Island. I was familiar with the music of artists like Aaron Lines, Fire Next Time and The Rural Alberta Advantage who had roots up here, and I’d heard rumblings from friends about the amazing acoustics of the Keyano Theatre. But it wasn’t until I arrived and saw for myself that I realized just how amazing the scene is up here. On almost any given night you can find great live music here in Fort McMurray. And on weekends sometimes the choices become so overwhelming that a mini-pub crawl is in order to catch all your favourites.

With that said, let’s take you on a musical pub crawl right now heading north on Highway 63. We start out in Gregoire which has a fair amount of history in the Fort McMurray music scene. Nearby the recently-closed Sawridge Inn & Conference Centre (which housed many shows itself) sits an empty swamp that once hosted the FlyDome, a dome-like structure that hosted concerts from bands like Barenaked Ladies and others. Nearby, Prime Social Kitchen has been known for more than just it’s great food with fantastic live music in the past as well and we look forward to its re-opening after sustaining damage from “The Beast” in the summer of 2017.

For now, we head across the street to Quality Inn where you will find The Den. A fairly standard sports bar to the average on-looker but it has become a hotbed in recent years thanks to promoters like Trevor Butler who, after many years playing in the metal band, Fear the Living, decided to start promoting shows of his own.

“When we split up I had established some promoter friends in Alberta,” says Butler. “At this time there was not a whole lot going on around town as for shows, so I figured why not give it a try and see how it goes.”

To date Trevor has booked shows from artists like Protest the Hero, Merkules, T.I., Belvedere, and Anti-Flag, the latter was unfortunately canceled as it was scheduled for May 4, 2016…the night after the evacuations.

As we continue north on Highway 63 we will, unfortunately, have to skip Abasand at the moment, although you can be darn sure we’ll be back soon whether it’s for a legendary house concert or a great night at Brewbakers! Instead, we head to another community that also suffered great losses during the fire: Waterways. The Royal Canadian Legion was spared from the flames and continues to operate to this day. With a bar downstairs to shoot some pool, there is also endless potential in the upstairs ballroom from weddings to concerts and the chance to learn to dance with the Fort McMurray Social Dance Club!

Let’s cross the Hangingstone Bridge now as we pass by one of the newest additions to Fort McMurray’s bar scene, Town Hall Public House. Perhaps we will end our night there dancing to DJ Q-Pid, but for right now we have to stop at one of the Fort McMurray arts scenes most treasured spots, the Keyano Theatre. While the annual 4-Play series draws a ton of attention as volunteer actors rehearse for months to put on spectacles to packed houses, on the musical side of things, the Syncrude Arts Alive series always brings the crowd to its feet.

Many artists have come through the Theatre over the years running the gauntlet from Country (Paul Brandt, Terri Clark) to Rock (Big Sugar, Rik Emmett of Triumph) plus frequent trips up from Newfoundland’s Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers who always pack the house! The 2017-2018 season will feature acts like The Arrogant Worms, The Ennis Sisters, Union Duke and renowned comedian Steve Patterson.

The Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre has also seen its fair of shows over the years, and is the hosting place for the annual Keyano Gala which has raised important money for the college while entertaining guests with artists like Corey Hart, Great Big Sea, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and LeAnn Rimes. The 2017 edition will feature Barenaked Ladies!

Just down Franklin Avenue tucked inside an unassuming strip mall is the Fort McMurray Newfoundlander’s Club. It’s the best spot in town to get “screeched in” but it’s also home to great live music…and not just of the East Coast variety! We could stay here right til two dancing the night away with artists like Friends of Jack or Shantelle Davidson and Dan Gillies, but we’ve got a bunch more stops so back on the bus!

On the way to our next bar, we’ll pass by the Snye, home to the WinterPlay festival every February. It will also become the new home of both the Wild West Country Festival with Lonestar and the Road Hammers; and the East Coast Garden Party with Arkells and Buckcherry this summer!

Driving down Hardin Street we arrive at was once a Safeway to the accompanying Peter Pond Mall,  but locals today know it as the Boomtown Casino! And sure many folks will go there to hit the tables, but they will also find three nights a week one of the best live music spots in town! Unlike other casinos who tuck their stage away upstairs or in a back corner, the Boomtown embraces live music. It’s not uncommon for artists to notice people tapping away at the slot machines in the very back of the room during their first set, only to see them finally embrace the tunes and hit the dance floor after a few more beverages! Boomtown Casino brings in fantastic tribute acts all the time and has really taken a shine for both emerging and established Country music acts like Aaron Goodvin, Jake Mathews, Tristan Horncastle and Fort McMurray favourites Craig Moritz & Tyler Whelan. It’s also the host of the annual talent search Boomtown Idol- and recently played host to a series of free concerts to welcome people home to Fort McMurray from artists like Aaron Pritchett and Honeymoon Suite.

Just across the parking lot is Club NV (formerly known as Cowboys) which has seen artists like T.I., Classified, James Barker Band, My Darkest Days and Danko Jones over the years. And if you’re feeling brave enough, you can head next door to Bailey’s where you are the star with karaoke and amateur comedy nights!

Back on the bus we go. Pay respects to the Mister or just check out the beautiful stage at Jubilee Plaza which has hosted Metis Days, Urban Market and Open Mic nights, but right now we’re headed to one of the busiest Open Mic nights in town at the Tavern on Main. Since coming to Fort McMurray in 2008, Dan Tulk has carved out a reputation as one of the hardest working guys in the local music scene frequently playing 2-3 nights a week in addition to his day job with Fort McMurray Public Schools.

Recently the Tavern asked him to take over booking duties after a management change. “I was apprehensive initially as it was a pivot in my musical career, but the two could live together,” Tulk said. “It does give you a different perspective as a booking agent as opposed to a performer; you have to be aware of draw, crowds, and cost. It’s a hard thing for players to hear, but venues aren’t there to support the artist; we offer a service and they offer us a venue.”

Just up the road is another local favourite for both their food and atmosphere: Live Bar and Grill. Frequently hosting dueling piano nights, it’s also a great place to catch the amazingly talented Karman Muir.

Back down Franklin Avenue we can catch a show and locally brewed pint at Wood Buffalo Brewing Co., or check out a gig at the Podollan, but we’ve got a show to catch! MacDonald Island Park has always been an amazing place to catch a concert, from the early days of Summer’s End in the parking lot, patio acts at the Fox Den, or even a surprise concert from Johnny Reid put on by WestJet on the golf course. Inside you will find the Nexen Energy Fieldhouse which has played host to everyone from The Sheepdogs, Brett Kissel, The Trews, Gord Bamford and Tim Hicks. Easily the city’s biggest concert to date took place in 2011 when KISS played, but since then, that parking lot has transformed into the state of the art stadium Shell Place. It hosted CFL games and Aerosmith in its opening year but this year is another massive one. With Country stars like Dean Brody and Toby Keith drawing huge crowds already this year, fans will trade the two-stepping for moshing when Slayer, Lamb of God and Behemoth visit the facility on August 15th!

It’s time to cross the Athabasca River now where we start our adventure in Thickwood. While we patiently await the re-opening of Paddy McSwiggin’s we can catch some music at Sociables or the Jaguar Lounge. The home of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, the Casman Centre transforms into a party several times a year when acts like Travis Tritt, Tom Cochrane or even Snoop Dogg come to town! The nearby Blackhorse Pub is also a favourite with recurring acts like The Party Hog, and though they’ve since relocated to Calgary, the Sentimental Gentlemen always receive a hero’s welcome when they return to the Horse stage.

The newest area of Fort McMurray, Timberlea, features another state of the art theatre in the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts. Located in Holy Trinity School, in addition to being the home base for Theatre; Just Because, it has also hosted great concerts from Chad Brownlee and Bif Naked over the years.

Our final stop will be East Village Pub, better known as EVP. For the population of Timberlea, this is often the final stop of the night and the music goes right ‘til close! In addition to local favourites like the previously mentioned Moritz/Whelan combo plus Tulk, Davidson, and Brianna Hargesheimer, it also plays hosts to artists like Trinity Bradshaw and Jimmy Whiffen!

Music is of course only a small portion of an even larger arts scene in Fort McMurray, but it seems the community as a whole always embraces its colleagues. It’s not uncommon to see Keyano Theatre actors pop by a local pub to support a friend after a long rehearsal, and it’s not uncommon for local musicians to drop by their friends shows when they have the night off. Tulk claims unity is something Fort McMurray does well. “As with any city or scene, you’ll have the musicians that try and get ahead by putting down other acts and see it as a competition. Thankfully, the vast majority of local acts are supportive and cheer each other on.”

As Tulk explains, “When people aren’t working, they want to be out, and that means a massive demand for live music. On any given weekend there are far more live venues here than a city twice this size.” But there is still always work to be done. Butler says we can all do a better job of embracing the local talent, “We have amazing talent within our city and we should be supporting it as much as we can. The more successful the local shows are the more likely we can bring bigger shows.”

Tulk agrees and adds, “We need to work on getting more young people out. The scene is getting older and we need new blood out there as both performers and audience (members).”

Coming this summer on Country 93.3 and 97.9 Rock – On Stage with Mike Jones will feature the many musical and theatrical adventures throughout Fort McMurray. It is my goal for this to be a successful feature both on-air and online as an open tool for artists, promoters, and business owners to showcase their talent.

E-mail your event listings to Mike.Jones@rci.rogers.com to be featured!

 

Photos:

 

IMG_3080.JPG: Dan Tulk.

KISS.tif: Gene Simmons rocks the stage with KISS at Canada Rocks on MacDonald Island in 2011.v

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