Toronto’s the kind of city where celebrity spotting is easy. Peter Dinklage reluctantly had his photo taken with locals a month ago, and John Malkovich helped save someone’s life back in June of last year. But where are all the top musicians we boast of?
Elusive at best, touring and constantly gone at worst, a lot of our great local musicians seem to be anywhere but Toronto. But if you know where to look, you’ll be able to play a little Where’s Waldo with some of the coolest musicians in town. Slap on your best leather boots and sidle on down to one of these bars and, at one point or another, you’ll have a close encounter of the musical kind.
The Dakota Tavern is known for its “Beer, Music, Whiskey.” At least that’s what it says on its sign. And it’s a calling card for musicians. Known for having live country, rock’n’roll, and bluegrass just about every night, the Dakota has a longstanding tradition of attracting all types of rockers to the stage. Some of them weren’t even invited. Feist has (on occasion) jumped up on stage unannounced. Members of Can-rock all-star band Blue Rodeo have gotten their groove on up there, and Kevin Drew (of Broken Social Scene) tends to join the Dakota’s regular band the Beauties now and then.
Taverns are a popular place. It must be because playing music makes for thirsty work. But the ‘Shoe is a legend for good reason. Bands ranging from the Viletones to Stompin’ Tom Connors, Willie Nelson to the Tragically Hip, the Rheostatics to Neutral Milk Hotel all played there, many while they were still small enough for the ‘Shoe to give them their first start or accommodate their fans. Nowadays the ‘Shoe is much the same, which means bands you want to see are playing there all the time. If you show up early enough to hit sound check with a band, you might have a chance to have a pre-drink with its members or – if you time it right – hear a couple tunes during sound check. The ‘Shoe is just that kind of place.
Ronnie’s is a staple of the Toronto music world. And I hate to blow its cover. But if you’ve been following that cool Toronto band for a while and you just never had a chance to say you think they’re the bee’s knees, you might just be able to find them at Ronnie’s. It’s the Toronto musician’s dive bar, and it attracts a good cross-section of musicians from around the city to grab a beer or even tend bar. Its naturally gritty character has made it a natural backdrop for photo shoots for many Toronto bands, including the Constantines.
A community of like-minded Toronto musicians orbits this unpretentious Kensington Market bar. Local label Optical Sounds has adopted it for its homegrown psych-scene featuring bands like B-17, BB Guns, Tess Parks, and The Auras. On any given night, you’ll be able to find local rockers of all types on both sides of the bar, and often in the DJ booth.
There is something special about this little bar – or at least about its stronger than average cocktails – that it inherits from its big sister, Churchill. Beaconsfield may at times be filled with crowds of bros – take especial care on weekend nights – but it boasts not only local musicians manning the bar, but also great DJs like Sean Dean from the Sadies. If Christmas has managed to come early, you might even run into Drake at the bar, who is infamous at Beaconsfield for rolling in one night and buying shots for the entire place.
I’m telling you: if you know where to look, Toronto’s got some gems to be found.