Scene Report: Calgary
This article originally appeared in She Shreds Issue #17, released in April 2019.
Calgary, located in the Alberta province of Canada, is often overlooked as a musical hub. Touring bands tend to stop in Vancouver or Toronto thinking they’ve fully covered our abundant country. What they’re missing out on, however, is a rich cultural landscape nestled perfectly between the vast Canadian prairies and the picturesque Rocky Mountains.
Calgary was built on oil and conservative politics, so its artistic community is understandably not high on people’s expectations for this boom-and-bust city. However, where there is conservatism there is always opposition, and thus a vibrant music scene has emerged. What started in basements and backyards has now grown into a hotspot that’s home to the National Music Centre, the world-class Sled Island Music & Arts Festival, and much more. Community radio stations and local entertainment publications are at the core of it all, while independently-owned record stores and music gear hobbyists enrich the DIY ethos. If anyone still thinks a Canadian tour means a direct flight from Vancouver to Toronto, they’re missing out on an eclectic scene in Calgary.
The Palomino Smokehouse & Social Club (109 7th Avenue SW) is a longtime institution within Calgary’s music scene, and the place to be for both local and touring bands alike. The two-stage venue sets up nicely for a rowdy eight-to-ten band bill, plus it’s home to the best BBQ in the city.
The King Eddy (438 9th Avenue SE), established in 1905, was Calgary’s longest-running music venue before closing its doors in 2004. Just recently, it was acquired by the National Music Centre and reopened with a Southern-inspired menu and live music every night of the week.
Tubby Dog (1022 17th Avenue SW) can cram about 50 people in its doors, and hosts some of the best shows in Calgary. Every local musician has probably played their favorite show here. Go early, grab a cheap beer, eat a hot dog smothered in peanut butter while hovering over a vintage arcade game, then prepare to experience the sweatiest show of your life.
McHugh House (1515 Centre Street S) hosts everything from noise and drone to hardcore shows, and provides a vital spot for all-ages bands and audiences alike. This fantastic venue was recently launched inside an old, historic brick house as a collaboration between CJSW, a widely popular community radio station, and the Beltline Neighbourhoods Association.
The No. 1 Legion (116 7th Avenue SE) in downtown Calgary isn’t your typical music venue, and most days of the week it’s part of a larger institution across Canada that supports veterans. But it is truly integral to our music community and opens its doors to some of the best shows downtown. The building is huge, lined with old carpet, and has two stages with a capacity for 700+ people. Get ready to see anything from amateur wrestling to world-class musicians.
Long & McQuade (225 58th Avenue SE) is a national chain that stocks some of the best guitars, amps, and pedals. Their selection of percussion, brass, keys, and woodwind instruments is also extremely impressive. Long & McQuade also has a stacked rental section, which makes trying new gear super affordable and fun.
Kickaxe Guitars (1409A 11th Street SW) is conveniently nestled downtown for folks who just need to grab a set of strings or replace a patch cord. Operated by two long-time guitar players, they also offer affordable amp repairs and guitar set-ups.
Tone Hungry Effects is run by local musician Juan Ortiz, who turned his hobby of constructing guitar pedals into a business. Fuzz, distortion, and overdrive are his specialties, and his unique hand-crafted quality is evident in every pedal that he builds.
TunaTone Instruments is based in Edmonton, our provincial capital, located just three hours north of Calgary. It’s the name under which Leila Sidi (profiled here) crafts beautiful electric guitars, often short-scale and ergonomically designed for smaller bodies. They may not be based in Calgary, but ask any local musician about their favorite luthier, and most will mention TunaTone.
Melodiya Records (2523 17th Avenue SW) is located in the back of a comic shop, offering everything from local releases to niche collector items. They’re knowledgeable, friendly, and have an ever-rotating collection of used one-dollar records.
Sloth Records (736b 17th Avenue SW) is located on 17th Avenue between the city’s best selection of pubs, coffee shops, and clothing retailers. This is the place to find the best local releases on vinyl or cassette. If you’re lucky, you might even catch an intimate in-store performance.
Hot Wax (114 10th Avenue NW) was recently purchased by new owners who renovated the space, refined their collections, and put an emphasis on deep back catalogs with plenty of curiosities in between. No need to be intimidated; the friendly staff won’t judge you for not knowing the complete Boris back catalog, but they will absolutely find it for you.
Recordland (1208 9th Avenue SE) is one of those record stores that you have to see to believe. Used records line the walls from floor to ceiling, and the rooms seem to be never-ending. This is the best spot to find vintage soul, jazz, or doo-wop gems to fill out your collection.
Calgary is completely landlocked, so it’s often overlooked by traveling bands. Starting in 2007, Sled Island Music & Arts Festival took it upon themselves to fix that, hosting over 250 bands each year in intimate settings. During the festival, shows happen at over 35 venues, with over 30,000 attending. Over the years, with the help of different guest artist curators for each festival, Sled Island has brought in a range of artists including St. Vincent, Cherry Glazerr, Mitski, and Shonen Knife. And in addition to their eclectic artistic programming, they’re progressively adding safe(r) spaces policies and working with local Indigenous organizations to create a welcoming atmosphere for all artists and attendees.
Calgary is also home to Western Canada’s first multidisciplinary feminist festival, Femme Wave. (Full disclosure: Femme Wave was founded in 2015 by myself and my bandmate while spinning records at The Palomino and discussing our experiences as women in an overwhelmingly male-dominated music industry.) Femme Wave has rapidly grown into a four-day festival with a mission to create a safe, positive, and inclusive space for women and non-binary artists. The festival has begun to include visual arts, comedy, film, and workshops to inspire participation of marginalized voices. In just four years, it has gained international acclaim, and brought in artists from across North America including Peach Kelli Pop, Sammus, and JB the First Lady.
The National Music Centre (850 4 St SE) is perhaps the most tangible evidence that Calgary is home to a burgeoning music scene and history. The stunning architecture of their location in Studio Bell is home to Canada’s largest music museum, including over 2,000 musical artifacts. In addition to the museum, the building includes unique performance spaces, educational programming, and a recording studio.
CJSW 90.9 FM is Calgary’s dearly beloved campus and community radio station. It’s known for executing the nation’s most profitable funding drive each year, inviting dedicated CJSW listeners to offer financial support and keep those dreaded corporate sponsorships at bay. Nearly everyone involved in the city’s music community either hosts their own radio show or knows someone who does. Traveling and local bands alike often play live sets in the station and head home with 360-degree videos documenting the experience.
Since 2013, provincial and municipal governments have relaxed production and small business laws allowing a greater number of local breweries to emerge across the city. What was once only a handful of breweries has blossomed into 30+ unique local brewers, with new ones opening regularly. In addition to the relaxed liquor laws, the vast Canadian prairies cultivate some of the best barley and hops, making Calgary an epicenter for beer lovers. Here are just a few breweries to check out:
The Dandy Brewing Company (2003 11th Street SE) was one of the first craft breweries to open after the laws were revised, and they remain one of the best. Sour beers and stouts may be their specialty, but their small production and high standards mean a bad beer never hits your lips at this local watering hole.
Banded Peak (519 34th Avenue SE) can be found amid industrial warehouses and massive shipping yards, also known to beer aficionados as Calgary’s “barley belt.” They not only make fantastic brews, but are known for keeping community at the forefront of the constantly expanding local craft brewing industry.
Both Cold Garden Beverage Company (1100 11th Street SE) and Eighty-Eight Brewing Co. (2600 Portland Street SE) serve whimsy alongside beer, offering the two hippest tasting rooms this fine city has to offer. At Cold Garden, pool noodles, picnic tables and pup-friendly patios set the environment. At Eighty-Eight, grab some pepperoni pizza in an ‘80s-reminiscent neon glow.
Between all the local breweries and live music in Calgary, a good cup of coffee is nearly as essential as the air you breathe.
Caffe Beano (1613 9th Street SW) has been around for over 25 years and is a local institution, conveniently located just off the bustling 17th Avenue. Their dark roast is strong and their baked goods are made in-house—what more could you want?
Rosso Coffee Roasters (1402 9th Avenue SE) is another local favorite, now with seven locations throughout Calgary. They source and roast all of their beans in-house, and have traveled the globe to bring the best coffee beans to their shops.