Editor’s note: This post is the result of an arms length collaboration with Tourism Calgary. It was not edited or reviewed before publication.
— By Valerie Berenyi
When you travel, there’s no better way to sink into a destination than catching a little live music.
Whether it’s a reggae festival in a park or a symphony in a grand ballroom, the experience will give you a strong sense of place.
This is especially true of small, gritty pubs and clubs tucked into the corners of a city, preferably in old buildings for added atmosphere.
Think of them as full-body experiences, engaging all of your senses: you hear and feel the music in your ears and chest; you see the performers, the lights, the audience; you taste the flavours of the food and drink; you might even bust a move or two on the dance floor.
Calgary has a thriving live-music scene, providing pure inspiration to visitors and locals alike. Here are are six of our faves. Check ’em out.
Saturday afternoon jam at the Blues Can / Photo by George Webber
Vibe: Quonset hut meets the blues. Rumour has it this live-music venue with its curved wooden beams and trashed plank flooring began life as an automotive garage and later served as tradesmen’s beer hall. The Ironwood Stage & Grill called it home before relocating several blocks west; the Blues Can took root here five years ago. “It’s freezing in winter and excruciating in summer,” supervisor Yolanda Hirt says of the can-like building. “There’s never a happy medium.”
Music: The joint is jumpin’ on weekends with musicians like classic Texas bluesman Sonny Rhodes or Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne from Vancouver pounding out boogie-woogie on the piano. The cover on weekends is $10 in advance, $15 at the door. There’s no cover mid-week—a steal because there’s lots on offer, from Saturday jams hosted by award-winning Calgary blues guitarist Tim Williams to an array of local musicians on sleepy Monday nights. On a recent school night, local singer-songwriter Tom Phillips played “Honky-Tonk Blues” while the scent of an early summer rain blew in from the dusty lot outside an open back door. Transportive.
Patrons: You’ll bump into regulars warming the bar stools and lots of diehard blues fans. It’s impossible to categorize “blues fan,” says Yolanda. “All sorts of people come here.”
Eat: Creole is king in the kitchen: think jambalaya, po’boy sandwiches and deep-fried pickles.
Drink: Nothing much fancier than beer.
Ironwood Stage & Grill owner Patrick McIntyre / Photo by George Webber
Ironwood Stage & Grill
Vibe: Theatre transmogrified into traditional Nashville-style bar. The Ironwood Stage & Grill flourishes in the creaky old Garry Theatre, built in 1936. It’s a come-as-you-are kind of place, very easy, very comfortable, and the acoustics are amazing. There’s not a bad seat in the room.
Music: Widely considered the best club in Calgary in which to hear blues, jazz, roots and folk, the 140-seat Ironwood hosts live music every night of the year, along with Saturday big band brunches and Sunday jams—a whopping 430 shows annually. There are no cover bands at the Ironwood; it’s all original music featuring local, national and international touring artists. The cover charge, added to your bill at the end of the evening, is typically $15 to $20, with bigger draws like Toronto roots-rock band Skydiggers commanding $35 a head.
Patrons: Fans at the Ironwood—depending on the performance—are serious about their music so talking during live, intimate shows might not be appreciated. That said, it’s an all-ages venue and kids are welcome, a unique option when it comes to live-music venues.
Eat: Tuck into the jambalaya or the flatbreads, especially the house-smoked chicken with pistou sauce, caramelized onion, roasted apple, prosciutto and mozzarella—perfect for sharing.
Drink: Owner Patrick MacIntyre invented the Tennesse Igloo when he paired Yukon Jack, a Canadian whiskey and honey-based liqueur, with Southern Comfort. “It’s strangely popular,” he says, noting that his cocktail is popping up in bars around town.
Lolita’s Lounge / Photo by George Webber
Vibe: Close-to-the-border bordello, with red swags above the windows, chandeliers, mirrors, brocade banquette seating, sultry lighting and the Salt & Pepper Mexican restaurant downstairs. This vintage, 1940s-style lounge (formerly Club Paradiso) has teamed up with Jazz YYC to present “Just Jazz Nights” every Friday. (Carly’s Angels, a long-running drag show, goes every Saturday night at Lolita’s Lounge and is sold out for the season.)
Music: Unless you’re a real music geek, don’t go early as the band will be warming up. Aim to arrive around 8 pm for dinner and drinks. We saw Shadoplay, a local jazz, funk and Latin band with a drummer, guitarist, bassist and female vocalist.
Patrons: Jazz aficionados of every age and stripe, including pony-tailed jazz musicians. Each band has its own following, says owner Anna Ennis, which changes the mix every week. The cover charge is $15 for adults and $10 for students.
Eat: The kitchen does a good Mexican take on fish. If pescado isn’t on the featured special, try the seafood fiesta of red snapper, mussels and shrimp in a garlic-and-white-wine sauce or the chef’s plate for a combination of flavours.
Drink: A salty-sweet lime margarita strikes just the right note.
Saturday afternoon jam at Mikey’s Juke Joint & Eatery / Photo by George Webber
Mikey’s Juke Joint & Eatery
Vibe: Gritty backwater dive, but in a good way. Located at the tail end of 10th Avenue in a light industrial area on the low-rent edge of Sunalta, beloved Mikey’s Juke Joint & Eatery—its floorboards beat, its walls plastered with music posters and its furniture scuffed to perfection—is charmingly down at the heel.
Music: Hear blues, folk and roots rock as well as some jazz and country every day of the week, with two performances on Fridays and Saturdays. Owner Mike Clark hosts one of the city’s most popular jam sessions every Saturday afternoon (catch local faves Steven Pineo or Tom Phillips and his band, The Men of Constant Sorrow.) We saw Paul Kype and Texas Flood on a recent Saturday ($10 cover charge), a foursome of seasoned pros working their way through crowd-pleasing covers including “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Unchain My Heart,” as well as a bit of original material.
Patrons: There’s a smattering of twenty and thirty somethings at Mikey’s, but the crowd is predominantly baby boomers and it’s fun to watch them shakin’ what their mamas gave them on the tiny dance floor.
Eat: The food takes its cue from the music, serving southern U.S.-inspired fare with a Canadian twist, like the Spolumbo chorizo (made in Calgary), chicken and rice gumbo. Open for lunch and dinner and even weekend brunch.
Drink: With 15 different suds on tap, it’s beer, beer and beer.
The Palomino Smokehouse / Photo by George Webber
The Palomino Smokehouse
Vibe: Urban honky-tonk. The Palomino Smokehouse can look tough and you might catch a bit of attitude from a server or heavily pierced patron, but there’s nothing to fear. Plus, it has one of the coolest patios in town. Sit outside under strings of twinkle lights and admire the unique view of the ‘hood from ground level. You’re surrounded by office towers, most notably Calgary’s iconic new skyscraper, The Bow.
Music: The Palomino offers live music of all genres—folk, blues, country, hip-hop, punk, rock, roots, garage, metal—both upstairs and downstairs at this downtown live-music venue on Friday and Saturday nights (Thursdays, too, from time to time). The cover is typically $10.
Patrons: You’ll see everyone here from businessmen rolling up their sleeves and tucking into mac ‘n cheese with pulled pork to metalheads thrashing downstairs to their favourite band.
Eat: The joint is famous for its barbecue and The Palomino Fat Ass Platter for four lets you sample a bit of everything: applewood-smoked pork, Alberta beef brisket, Kansas City ribs, smoked chicken, Palomino slaw, black-eyed peas, fries, smoked-cheddar grits, bacon-wrapped corn, potato mash and Jack Daniel’s apples.
Drink: Go southern-style and wash it down with a PBR.
Wine-Ohs Bistro & Cellar / Photo by George Webber
Wine-Ohs Bistro & Cellar
Vibe: Subterranean speakeasy. Slink into the back alley behind Calgary’s venerable Grain Exchange Building, head past the trash bins and look for the door discreetly marked “Cellar.” This is where you’ll find Wine-Ohs Bistro & Cellar. Clamber down the metal steps to the basement and enter one of the coziest live-music spaces in the city. In 2012, owner Alanna Martineau revamped the once-awkward space—formerly The Beatniq jazz club—into an intimate and stylish cellar that offers music six nights a week. Note that upstairs, the Bistro serves contemporary Canadian/French fare.
Music: “Roots” pretty much sums it up; sometimes there’s jazz or rock on tap. There’s a roster of regular house bands playing mid-week, with The T. Buckley Band taking the stage every Tuesday, Lee Taylor hosting an open mic event called Drunken Promises on Wednesdays and Tom Phillips holding court on Fridays during happy hour. Weekends are devoted to feature acts with a 50/50 split between local and touring artists. Watch the likes of Derek Miller, a Juno Award-winning aboriginal artist from Ontario, or Shawn McCann, formerly of Great Big Sea. The weekend cover is $10 to $20; no cover charge for house bands on week nights.
Patrons: Canoodling couples, buddies out for a pint, girlfriends catching up over vino, singletons—all are welcome and made to feel perfectly comfortable.
Eat: Satisfy your salty tooth by building your own charcuterie platter or nibbling house-made potato chips and dip, truffled popcorn, duck wings or mixed olives in a gin marinade.
Drink: With a name like Wine-Ohs, that’s a slam dunk. There’s an inspired wine list with lots of old world/new world wines by the glass to choose from. Very civilized.