Lethbridge's Endangered Ape chill out in their luxurious van — Paul Lawton (l) says the city's scene is 'exploding'
Something’s happening in Lethbridge. In addition to nearly 100,000 people and Alberta’s third-largest university, the city is also home to an independent music community — a scene, if you will — currently experiencing a burst of activity. According to the musicians involved, it’s still a bit of a slog, but music in Lethbridge is unquestionably on the rise.
“It’s a little tricky to sum it up in one phrase,” says Alan Gillespie, program director at the University of Lethbridge’s CKXU radio. “I would say it’s a ‘last-minute’ city. People will decide basically 10 minutes before an event starts if they’re going to go or not, which has good sides and bad sides. The people here that do regularly support the scene are very, very, very enthusiastic, and they do support local music, but it’s a trying battle every time to get people outside that core to come out.”
Even though it’s a small place, the city’s fickle fans have a decent variety of entertainment to choose from. In his alter ego as DJ Daemon, Gillespie and his business partner DJ Buddha are at the epicentre of a gradually growing hip hop subculture. While Lethbridge may not seem like an ideal setting for a scene that has barely moved beyond its nascent stages elsewhere in the province, the pair manages to put on regular shows that showcase MCs from local crews like City Prophet and Royalties Entertainment alongside world-class talent.
“It’s still sort of a battle to get things going here,” admits Gillespie. “All of the clubs are playing Top 40 all the time, with the exception of our shows and the odd techno show. But as far as getting on, we’re always throwing shows and trying to find local acts to be on the bill, and I’m still in awe at some of the things we’ve managed. I was in the DJ booth last September when we had Method Man and Redman, and I took a step back and thought, ‘We just put this show on in Lethbridge. And it was one of the best shows I’d ever seen!’”
Sharing the same spirit of persistence but on the opposite end of the musical spectrum is Lethbridge’s explosive garage rock scene. Revolving around an incestuous but energetic core of member-sharing bands like Endangered Ape, Myelin Sheaths and Amelia Earhart, this ambitious bunch feels that it’s only a matter of time before they attract the attention of their peers to the north and beyond. After years of touring out of a town they once avoided admitting was theirs, they’ve sensed change on the horizon and are doing everything they can to keep it on track.
“How it used to be in my mind was that we’re from Lethbridge, and we should hide that fact because it’s a little embarrassing,” says Pawl Lawton of Endangered Ape, a band that has nonetheless cultivated a great reputation outside the city. “Now you’ve got this brand new scene emerging where there are more shows than there are bands. So there’s all these people putting together bands because there’s opportunity. It’s just exploding down here.”
This recent surge might have something to do with the city’s music venues. In late 2006, the venerable Tongue and Groove closed down and local devotees of live music were left in the lurch. While other bars like the Slice helped musicians limp through a rough patch, things would have gotten a lot worse if it weren’t for the recent opening of a new venue, the Green Couch / Blue Couch Lounge (GCBC for short). Located in a downtown fire hall built more than a century ago, the space provides multiple stages on different floors, and the owners are committed to supporting local independent music. Lawton reports that he has been given everything short of a free hand in terms of booking shows there, and he envisions a massive rooftop festival called Mammoth Cave on May 18 to galvanize the community.
“We thought it would be cool to get everybody together, have some barbecue, play outside and make a whole day of it,” he says. “We’ve got 13 bands coming, eight of which are local and the rest coming from Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon. It’s kind of a scene-defining moment if there ever was one, with everybody just hanging out, playing really short sets, and sharing equipment, so it’ll have that community aspect to it.”
All of a sudden, Lethbridge sounds like it might be a hell of a lot cooler than your average denizen of the Heart of the New West would expect. To top things off, Lawton spills the beans on the town’s super-secret traditional post-show ritual: a late-night pilgrimage to Red Dog, a small greasy spoon run by a duo of transplanted French-Canadians, featuring hot dogs, authentic poutine and smoked meat sandwiches.
“When a show starts winding down, we have this weird tradition,” he recounts gleefully. “The last band will be playing and someone will start chanting ‘Red Dog, Red Dog, Red Dog’ and everyone in the city — including the bar stars and all these other people — ends up lined up out the door at this tiny place, and crazy things start to happen.”
So there you have it. There’s plenty of awesomeness to be had in our province’s own windy city, and it’s all up for grabs, to locals and outsiders alike. Just take a quick jaunt down the QE2 and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a scene renaissance. By the sounds of it, it shouldn’t be hard to track down the cream of the crop.
“We plug shows all the time on CKXU,” says Gillespie. “But like anywhere, it’s just keeping your eyes and ears open and taking in the scene. The promoters in town are working really hard getting the scene out there, so if you pay attention or have any interest, it shouldn’t be hard to find your way.”