It Had To Be You: A Toronto Roots Music Odyssey

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It was another hot August night out on the town in Toronto and I’d just returned from a weekend show in Manhattan. I’d been regaling Rachel with grandiose tales of the road when she asked me one simple question. “What city has the better roots music scene?” I paused, took another sip of my Muskoka Cream Ale and pondered the depth of this magnificent question. By Jay Aymar.

Did Toronto’s roots music scene measure up to the hype and grandeur of the folk music revival currently happening in the Big Apple? The historic Yorkville district in Toronto (once the counter-cultural centre of free thinking and folk music) gave rise to establishments such as the famed Riverboat and The Purple Onion Coffee House. These venues vanished by the mid-1970s but not without leaving us the music of Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and countless others. Many of these same artists would leave for Greenwich Village to perform at equivalent venues such as The Gaslight or The Bitter End. Surely this would give us Torontonians enough folk music street-cred to make a plausible case that we hold the crown for the best live roots music city anywhere? It wasn’t until our night was over that I realized just how rich in roots music our fine city is.

First Stop: The Local

We started our Thursday night at The Local (396 Roncesvalles Avenue), a little pub in the newly gentrified area of Dundas and Roncesvalles. Originally a Polish community, it now hosts some of the coolest little music venues in the city. We affixed our gaze to the tiny stage as a band called The Boxcar Boys (a Dixieland Jazz / Klezmer / New Orleans party band) proceeded to erupt in a cacophony of beautiful sounds. Rachel leaned in and said “I feel like we’re in a Woody Allen movie!”

Next Stop: The Cameron House

We stopped at The Cameron House (408 Queen Street West) for the early show and were pleasantly surprised to see Devon Cuddy performing a killer set of original music with his crack band. He was savagely pounding the ivories as he belted out songs from his arsenal which channelled early Randy Newman and later period Ray Charles. It was a pleasant surprise. It was a night made even better by meeting his father Jim Cuddy (of Blue Rodeo fame) and discussing his son’s obvious talents. We snapped a few pictures of the bohemian artistry that adorned the walls. I shared with Rachel the story of recording my third album here back in 2000 with a group of incredible musicians called The Cameron Family Singers.

Next Stop: The Painted Lady

I received a text from my publicist reminding me that he was hosting a special evening of roots music at this amazing little venue called The Painted Lady (218 Ossington Avenue). “Come on over mate! We have Roxanne Potvin as part of my new series: Richard Flohil’s Playhouse.”

During our walk over Rachel asked me about some of my favourite venues. “Oh there’s the Lula Lounge, The Rivoli, Hugh’s Room, The Horseshoe, Not My Dog to name a few. Just hang tight though because if we have time after the Painted Lady show, we’ll go dancing.”

The Painted Lady

The Painted Lady has a nice dark, New Orleans, burlesque vibe with a great sound system, stage and the friendliest staff anywhere in the city. We shared some bourbon and watched Roxanne blow the house down with a killer performance to close the show at 11 p.m. I whispered to Rachel “Come with me.”

We quietly left our friends as I led her kitty corner across the intersection to one my all-time favourite Toronto hangouts.

Next Stop: The Dakota Tavern

The Dakota (249 Ossington Avenue) is a place you have to know about. A Toronto gem tucked away off the beaten path. The tiny entrance leads you downstairs to an old school retro hipster tavern with a great stage and a long bar. The servers are fellow musicians and the dance floor is always packed. As we walked in, I was surprised to hear the bluegrass band “Murder Murder” filling the bar with sweet traditional sounds. I explained to Rachel the musical genre known as blood-grass and how these guys were from Sudbury, Ontario. She responded “This city amazes me. In six short hours I’ve seen world class music in a ten-block radius in four unique establishments!”

“I know, it amazes me too!” I replied.

“What now?” I asked.

“Let’s go home and watch Annie Hall.”

And so we did.

Just another Thursday night on the town in this musical mecca we call Toronto.

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