When the King Edward Hotel closed its doors in 2004, Calgary lost a musical landmark. However, a longtime employee by the name of Greg Smith decided to revive the spark of culture, after finding no one else would. That revival took the form of The Blues Can, a business that’s had its hard times, but a brighter future.
Calgary used to have the King Eddy, an old drinking hall where swill swiggin’ and boot stompin’ echoed through the halls and across 9th ave.
It was the first desegregated bar in Calgary at the turn of the 20th century, serving all folks alike for over one hundred years.
In 2004 the King Edward Hotel had been officially shut down, closing what was the premier spot for musicians around the world to come and play in Calgary.
“Blues is a lifestyle. Not just a genre of music, but for a lot of people it’s a lifestyle.” – Teena Wilson
According to Julijana Capone, the publicity co-ordinator for the Studio Bell, “the (King Edward Hotel) was condemned due to severe structural issues.”
Studio Bell was forced to keep the heritage status of the King Eddy and to “preserve the façade, the original sign and the cornices,” as part of the NMC’s (National Music Centre) agreement with the City of Calgary when they purchased the building.
Even though they preserved the outside of the building, that doesn’t mean they have preserved the inside. As a result, some people took matters into their own hands.
One of the longtime employees, and regular patron of the King Eddy, Greg Smith, decided to open up a new venue to host live music, The Blues Can.
As I approached The Blues Can, located near the intersection of Ninth Ave. and 14th St. S.E., I was greeted by loud voices and twangy guitar, spilling out of the small confines and into the cold windy March night.
Small tea light candles were placed on every crowded table and lit up the dim room in contrast with the brightly lit blue stage.
The performer for the night, James Buddy Rogers, started wailing on his guitar, and the bass and drums chugged along with him.
Immediately the dance floor was met by all sorts of couples, dancing to the rhythm and blues.
This is what so many people missed when the King Edward Hotel shut down.
According to the booking agent of the Blues Can, Teena Wilson, “Greg (Smith) missed the presence of the King Eddy so bad in every way; from the musicians, to his friends to his part time work there, to his drinking hall. So he started the idea of this. The Blues Can.”
The Blues Can opened it’s doors in 2010, accommodating many of the old King Eddy people who were also looking for a replacement to their watering hole, along with Smith.
“There’s a lady that worked there (the King Eddy) for almost like 35 years or something,” Wilson said, “she knows everybody in the music business, her name is Joanne Cassell. She works for us now, she’s our Saturday afternoon hostess here.”
Many of the older patrons at The Blues Can were also once regulars over at the King Eddy.
Older people are not the only customers of The Blues Can, the demographic is evened out by many young people going out and enjoying the live music acts as well.
Its kind of a “party hall”, as Wilson puts it, a great place for anyone to come and kick their shoes off after a long work week.
Wilson believes that The Blues Can’s success has a lot to do with the very talented and varied acts she brings through Calgary.
“We have a lot of great acts here in Alberta and there’s also a lot of Americans. They come from all over the states, but we get a lot from Texas and a lot from Chicago,” she said, “there’s a lot of Blues down there. You can count on a lot of international music here.”
From traditional ‘living legends’ like Donald Ray Johnson, to newer acts like Jason Elmore, the blues are in full swing down at The Can.
However, as you may imagine, these big ticket acts are not cheap and The Blues Can has had it’s fair share of struggling times; just like any business.
When Wilson looks to book artists, she relies very heavily on the public to support her efforts, mainly through buying tickets.
“If people want to see these shows, then they have to support me, they gotta buy the tickets. I put the ticket prices up to about $35, but we’re talking about a living legend that you may never see again.”
These acts cost thousands of dollars and add up quickly when there are upwards of 14 shows every week.
According to Wilson, January and February of this year were “scary bad.”
“The way the economy tanked and nobody is out spending money at bars…it was really bad for us.”
She had to compensate by hiring more local acts instead of big ticket international shows, which helped cut down costs significantly.
Customers tighter grips on wallets isn’t the only issue however, laws and regulations have also put a continuous strain on the business.
A political topic Wilson didn’t want to talk too much about.
“The new Carbon tax, higher wait staff wages, new liquor taxes…I had to fire our cleaning crew and make the waitresses clean after their shifts.”
For his own part, Smith refused to talk to me about the tough times and difficulties he has been experiencing.
“He might talk to you on the phone for a bit,” Wilson told me. “He generally doesn’t do any interviews, but I could probably get him to talk.”
The conversation ended there.
Despite those hard times, when I visited the The Blues Can, the whole place was packed from wall to wall in music lovers, young and old alike.
The beer was flowing, the jambalaya was being served, and good times were to be had over the sound of music.
They say that when you sing the blues, you find yourself without them; the smiles and laughter were evidence to that claim.
“Blues is a lifestyle. Not just a genre of music, but for a lot of people it’s a lifestyle.”
Editor: Rosemary J. De Souza | firstname.lastname@example.org