The Ironwood Stage and Grill is a staple of the Calgary live music scene. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was forced to change the way it hosts live music shows or risk closing permanently. But these innovations, as well as a fundraiser that helped the Ironwood and other struggling local music venues, may just allow it to survive the pandemic.
Located in Inglewood, the Ironwood keeps it simple. With wooden floors and an Old West atmosphere, the venue amplifies the style of the many folk musicians who play its stage. It’s a place where music lovers can gather together and celebrate the joy and sense of community created by live music.
“The Ironwood means everything to me. It’s a conduit. It’s a necessary connection between the artist and the audience. And they present (music) so perfectly,” said Jory Kinjo, a Calgary ska artist known for his introspective lyrics and energetic sound. “The Ironwood is a shining example of what a venue should be.”
“It was interesting how it became a staple. I was mainly thinking of it as a place where I want to support live, original music. And when you kind of put your head down and get to work, you can forget how other people feel about it,” said Patrick MacIntyre, who has been the owner of the Ironwood since 2006.
His primary goal was to build up the Ironwood as an environment for bands to showcase their original music. Since 2006, MacIntyre says they quickly started filling up their schedule, until the venue was playing upwards of 400 shows a year within the first couple of years that they were in business.
But, as COVID-19 cases started to climb in the province, MacIntyre knew the Ironwood could be in trouble. On March 17, the day the province announced a state of emergency with a total of 97 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the Ironwood closed for what would be an undetermined amount of time.
“I sort of realized the gravity of the situation,” he said. After looking at the history of pandemics around the world, MacIntyre realized “the writing was on the wall and we would have to close for an extended period of time.”
But that didn’t dampen MacIntyre’s spirits. He told himself he wouldn’t be put in a position where the Ironwood had to give up.
“I was mainly thinking of different ways we could present the music and still create a revenue stream not only for the Ironwood but for the musicians. I was exploring every option possible,”
A new approach
When Phase Two of Alberta’s Relaunch Strategy was announced and live music with vocals still wasn’t permitted, MacIntyre put some of the options he had been thinking about to work.
The province’s relaunch guidelines included spacing tables out so they were six feet apart and requiring patrons to be masked upon entering the venue. Accommodating the social distancing requirements meant the Ironwood could only seat 50 people instead of its usual limit of 150. But none of this helped MacIntyre put on live performances that involve a vocalist, something vital for many of the artists that perform at the venue.
His solution? He built a plexiglass “aquarium” to isolate the singer.
“You were allowed instrumentals,” he said. “So, with the vocalist basically removed from the room by a plexiglass wall that I built at the back of the stage, we were able to put on live shows as soon as Phase Two rolled around. I had that done around 24 hours after the announcement.”
This arrangement took some adjusting for musicians, especially vocalists who like to connect with a crowd.
“It’s very strange. It’s hard to preserve a connection with the audience. As an artist it gives you a new set of challenges that you have to overcome,” Kinjo said about singing behind the plexiglass.
Kinjo did his best to get over that hurdle.
“I have a wireless guitar rig so, when I wasn’t singing, I was able to come out from behind the plexiglass and then sort of be engaged with the rest of the band on stage. And that was important.”
However, this isn’t the only option for vocalists. When musician Ben Sures played the Ironwood on Sept. 17, he was given a choice: he could either perform behind the plexiglass or sing with a mask at the back of the stage on the drum riser.
“I chose to wear a mask, which really kind of enlightened me to how deeply I inhale when I’m singing because I kept sucking that mask in,” Sures laughed. But in the end he felt okay about it. “I was closer to the audience than I would be behind the plexiglass.”
The mask also provided Sures with a unique challenge to overcome.
“It’s really important for me to communicate with my audience,” Sures said. “Because my face is covered up, it forces me to think differently and forces me to find new ways to communicate. So when I was telling a story leading up to a song, I used my hands more and I used my eyebrows more.”
The reaction to all these changes has pleasantly surprised MacIntyre. He acknowledges there is a bit of a visual adjustment for the audience. The sight of a vocalist behind plexiglass at the back of the stage is certainly not the norm for a live show.
Some vocalists are enjoying the plexiglass because it mimics a studio environment and “the audience has noticed it. That’s the thing that impressed me the most,” MacIntyre said.
Sures found value in the show even though there was a thinner audience.
“There weren’t that many people there, but we had a really nice time. People that love music are coming and are really enjoying it,” Sures said.
Financial help has also come in the form of a fundraiser organized by Kinjo and the Ironwood staff.
Between Aug. 21 and Aug. 22, the Ironwood put on a weekend of live music called ‘Banding Together,’ featuring Kinjo and other local artists including T. Buckley and Liz Stevens, as well as Amy Bishop and The Polyjesters. Between the three shows and a successful GoFundMe campaign also set up by Kinjo, they raised over $68,000 for the Ironwood.
MacIntyre says the fundraiser has offered much needed support and extended their lifeline into the New Year.
The Ironwood put on a second round of fundraising shows from Sept. 18-20, this time to help out other local music venues, including The Blues Can, Broken City, Dickens, Mikey’s on 12th Avenue and Vern’s Bar.
Kinjo was pleased to see the fundraiser he helped start gain so much traction and support.
“I’ve been playing music in Calgary for almost 25 years. And I’ve never seen an initiative that brought the community together for such sincere reasons,” Kinjo said. “When we all band together like that it just displays the strength of our community and what we can do when we have a collective intent.”
MacIntyre was shocked by the support shown by the music community, especially those who aren’t comfortable attending a live show yet.
“The people who don’t feel like they can come out to a show have been supportive by watching the live streams, and donating online,” he said. “Although attendance might be thinner than socially distanced allotted numbers, it’s important to note that that’s not all the support we’re getting. Which is pretty amazing.”
Looking into the New Year, MacIntyre does worry about the prospect of the province reintroducing restrictions, as well as uncertainty surrounding what Alberta’s COVID-19 numbers could look like in the coming weeks or months.
“We have no idea where this is gonna go. All we can do is hope that the case loads don’t go up and that things can open safely,” he said. However, MacIntyre acknowledges that, in these times, almost nothing is definitive.
Despite this uncertainty and increasing concern of a second lockdown on the horizon, the Ironwood doesn’t have plans to put on another round of fundraising shows right now but MacIntyre doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility.
“We don’t want to overdo it. People have been generous so we’ll just soldier on, and if there needs to be one then we might do it again.”
MacIntyre knows that COVID-19 has impacted everyone and stresses the importance of providing live music to the community, whether people come into the Ironwood to catch a show or watch from the comfort of their homes through a live stream.
“Whether you can afford it or not afford it I want everyone to watch it,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing it. So that people can see it and enjoy [live] music.”