Huffpost Canada Music ca
Del Barber Headshot

A Brief History of Winnipeg's Music Scene and Why It Matters

Posted: Updated:

Del Barber and Julijana Capone

Standing by the Burton Cummings Theatre, near Notre Dame Avenue and Adelaide Street at the foot of the Exchange District, remnants of Winnipeg's once thriving wholesale and agricultural industry are still visible. Painted advertisements from the turn-of-the-century fight for space with spray-can murals and rock show posters plastered on the sides of telephone poles.

Winnipeg is a little rough-around-the-edges, but if you stop and look around, you'll see that there's so much beauty and history to take in. From the flea bag hotel bars on Albert Street that helped spawn the city's punk scene to the dive bars and backrooms that birthed the roots community, Winnipeg has always been a gritty yet fertile ground for my own songwriting and musical exploration.

I remember going to The Albert underage on draft night in the late-'90s. I saw Propagandhi at all-ages punk shows at Ozzy's and the West End Cultural Centre, and visited Wellington's vicariously through my older sister's stories about weekend gigs with Red Fisher and Guy Smiley.

I snuck into Le Rendez-Vous (before it was bulldozed and unfortunately made into condos), and witnessed The Watchmen blaze out Can-Rock anthems off their record McLaren Furnace Room, named after that seedy hotel on Main Street that's been around since 1910.

I have consumed rounds of Caribou amid raucous sets at the annual Festival du Voyageur in Saint Boniface, and jigged to the sounds of Francophone bands such as Chic Gamine and Oh My Darling.

I've seen my musical heroes play at The Pyramid, can remember every single Winnipeg Folk Festival since I was five, and I've seen The Perpetrators at Times Change(d) more times than I can count. And who could forget that one time that Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) went to the Times and played an impromptu set after his show?

In the 1960s, Winnipeg was the veritable epicentre of Canadian rock 'n' roll. The Guess Who had put the city on the musical map and songwriters such as Neil Young, Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings would give artists like me the confidence to have something to say even though I was from this Prairie town called Winnipeg.

And when I pass by Neil Young's old house on Grosvenor Street in Cresentwood, I think about the
time that Bob Dylan stopped by that Winnipeg neighbourhood out of the clear blue to see first-hand where Neil's inspiration came from.

Winnipeg's blue-collar mentality informs a lot of the artists and how they think about the city. From John K. Samson to The Wailin' Jennys, Winnipeg tends to breed an unpretentious type, whose music can stand on its own and speak loudly for itself.

So much talent, who have influenced the community, the country and beyond, to come out of this great city: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the Crash Test Dummies and Loreena Mckennitt, to name a few more.

By no means is Winnipeg a city like Toronto or Vancouver, and the truth is, I never wanted it to be. It's an electric city without all the bells and whistles of a large metropolis. It's small and isolated, and in that sense, it can feel like it's hard to escape. But it's that sort of insular climate that produces so much creativity and collaboration.

You may know my city for some good things, and probably some bad things, too. But the truth is that the music scene is the heartbeat of Winnipeg; our venues are as treasured as the artists who've played in them, and we wear our city's rich musical history like a badge of honour.

Del Barber is thrilled to share songs from his hometown at the JUNO Concert Series "Songs from Winnipeg" on December 7th at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. His fourth album Prairieography will be released on February 4, 2014 through True North Records.