New Works Magazine: Music In Halifax 1985

2: "I don't like to call them
         clone bands."

Most popular live music in Halifax Is hired by bars and clubs. Maintaining and operating even a small club runs into big money. The demand on the musician as part of the profit maximizing formula is that he be able to consistently deliver a large money spending crowd. The musician doesn't just need an audience, he needs the variety of audience that will keep the club owner in business.

The time businessmen allow for that audience to develop varies. Most expect musicians to bring a large audience with them; only a few will pay a musician to build an audience. The Odeon Ballroom appears to be one of the latter. The club opened with American rhythm and blues acts such as Wilson Pickett and Martha Reeves. Since January, the Odeon has experimented with young dance bands "stuff way out in left field," manager Bob Bzanson says.

The Odeon hasn't done well In either format. The club, on Brunswick and Cogswell, where the Lobster Trap used to be, doesn't benefit from its location. Bzanson says the place has a bad reputation left over from the "rough, rugged and sexually oriented" Lobster Trap. Bzanson says the club is "coming along pretty good now", but the Odeon has laid off staff and reduced advertising. Some nights, the place is almost empty.

Owner Peter Khristakos has brought the Odeon in from left field a little in recent months. Bzanson says you can play only unusual music for only so long. "Halifax is small. There's not enough to warrant keeping it going. You can only operate so long on a negative income," he says. But Bzanson Insists the club won't abandon new music the way it quit rhythm and blues. "Our philosophy here is new music first and a little mainstream second."

Pepe's Upstairs is also trying to create a market. This Is the third year since live Jazz was reintroduced to the restaurant and this was the first summer that the restaurant booked only Jazz. A suppertime Jazz bar has been established in the Cabbagetown Lounge, downstairs from the restaurant. Jazz musician Skip Beckwith, hired in January to book entertainment for the restaurant, says, "Within the last year things have begun to turn around.".

Like Bucky Adams, Beckwith played Jazz in Halifax in the Fifties. In fact, the two men played together at the Club 777, an after-hours club on Barrington Street. Beckwith left Halifax in 1959 to study music at Berkeley.

Beckwith is trying to establish a circuit of Jazz clubs in the Maritimes so that local musicians will have more opportunity to play and more artists can be brought into the region. A Maritimes Jazz circuit could also open the way for local players who want onto the Ontario and Quebec circuit. Beckwith thinks a playing circuit could "establish the validity of the Maritimes Jazz scene."

Beckwith says there was a transfusion, an entry of new blood, when some of the first group of graduates from the jazz program at St. Francis Xavier University came to Halifax three years ago. Some leave, but more arrive each year. "It's bound to make things happen," Beckwith says.

Beckwith's Job at Pope's is to establish "a Jazz policy of a high standard that is compatible with dining." Pope's has provided performance opportunities to a number of good musicians including Don Palmer, Scott Ferguson) and Anil Sharma, and has brought Canadian Jazz artists to Halifax, including pianist Oliver Jones who plans to record a live album at Pope's this fall.

We've learned over a period of time what we can do," Beckwith says. That includes swing, and varieties of bop. "We try to allow some room," Beckwith says. But there are limitations. Jazz can be too contemporary, too experimental, or too loud and drive off everyone but a core of Jazz fans. "We've had some bad experiences," Beckwith says.

Beckwith acknowledges that Pepe's doesn't play the best Jazz in Canada. A dining room isn't the ideal venue for progressive Jazz; but at the moment Pepe's Upstairs and Cabbagetown downstairs are the only places in town that regularly pay Jazz musicians to play Jazz. Beckwith gives credit to owner Jim Bent for having the vision to encourage Jazz at Pepe's.

Pepe's and the Odeon are two clubs trying to do business with what is generally considered noncommercial music. It's more common for a club owner to look for the obvious big seller, the musician or music with proven mass popularity.

Ron Bryant, manager of Secretary's Pub, says bands playing Top 40 covers, other people's songs that have sold well and received extensive airplay on commercial radio, are "effective" at the moment. Bryant says Secretary's is open to musicians other than Top 40 cover bands: Theo and the Classifieds, Joe Murphy and the Water Street Blues Band, the Hopping Penguins and the Lone Stars, bands playing original material and unusual covers, have all been employed at Secretary's, but Bryant says the band should "try to get popular first".

Bryant says "Halifax Is tough." He says people "really have to be dragged in" to hear a band.

Gordon Spencer, entertainment manager at the Network Lounge, agrees. Spencer has worked in several bars in town, including Zapatas, the Misty Moon and the Palace. In three and a half years at the Network, Spencer has made at least three trips a year to Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver to look for new acts.

"The thing that's doing best for me are the clone bands," Spencer says. "Tribute bands," he corrects. "I don't like to call them clone bands."

The clone band makes its living by looking and sounding as close as possible to an established act. Halifax audiences have gone out to see tributes to everyone from Michael Jackson to Led Zeppelin. While other, larger, Canadian cities may support one or two clone bands in a week, as many as five have been employed over a weekend in Halifax. Just about every bar in town that hires musicians has hired a clone. "I was the one to start the whole tribute thing," Spencer says.

Spencer says he admires what Peter Khristakos is trying to do at the Odeon. Spencer says he would love to hire more local acts himself, but can't. "The reality of the whole thing is I've got to sell liquor," he says. "Unfortunately, people In Halifax are really closed-minded when it comes to seeing something new." He hopes local bands don't "begrudge" him for the decisions he has to make.

Bob Bzanson worked at a number of bars and clubs in Halifax before his company, Fantasy DJ,was hired to provide entertainment at the Odeon. Bzanson says the owners and managers are desperate for any innovation that might give them a competitive edge. For some, that may mean turning away from live music.

Blues, new music and rock bands used to play at Ginger's from Wednesday to Saturday night. Only a Saturday afternoon matinee remains. Instead of live music, the tavern is promoting its own brewery.

Tavern manager Kevin Keefesayslive music doesn't help the small business compete against the large clubs like the Misty Moon and the Palace. "They take so much out of the little guy's pocket, It's hard to get something better. Entertainment, especially in taverns, doesn't pay.

"We decided to go in a different way," Keefe says. "It's paying off too. Our sales are up and our costs are down."

Video screens, and promotions such as Secretary's "twisting on the waterbed" and hula hoop contest may also be competing with live music.

"These are all fads that come and go," says Peter Power. Power says bars almost always return to live music. "They can't afford to be without it."

What doesn't change, Power says, is that most bar managers hire the musicians they know can deliver a crowd. And what the crowd wants is the familiar, the cover or the clone.

Power seldom performs professionally anymore, but in the 50's he was leader of a band that played Dixieland and Glenn Miller tunes. "I knew who was going to come down to the Nova Scotian Hotel and I knew exactly what request they were going to ask for," Power says.

"They're out there enjoying their favorite beverage and are probably with their favorite girl. They want to hear their favorite music. They're not going out for an evening of original music."

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