Up Close & Personal

From Indie Rock to Hip Hop, Calgary’s Best Bars for Live Music

Whether Calgary deserves a nod as the Cultural Capital of Canada the city is bidding for the title in 2012, along with the $2 million of federal cheddar that comes with it is debatable. We’ll let you decide. What’s certain, though, is that Calgary ain’t just a cowboy town. At least not anymore.


Calgary has received mega-props from the tri-blend and plaid set, and deservedly so. Broken City, a bar-venue formerly owned by Sled Island mastermind Zak Pashak, is where to find the next Chad VanGaalen, pairing talented locals with crowd-pleasing touring acts. The Palomino a smokehouse by day also recruits some of the nation’s bearded best; if it’s a Polaris-nominated Haligonian math-rock combo ye seek, look no further. Elsewhere, Dickens Pub walks the line between alt-rock and metal; The Marquee Room, atop the celebrated Uptown cinema, digs the corners of Calgary’s local musical canon; while Republik, Ship & Anchor, Drum and Monkey, and Locals 510 and 522’s listings are always worth checking.


Artsy Inglewood, a quick-rising borough east of the downtown core, has emerged as the de facto neighbourhood for folkies among us. The Ironwood formerly the historic Garry Theatre has emerged as one of the city’s top venues, boasting everything from open mics to the biggest international names in country, alt-roots and folk. Next, a skip down Ninth Avenue reveals the Blues Can, whose nouveau-patina whets the appetites of Delta, Chicago or British aficionados alike. You can practically smell the smoke. Further west, Mikey’s Juke Joint hosts live music every night of the week, including the likes of Steve Pineo and Tim Hus.


When it’s time to party, Hifi parties hard. A gem in Calgary’s hip-hop scene, you’ll find everyone from the backpacker to the whiteboy jean-shorts type here. Alternating between live performances and club bangers, it’s also the heart of Calgary’s burgeoning, nervous dubstep system although don’t discount Friday nights at The Marquee Room or The Distillery, either. Calgary’s established bass community meets weekly for DJ Rice’s house-trained Sunday Skool also at Hifi while you’ll find dancehall, nu-ragga and drum and bass at Bamboo Tiki Room. 


Nestled comfortably a block from bustling Stephen Avenue, Beat Niq is one of Calgary’s best worst-kept secrets. Intimate, bohemian and modeled after New York’s legendary jazz haunts, catch genre standards interpreted by some of the city’s best players John Reid, Kodi Hutchison and Karl Schwonik are regulars who’ve made national waves or avant-garde performances from hand-picked musicians from all corners of the globe. Don’t miss Café Koi’s ever-growing open-mic night or the jazz performances at Bridgeland’s Main Dish, either.


If corpse paint or pins ’n’ patches float your boat, look no further than Vern’s Tavern and The Distillery. Choose your poison: Death, black, power or gore-grind populate near-daily bills at Vern’s; long considered one of Alberta’s metal hotspots, you’ll find an international palette as diverse as the genre itself. Alternatively, The Distillery takes D.O.A’s mantra Talk Action = 0 very seriously. Ska, crust punk, Oi! and even d-beat populate its busy schedule; there’s no shortage of talk, or action, here.


As countless straight-edge tees confirm, it’s OK not to drink even if that choice is provincially mandated. Fortunately, for the under-18s among us, there’s plenty of options: Beloved hot dog joint Tubby Dog hosts adolescent-friendly punk rock soirees; venue/recording space The New Black Centre corners the hardcore market; and DIY mainstay Local Library, deep in the belly of Central United Church, covers everything in between (and holds excellent crafts workshops). Basement-dwelling newcomer Undermountain might be the weirdest of the bunch, focusing on emerging acts spanning the province. 

By Mark Teo

Photo credit Tubby Dog Josh Naud