\ TORONTO EAST YORK \
Two dozen years ago when I ventured into the heart of East York at Woodbine and Danforth Avenues for the first time, shortly after starting the progenitor of TorontoMoon.ca, the music climate there, like the neighbourhood itself, was very different from what it is today.
Regarded as dangerously edgy by downtown residents and even those who hung around in the then-sketchy Parkdale and Junction areas of the city’s west end, the “Italian area” of the east end area was generally thought of as “mob country”, where gangsters and bikers populated seedy bars that offered mostly Rock ‘n’ Roll with a bit of Country and dirty electric Blues thrown in.
I quickly discovered, and wrote in The Open Season and subsequent to-nite, that while all those elements were certainly there, there was also a lot more live music on offer, including acoustic Roots, Pop and even a bit of Jazz —but mostly in tiny rooms tucked away and that were inconsistent.
The real live music action then was along arterial boulevard “The Danforth” and dominated by smoke-filled, cheap-beer Rock and Country venues like The Commodore, Cheers, The Neon Cowboy, Quinn’s, The Marquee/Shamrock Tavern, Eton House, and The Crossroads (I still wear scars from a scuffle there) a night out in this area often included a brawl as well as a brew.
But shortly after the turn of the century, with the advent of new anti-smoking rules and tougher drinking-and-driving laws, most of those places had started disappearing and for the most part didn’t get replaced. Rock and roll may live forever, but the rooms that were offering it live in East York certainly didn’t.
By 2009 in fact there was a real dearth of regular live music on the strip once you got east of Pape Avenue, and only a couple of them were rooms you’d want to eat at either. Despite little oases like Ten Feet Tall and Sarah’s, most of the remaining smaller ones that did still have entertainment —such as Café Au Lait, the original Groove Bar and Wise Guys— tended to tolerate rather than welcome strangers.
Thus by the time Joanne Clayton, the owner of Relish tapas eatery —who recently celebrated ten years in business at the corner of Danforth and Cedarvale Ave., a block east of Woodbine— started the weekly jam/open stage that hits its six-year mark tonight, it felt almost like being on an island to early attendees.
However, as I predicted soon after the event took hold, this always-interesting and evolving weekly shindig was actually the cutting edge of a whole new era in live music nearby —and in the very character of the surrounding neighbourhood itself.
The event began the third Sunday in February 2010 with drummer Paul Brennan (who still holds down the beat most weeks, when he’s not on a gig with numerous groups with which he’s in demand) bass/guitar player Phil Jacobs and singer/host Stella Rose running the show and it very quickly caught on.
Although I missed the first week because it was a snowy, cold month that year, I was there for week 2 and ever since it has been an event treasured by me and legions of others from all over the city.
The “Stir It Up Sundays” open mic/jam (you can perform as a solo or get members of the house troupe to back you —your choice) rocketed into success because it not only attracted area musicians (and wow, what a panoply of local talents had been hidden in the woodwork seemingly just waiting for a chance to emerge!) but also players from across the city and, just as importantly, appealed to local area residents who thronged to see talents they’d hitherto never heard of but were discovering with delight week after week.
(It didn’t hurt that owner Joanne and her crew are wizards in the kitchen, inventors of interesting tapas offerings and concocters of amazing dessert treats, nor that she has always had an interesting selection of local and craft beers on tap.)
It’s been at the Relish Sunday jams that I’ve first seen performances by a number of artists of whom I’ve become a fan and written about many times over the past few years: David Macmichael, Jace Traz, Sam Taylor, Jessica Speziale, Jody Ferrer, James Clark, Jessica Blake, Bryan Van Dusen, Lindy Vopnfjörd, Mary Stewart, Chris Bennett, Clela Errington and many more —not to mention the many, many bands and groups including appearances by stellar talents I was already familiar with such as the late James Gray, Fergus Hambleton, Mark Sepic, Diana Zitmanis, Ed Roth, Rory Cummings, Michael Fonfara, Steve Raiken and a legion of others too numerous to recite.
An island no more at 2152 Danforth, Relish now finds itself, despite being further east than many of the other new bistros, cafés and other eateries in the area, the local paragon of how to succeed in the hospitality industry by using just the right mix of food, drink, entertainment and service.
It has grown into the role gradually, initially adding a show here and another there, today offering live entertainment at least ten times a week —and it’s quality stuff. As the music has gained in prominence Clayton has also evolved the room around it, cobbling together bit by bit a stage and supply of quality house equipment that is by far superior to any other room its size and a match for many much larger ones.
Now, as she enjoys a zenith of success, the neighbourhood is catching up to Clayton’s vision. In the last couple of years a live music renaissance of sorts has suddenly mushroomed along the strip of Danforth east of Greenwood, as little spots offering regular shows such as Sauce, Morgan’s and Hirut have opened and thrive, the Linsmore Tavern reinvented itself as a multi-genre music room, the Eton House and Groove Bar have cleaned up a bit and a tidal wave of new specialized, stylish restaurants and hip little hangout pubs has lifted the area’s tone and property values to the point where a local Coffee Time across the street went bust while a Starbucks is soon opening up nearby.
Like any open mic or jam, Stir It Up Sundays has its ups and downs but I’d expect pretty much all of the current regular performers and patrons, plus many of the alumni and who knows who else, to be on hand tonight. If there’s a cake it will be to die for and I’d expect Ferrer might have a new song about the occasion and Van Dusen will also be on hand to share his rap take on the milestone. If you don’t make it out for this party (come early if you want a seat) you can be sure of one thing any other week: on Sunday night at Relish, whether it’s busy or slow, the quality of the performers will be of high calibre and the vibe will soar.
That’s why this event —and this bar— not only passes mustard as a music and patron-friendly venue but for this part of the world, it takes the cake.
-Gary 17, TorontoMoon.ca