Arts & Life, Music

Turning up the black and blues

In the earliest minutes of newborn December, a tall man with pink cheeks spills through a door on one of Winnipeg’s more unlovely corners. Inside, he plunges into a room crammed with the uniform of the underground: savaged leather jackets, t-shirts branded by some obscure and very loud band.

There’s a metal show at the Windsor Hotel, you understand.

On this night, the gig is delicious but not deep, amps cranked but tongue twisted well into its cheek. First on the docket: Malice Cooper, the self-styled “WORLD’S BEST FEMALE Alice Cooper tribute.” Then there’s MortönTed, a slightly deranged Motörhead cover act (is that two Lemmys?) and a passel of fellows turned out like Judas Priest.

At some point between “Breaking The Law” and “Hell Bent For Leather,” the tall man huffs out of the bar and skips down the stairs. Once outside, he pulls a porkpie hat low over his ears, the kind of hat the new jazz kids save for when they go slumming somewhere. Speaking to a protozoan cloud of cigarette smoke or else no-one in particular, he says, “this was supposed to be a blues bar.”

Hey man, things change. But this being Winnipeg, it’s only to stay the same.

Thesis statement: the Windsor Hotel is the new Royal Albert Arms.

Evidence: there’s the carpet (filthy) and the tables (black, battered and otherwise non-descript). There’s no toilet paper in the washrooms, and there’s the same row of lurid VLTs, old tobacco stains, tattered pool table and the stage. Like the city itself, the bar ain’t pretty. It doesn’t need to look that way.

But Lord, with those walls so warm and worn-down, does it ever hold the music well.

It holds the music, and up to 180 people, and all the little disasters that decorate a perfect punk-rock night. Sounds familiar, right? “It definitely was that old Albert vibe,” Jeremy Hiebert says, ten days after his band, Comeback Kid, tore up the Windsor’s stage.

It’s fitting, because the Nov. 23 gig was originally slated for the Royal Albert, back when that venue’s owners swore its renovations would finally be complete. But by early November, the Albert’s doors were still shut and its guts — judging by Facebook photographs — still strewn on the floor.

In search of a new place for Comeback Kid to play, show organizers found a refuge five blocks to the south, at the feet of another banged-up low-income hotel. At first, Hiebert says, the band was uncertain of the setting. “We didn’t have a point of reference with that place,” he says: like all good Winnipeggers they knew of the bar, but had never stood on its stage.

Besides, the Windsor wasn’t supposed to be a punk-rock venue: bruise-coloured murals still proclaim it hosts “nothing but the blues.” To be sure, there are still blues jams there on some afternoons, but the Comeback gig was the first to announce it was starting something new.

The show went off better than anyone had planned. Onstage, Hiebert says, the sound was solid and loud. All the old faces that flooded the Royal Albert were reflected in the crowd, and really, the night just sort of… sang. “There’s just something about being in a room where somebody’s in the middle of a mosh pit with a pint of beer, and it smashes on the floor, and everybody can laugh,” he says. “And there’s no dickhead security beating kids up for having fun.”

On Twitter that night, some mused that it felt like the whole Royal Albert scene had packed up and moved down the street. Others, absent the show and understandably skeptical, disagreed. “Similar atmosphere maybe,” one fan Tweeted. “But AFAIK, nowhere near the same booking caliber.”

Except that now it is – in fact, it’s exactly the same.

New thesis statement: maybe it’s not really about the Windsor. Maybe it’s just the people that swell the heart of a space.

“There’s some ghosts on that wall,” Sam Smith says, nodding at the curve of plywood that juts like ribs along the Windsor’s insides.

That wall is dotted with fuzzy photos of patrons who are dead and blues guitarists who, presumably, are mostly still alive; Charlie Chaplin stayed here once, a poster on the wall reminds. That was a century ago, back when the hotel was new. Maybe his ghost comes back to drink here too, but in the gathering dark of a wicked afternoon the place is haunted only by men in shapeless parkas, tilting beers by the bar.

“It’s definitely the kind of room where it’s come as you are,” Smith says, and cracks his own second brew. “Nobody gives a shit.”

If people are suddenly putting “Windsor” and “Albert” in the same sentence, Sam Smith is most of the reason why. For the eight years he served as the artistic director at the Royal Albert, that bar’s stages thrived: local rock was the bread and butter, of course. But it was also, at times, a little avant-garde. “There’s lots of strange things that I’ve maybe foolishly championed over the years,” Smith says, and grins. “Things that made me the happiest, but maybe weren’t the things that drove gigantic crowds.”

See, bringing the Albert to life wasn’t just a job: like so many around the scene, most of Smith’s memories belonged to the joint. He booked his first show there, in the spring of 1993, a punked-up bash featuring The Detonators and a breaking-out Propagandhi. Ten years later, he took the gig full-time. “To be able to do it and call it a job was kind of amazing,” he says.

So when local businessman Daren Jorgenson bought the Albert in 2007, Smith stayed on. Besides, where else would he have gone? “As long as the Albert was open,” Smith says, speaking for himself and most everyone he knew, “that was really the only place we drank.”

Soon, of course, the Albert wouldn’t be open anymore. In the cold light of its closure, the romance of it all gathered dust in the corner: a little threadbare, a little abused. And while its owners work to bring it back — workers are hammering through the place every day, and owners say it’s coming soon — the lesson stuck.

“The toughest thing I had to take out of this is to be wary of how much affection of an institution you have as a patron, or a promoter,” Smith says. “It’s nice that the Albert has this incredibly rich history. But market forces could change that in a day, and there’s nothing you could do.”

As it so happens, the Windsor’s oldest patrons know all about that fear.

In January 2010, blues singer Kathy Kennedy was one of the first to sound the alarm. She’d heard something scary from what she swore were reliable sources, and against the broken teeth of downtown it had the ring of truth. The Windsor Hotel, she’d heard, was on the chopping block, slated to be sold to the city (maybe?) or someone else who planned to demolish it for a parking lot.

At the time, the bar’s reputation as Winnipeg’s top blues can was already dented. After an ownership shuffle in the 2008, the crowd that flocked to the blues jams dwindled: rappers and strippers started replacing six-stringers, and most of the blues masters quit playing there. Still, with the threat of the wrecking ball hanging over the Windsor, Winnipeg’s blues community rallied to save it. They went to the media, they wrote up petitions and offered to buy the place outright.

Those efforts were stymied, but only because the rumour was bogus: the building was indeed sold, but not to the city or a parking-lot fetishist. In fact, the buyer was Wayne Towns. That is, the same Wayne Towns who ran the Royal Albert through the sloppiest years of its glory; who once hired Sam Smith to put bands on his stages; who still had Albert’s ballsy old sound system stashed in a basement.

It all starts coming together now, doesn’t it?

In May 2011, a water main burst under the Royal Albert, and the whole scene washed out.

With Jorgensen and the city embroiled in a tug-of-war over who should take responsibility for the damage, Sam Smith scrambled to move shows to other venues. The Lo Pub absorbed more than a few; the Pyramid took on a bunch, too. Still, bands kept calling for places to play, and Smith tried not to turn them away. “It was kind of a nightmare,” he says. “All you have in this business as a promoter is your reputation. And I thought mine was going to go down the tubes.”

Seven months later, with the Albert still closed, Smith learned he was out of a job.

The interlude here is sad, and getting old, and doesn’t really need to be told: basically, with one legendary venue dried up and shut down, everything went a little off-kilter. Then in August 2012, the Lo Pub closed, so Smith and his friends started hanging out at the Windsor.

Right away, something clicked. Partly it was the presence of Wayne Towns, Smith muses; partly just the vibe. “It just seemed so obvious that there was so much potential here,” he adds, and points out the Windsor’s humble gifts: clear sightlines, a well-known location, an easy door to get in. “I was wondering if maybe I had been missing something in this room.”

And so it goes that a circle closed. In September, Smith shook hands with Towns, and accepted a new gig as the face of the Windsor. “Being resurrected in this business is very rare,” Smith says. “I’m very fortunate to be in the place that I’m in. And I have a sense of gratitude that a guy like Wayne Towns exists. I needed to connect myself with somebody that I knew.”

It takes awhile for these things to get going, a couple of months for the pieces to fall into place. The old Albert draught night has been born anew on Thursday nights at the Windsor; but for the most public rebirth, Smith agrees, that Comeback Kid show was the trigger. “From the feedback that we got, the general enthusiasm is palpable,” Smith says of that gig. “Maybe it wasn’t everybody’s first choice. But it didn’t lack any of the energy that they had come to expect from the Albert.”

So, to recap: same owner, same booking agent, faces, sound system and scene. The Windsor is the new Royal Albert: kind of, yes. Given the evidence, that’s easy enough to say.

On the other hand, you can’t just throw decades of history away.

So fear not, tall man in the porkpie hat: it’s won’t be all metal shows and punk-rock bacchanals. The blues will still live on at the Windsor, and now it’ll sound even better: already, they’ve invested in a new soundboard, and Smith is toying with other plans to improve the space. “A lot of the refinements that we’ve put in are ways of expressing our desire to improve the experience… regardless of what’s being played on stage,” Smith says. “It’s important for us to try and stand out, but at the same time maintain that very specific vibe that makes the room so comfortable.”

This is, after all, Winnipeg, where things change but only to stay the same.

And if the fates of two iconic and renovating dives are now somehow intertwined, it’s only because the will was there for the scene itself to survive. “In the absence of rooms like the Albert and the Lo, I hope this city has learned to truly appreciate spaces like this,” Smith says. “If the Windsor wasn’t the option, people would be hustling and finding other creative spaces.”

“Somehow, the scene will always find a way.”

Come rediscover the brand new Windsor yourself on Saturday, Dec. 8, when Jack Jonasson and his Lo Pub crew come out of involuntary retirement to present an epic tape-release party (yes, as in a cassette tape) by local indie-pop outfit Boats. Tickets are $10 and a bunch of other neat bands are playing. 

Melissa Martin is a siren of the apocalypse and the Entertainment Editor at the Spectator Tribune. She writes things sometimes too. Tweet her at @doubleemmartin, email her at, or just send her imaginary missives in your mind. She’ll might even think she gets them, sometimes.