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The Gramercy Riffs riff in St. John's. (Paul Daly)
The Gramercy Riffs riff in St. John's. (Paul Daly)

Music

Newfoundland rocks Add to ...

At a minimum of three bands a night gracing each stage, that's 12 bands within stumbling distance of one another. Be sure, though, to keep your drink inconspicuous as you take it from bar to bar.

The gem of the St. John's scene, however, lies a few minutes away from the busy George Street strip. Wander slightly northeast to Duckworth Street, just past larger venues such as The Rock House and the Majestic, and you'll find yourself at Ship Inn (known simply as the Ship).

It's been a live music institution since forever, or at least the 1970s depending on who you talk to. Any band in town worth their salt has played its low-lying stage (and eaten its fish and chips).

Halifax-based Joel Plaskett, the veteran rocker who first visited Newfoundland as part of nineties alt-rock band Thrush Hermit, remembers playing there a few years ago. "The Ship is like a magic little place. It just has a coziness; you walk in the door and you can't believe you haven't been there before," says Plaskett, who has played more than his fair share of venues across Canada.

"It's one of those bars where there's not a bad seat in the house. With the people that are there, you can really sense the tight-knit community."

But, ultimately, it's the locals who tirelessly party every weekend, without fail, who make the place. "People just go out and lose their minds," says Ward of Hey Rosetta! "You notice that too when we play Calgary or Edmonton. You have a lot of people who are from home who are going out to see you and expect the same vibe. They come bringing the same energy, and if you get enough of those people into a bar - watch out, Calgarians!"

While the good vibes of home easily follow the bands that tour Canada, the physical act of touring is a feat in and of itself. To play even a single gig, bands endure a nine-hour drive to Port aux Basques and then catch the eight-hour ferry to North Sydney, N.S. The prospect of taking a van jam-packed with musicians and gear and travelling as far as Toronto means about a thousand dollars spent solely on gas. Unsurprisingly, many bands from St. John's are never heard anywhere off the island - and many of them wouldn't have it any other way.

"People tell me, 'You should move to Halifax or Toronto where the market is more accessible,'" says Schiralli-Earle of the Idlers. "But it's like, 'No way, man.' The reason why we are as tight as we are and as motivated as we are is because of where we are… We can play one weekend and get 200 people, then play next weekend and get 200 people out, and then play again."

Where there are physical divides between St. John's and the rest of the country, some musicians in the city are looking to bridge the musical divide. When Jud Haynes moved back home after leaving the Halifax-based indie rockers Wintersleep, he found there was a void to be filled when it came to promoting and bringing indie talent to play in Newfoundland. Haynes and girlfriend Krista Power were already putting up friends and artists such as Julie Doiron, and these musicians would tell the couple what they enjoyed most about making the trek to St. John's and what could use improvement.

It was Power's idea to start Mightypop - a casual booking and promoting team that supports bands wanting to travel to Newfoundland - late last year. Since then, they've brought numerous bands to the island who might never have made it otherwise. "Bands don't come here because they're trying to make it big," Haynes says. "You come here because you want to. We embrace the fact that it's unique and that it's so fun. You don't come here and stay a night, you stay for two or three."

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