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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 ...

'We were astounded by the energy of the people watching," says Tim Baker, lead singer of Hey Rosetta!. "The excitement, the loudness of them, they're rocking, they're dancing."

"And they're yelling," chimes in Josh Ward, bassist.

They really were, and there's a YouTube video from earlier this year to prove it. Six hundred rocking, dancing, sweaty fans in the Majestic Theatre in downtown St. John's, pushing themselves as close as they could to Baker's mike stand. His voice floats above the clip, but the engine that is driving the song, Red Heart , is undeniably the crowd. When Baker pleads, "Won't you let your red heart show," the crowd demands, "DON'T YOU LET YOUR RED HEART GROW COLD."

It's a heart-stopping rendition of an already heart-stopping song, and it's a world away from the set Hey Rosetta! just finished moments ago on Toronto's Harbourfront, where I ashamedly sat quietly like the rest of the fans (and sometimes clapped). The show rocked, the crowd was polite - the last word that would ever describe the same scene in St. John's.

When the Polaris Prize shortlist was announced, some critics bemoaned its lack of geographic diversity. In the running for the award, which celebrates the best in largely independent Canadian indie music, were acts such as Elliott Brood, Great Lake Swimmers and K'Naan - all talented artists, but all residing within a stone's throw of the CN Tower. Where was the heavy metal from Vancouver or the freak folk from Winnipeg?

At least St. John's orchestral indie rock made the cut. With Hey Rosetta! nominated for the national award, St. John's may be on its way to becoming Canada's next indie rock capital.

At 3,200 kilometres away from Toronto, and at least an ocean apart from everywhere else, the St. John's rock scene is, literally, an island unto itself in a country rife with great music.

Those who make it fall in love with St. John's. Russell Crowe has been known to drop in to O'Reilly's pub for a few songs. The luckier campers at a recent Salmon Festival got to have a few brews with Sam Roberts after what turned out to be an hour-long sing-along to the Montreal singer's catalogue. And the outdoor stage on downtown George Street is sure to feature prominently in the White Stripes' forthcoming documentary of their 2007 cross-Canada tour.

If the sole determinant of a music scene is its geographical ability to network, then St. John's has clearly lost that battle. The choppy ocean waters that divide the island from the mainland are commonly cited for the economic inequalities that have plagued the province in the past. But for a community of musicians and the lucky few outsiders who arrive on the Rock, the far-flung locale is more often its greatest strength.

"The lives that people live here are different from the lives of people who don't live on an isolated island on the Atlantic," says Pahl Schiralli-Earle, a guitarist with the Idlers, a local 11-piece reggae band. "I think that really does something different for the mentality. Every musician tells their story through the lives that they live. And the lives of Newfoundlanders, with weather that's awful most of the year and only nice for a short time and the waves pounding the rock that we're on, creates an interesting history."

The stories differ: You could be like the Mudflowers, a burgeoning all-girl rock trio straight out of high school in Bishop's Falls. Then there's the Gramercy Riffs, an indie pop band about to record its first full-length album. The Idlers recently closed out an evening of the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival before embarking on a West Coast tour. And for many up-and-coming bands, Hey Rosetta! are the gold standard, building a critical rep through playing, playing and playing some more.

The venue and places, though, are the same, and constitute an indie-rock walking tour of downtown St. John's, though depending on where you end up, walking may be tricky.

For both bands and revellers, a night can very well start early and end around 4 a.m. at Holdsworth Court. A tiny deck off George Street acts as a public terrace bridging four separate venues - CBTG's (a wink and a nod to CBGB, its inspiration in New York), The Levee, Distortion and The Bull and Barrell.

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."

With that ethos in mind, Haynes and Power make a point of playing tour guide and host to everyone they book. When the Polaris-nominated Toronto country rockers Elliott Brood came to town, the trio enjoyed a day of kite-flying at Cape Spear (a national historic site, home to the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador). Regina's Rah Rah went out to Petty's Harbour and saw icebergs in the ocean. Sometimes the couple book whale-watching tours for bands truly looking to play tourist.

With its hilltop perch, ocean air and calmer pace, St. John's sometimes succeeds in holding on to outsiders. "Almost every band that rolls through," Haynes says, "someone always says they could picture moving here. What's funny is when someone does."

Says Halifax resident Plaskett, who has seen them all: "There's a lot of great places to play in Canada. The one thing I will say about Newfoundland is, if there's one other city I'd want to set up shop in, I think St. John's would be it."

Many locals who try head west inevitably make their way back east. Singer-songwriter Mark Bragg came home three years ago after a stint in Ontario. Now very much settled again in St. John's, he says the lifestyle in the city of 100,000 agrees with him more - it's easier to be successful and creative where the vibe is relaxed and everyone is psyched for the music.

You won't catch Newfoundlanders watching a band with their hands folded in judgment.

"That's just Newfoundlanders," Bragg says. "They like to have a good time and don't have reservations."

* * *

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE
Air Canada and WestJet both fly to St. John's, while Toronto's Porter will begin offering flights in October that connect through Ottawa and Halifax. Where to stay The Franklin Hotel 193-195 Water St.; 709-754-9005; thefranklinhotel.net. From $179 (until the end of September). A boutique hotel steps from all the major downtown bars and venues.

WHERE TO GO

Ship Inn 265 Duckworth St.; 709-753-3870. Holdsworth Court
A complex of three buildings, on the corner of George and Adelaide streets, and home to the following clubs: CBTG 709-722-2284 The Levee 709-746-4942; thelevee.ca. Distortion 709-738-8833 The Bull and Barrell 709-579-7077

WHERE TO EAT Bacalao 65 Lemarchant Rd.; 709-579-6565; bacalaocuisine.ca. A modern twist on traditional Newfoundland dishes, such as Jiggs Dinner, and a wine list stocked with local wineries. Try the daily salt cod dish. Leo's Restaurant 27 Freshwater Rd.; 709-726-2658. Most people will direct you to the Ches's chain for fish and chips, but a discerning local will take you to Leo's for the city's finest fish, chips, gravy and dressing. more information Mightypop.ca Krista Power and Jud Haynes on upcoming shows.Thescope.ca The city's most up-to-date concert listings.

* * *

10 that rock the Rock Some of the best bands in St. John's may not even have an album yet. Here are 10 actslocals are checking out. You can give most of them a listen on MySpace. Ye-Yeti This underage trio plays angular electro, often with their shirts off and bowties on. http://tinyurl.com/iheartyeyeti Idlers An 11-piece reggae band that proves Newfoundland has a great reggae scene. http://idlers.ca/ Mudflowers Straight out of high school and into the bars of St. John's, these girls like to drink beer and rock. http://www.myspace.com/themudflowers Kujo Victor Lewis and his new band blend their love of blues, garage and psych rock for an intense live show. http://www.myspace.com/kujotherockband Gramercy Riffs These melodic indie rockers are best seen during the winter or summer when all the members are back from school and ready to party. http://www.makeyourselfwarm.com/ Over The Top Fun, loud pop punk that makes Blink-182 look tame by comparison. http://www.myspace.com/overthetop709 The Novaks Their tight rock riffs easily fill the larger venues in town. http://www.thenovaks.ca Mercy, the Sexton Rhythmic indie pop inspired by New Wave and seventies punk. http://www.mercythesexton.com Mark Bragg and the Butchers The folk rocker with the Dylan-esque voice never fails to start a dance floor. http://www.myspace.com/markbragg The Pathological Lovers Tim Baker of Hey Rosetta! is a fan of these frenetic indie kids. They do a mean cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart. http://www.myspace.com/thepathologicallovers

Cliff Lee

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