Sainte Anne de Bellevue is known to many for its million-dollar yachts and the see-and-be-seen scene where crowds mingle at the market and stroll the boardwalk. But at its heart, it is also something of a Bohemian center for artists, poets and musicians.
Twenty years ago there were many venues where local musicians of stunning ability would meet to perform, but, in the spirit of the times, these places all suffered from three enemies of music: swirling smoke, clanking glasses, and bubbling, beer-fueled, chatter. The music was, as it so often still is, a backdrop; wallpaper behind the buzz of the club. The smoke was no friend to singers, and the noise and distractions were no friend to anyone who actually came to listen.
One of these serious musicians – well-known folk singer and impresario Ian Gray – had the idea of finding a better space. Union Church was a West Island hub for music of all styles, sacred and secular, that included pop shows (like Hair) led by Brian Powers-Smith; the renowned a capella vocal group Ste. Anne Singers; the Lakeshore Chamber Orchestra and Pierre Gallant’s notable “Road Shows”. And Ian had friends in a blues band called Disband who were part of that musical scene. Gord Erskine “took the call” from Ian, and after a few quick meetings with Ron Harris and Thom Meredith, and people from Union – Judy Paquin and Bob Picard – we were ready to roll with “Ste Anne Coffee House and Blues”.
Our goal? A quiet, clear-aired room where friends could meet, where the skills of virtuoso players could actually be noted, and where the stories in song lyrics, and the poetry of their construction, would not be lost. For many artists, the banter between songs, or about the songs, are as valuable as the music itself, and that requires a collaboration between artist and audience. We wanted to open a door for that to happen.
For the first event, in the fall of 1994, we carried over an espresso machine and 12 mugs, and we wondered if anyone other than the organisers would show up. Thirty five people came, so we never unpacked the espresso machine. We have never looked back. After the first season, the regular audience had grown to close to 100, and we had to move to a larger room – Adair Hall.
Who has played at the COHO? Too many to list, but they include Jesse Winchester, John Renbourne, Peggy Seeger, Penny Lang, Jason Lang, Susie Vinnik, Annie Gallup, Susie Arioli, Stephen Barry, Ray Bonneville, Granary Blues, Karen Young, Coral Egan, Linda Morrison, Jessica Vigneault, Alan Gerber, David Francey, Michael Brown, Andrew Cowan, Alan Brown, the inimitable Jimmy James – but intimate and unplugged. But our main mission was to feature local community musicians, many of whom have gone on to great things: late, great, Kirk McGeachy, the Gossage brothers, Jimmy Bland, John Davis, Derek Olive, Pigeon Hole, Osmosaic, The Sin and The Swoon, Kelly Watling, Rob Lutes, Dale Boyle, Durham County Poets, the Bombadils…. Just to name a few.
Why has the Coffee House been so successful – even after the smoke cleared from the other venues? The main reason is that artists and audiences love it. The artists love it because they connect with an attentive and appreciative audience and our sound quality is superb. Ray Bonneville – well-used to the bar scene – was so surprised by the pin-drop silence during his performance that he stopped mid-song to recalibrate!
The audience loves it because we see stellar performers in a room as intimate as a living room – Susie Arioli’s last Montreal show was before 10,000 standing people on the main stage at the Jazz Fest; same girl, better sound, and only feet away from your candle-lit table.
There are other reasons: it is a West Island venue, so it is a short walk, bus ride or drive for most people; there are no problems parking; you can enjoy TWIGS cake and coffee (talk about artists!!); and it is embarrassingly affordable!
The affordability comes from the fact that it is an entirely non-profit, volunteer-run, operation. The Volunteers? Current Stalwarts: Nancy, Jim and Judy Gelsthorpe, Linda Drewry, Sarah Robinson, Frans Lecluse, Tom Fullerton, Bridget and Melanie from TWIGS, Jim and Helen Fyles. Indispensible long service awards: Ron Harris, Gordon Erskine, Rosy Mayo, Ian Gray. And, of course, we could not do it without the support of the Union Church community – “they know what we do, but they let us do it anyway.” But most important to the success is the audience. Nothing would happen without them.
That is what makes it work: audience, hall, volunteers, performers – and a love of good music.
But it was not all smooth sailing. You could say that we started out drifting on a strong current of enthusiasm, and then almost sank from our success. Our core volunteers were up until almost 3 AM after the show cleaning up!! Then we learned to swim: by asking our audience to participate in the logistics… in “the only coffee house in the world where you get to stack your own chairs”, we can now be done by 11:30.
And now, perhaps, it seems we are learning to fly!
The space in the hall is limited, and the intimacy could not be preserved in a much larger space, so, for many years, we have been known as the “West Island’s Best Kept Musical Secret.” Now you can keep up with news and reviews on Twitter, Facebook and right here on our blog!
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Join us the last Friday of the month:
September to November
Doors open 7:30 PM
Show Starts at 8:00 PM
$10 at the door
24 Maple Ave.