Over the past few months, there has been plenty of media coverage of The Carleton Music Bar & Grill, Hugh's Room, and the Railway Club. Based, respectively, in Halifax, Toronto, and Vancouver, the three live music venues have played important roles in the musical life of those cities.
All three, however, have faced real challenges in surviving. The Carleton's fate is bleak, Hugh's Room is shuttered while attempts are made to reactivate it as a non-profit club, and the Railway Club has been closed for a year.
As was recently explored in a feature in The Georgia Straight, however, the Railway is set to get back on track as a music club, thanks to new ownership.
Writer Mike Usinger noted that “Those on the DIY side of the Vancouver music scene were not thrilled when news broke in early January that the former Railway Club would be reopening under a new name by a partnership that includes Chad Cole and Jeff Donnelly of the Donnelly Group.
Most of the criticism was that a beloved local live-music institution was going to be taken over by someone best known for a chain of bars (Bimini, Lamplighter, Library Square Public House) not known for hosting original bands. Adding to the outrage was the revelation that the shuttered-for-a-year room at 579 West Dunsmuir wasn’t going to be called the Railway Club in its upcoming incarnation."
In an interview with the Straight, Donnelly explained the decision to settle on the new moniker, the Railway Stage & Beer Café.
“We were really debating back and forth whether we wanted to keep the name the Railway. We wanted to because of the history, but we didn’t want to because of the potential backlash. We got the backlash anyways before we decided whether we were going to keep the name Railway or not.
And that kind of influenced us to where we were like ‘Yeah, we gotta stay with the name Railway, but let’s kind of make it our own.’ Let’s re-create the thing, but in keeping with the history and the heritage that was there.”
As the new name indicates, along with hosting music, the venue will stress the craft beer component, with upwards of 32 rotating offerings on tap. Given that hipsters these days seem more interested in new beers than new bands, that may be a smart move.
Giving Vancouver music fans fresh hope for the Railway is Donnelly’s recruitment of Thomas Anselmi to handle the music side.
“We had to bring in the right guy, because live music quite frankly is not my forte,” Donnelly told The Straight. "Over the years we’ve had tons of live nights [in his other bars] and we appreciate the live nights, but we need experts to do it.”
In a press release the Railway Stage and Beer Café wrote that Anselmi will “develop the programming vision for the Railway Stage, including the curatorial direction, decor, stage design, lighting, and to keep the all-important feel which makes the room special.”
Anselmi is quoted as saying “The Railway is one of the most important historic live music stages in the city, and this is an opportunity to bring new life to a key venue in Vancouver.”
When contacted by FYI, he described his role as being “a creative consultant.”
Anselmi’s background is a fascinating one. He was the charismatic frontman of two acclaimed Vancouver bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Slow and Copyright, before, as The Straight noted, launching “two of Vancouver’s most progressive cultural spaces, the reimagined Waldorf Hotel and the Fox Cabaret.”
According to The Straight, "the plan is to have the the Railway Stage & Beer Café do live entertainment multiple nights a week. Highly touted local comedian Dino Archie will host a comedy night, and a Saturday live session overseen by Joe Rotundo—part of the old Railway Club’s programming—will also return to the room.
“We’ll have at least one or two nights a week where we’ll be doing live local original acts,” Donnelly said. “We might have two or three in a night. They might not be the hugest draw, but they might be up-and-coming local guys. We’d also like to do some more established Vancouver bands that can sell tickets. We’re not going to be taking cover charge ourselves—everything will go towards the bands.”
Upgrades to the sightlines and soundsystem in the club are planned, in the hopes of attracting touring acts as well.
To get a sense as to what the club has meant to local artists, FYI reached out to acclaimed singer/songwriter Reid Jamieson and his partner (on and offstage), Carolyn V Mill. She stated that "The new Railway can only be a good thing, even if it is part of a chain. Downtown needs the love."
Mill reminisced that "The Railway was the first place we ever played in Vancouver when we moved west from Toronto nearly a decade ago. Many benefit shows, rockabilly co-bills, and we even opened for Skydiggers. Made some special friends there too, like D. Trevlon and Jack Keating."
"The great thing about the Railway was that it was an oasis of cool in the downtown core, with great staff and vibe, and where you could pop in at 4 in the afternoon and find someone to hang with. Time would stretch and next thing you know a band was playing and the night had begun in earnest. The downside was that the stage was only really visible to the folks up front, and there was always an element of danger in wobbling back down the stairs at the end of the night.
"We're happy to hear that [local surf cowboy faves headed by Joe Rotundo] The Modelos will be playing their Saturday show in the new venue, a fine portent of good times to come."
Read the full Georgia Straight feature here