Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rebirth of a legend

Windsor's music promoter walks fine line between expanding audience and respecting blues history

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2So goes Windsor Beer, the Crooked Brothers' ode to the legendary hotel that once hosted Charlie Chaplin and was a staple venue for blues musicians across the country.

"It was kind of the first place we went to check out blues music. We would go as kids, sometimes even sneak in and watch some live music and drink cheap beer," says Darwin Baker, who plays harmonica and dobro in the country-blues band.

Yet in recent years, the Windsor Hotel had resorted to hosting hip-hop shows and even exotic dancers. Jazz Winnipeg stopped using it as a venue after 2008.

With the closure of both the Royal Albert and the Lo Pub creating a dearth of local music venues, the Windsor may be in the position to become one of the city's prime locations once again with the introduction of Sam Smith as promoter of the venue.

Smith took over programming at the Windsor Hotel this August, following his stint at the Royal Albert, which closed in May 2011.

"I guess the problem that I'm facing, and it's a good problem to have, is that the city's kind of been starved for a room like this," Smith says.

Though he's conscious of the significance of the blues to Windsor Hotel, right now, Smith says he's trying to introduce the venue to as broad of an audience as possible, which means not programming strictly blues music.

Since Smith took over, the venue has hosted local musicians playing in every genre under the sun, from crowd pleaser DJ Co-op to country-rock band Andrew Neville and the Poor Choices on Jan. 12. At the beginning of January, the Windsor hosted the CD release party for Songs in the Key of Hope, a tribute album to Neil Hope, who played Wheels on the Degrassi TV series, from the No Label Collective. Last year, the venue was the site of a raucous appearance by iconic New Orleans collective The Rebirth Brass Band.

"The Albert always had this reputation of 'anything goes,'" Smith said.

"If someone's in a band and they jam and they rent jam space, and they stick (their equipment) in a van and drag it down to a club when it's 30 below, and I'm just going to sit at the end of the bar and say, 'This band sucks,' after they've done all that for our club?"

But when a sign on the entrance reads "Nothing But the Blues," there is a considerable amount of pressure to remain loyal to the venue's history, Smith admits.

"The blues is what established the reputation of that room, and I do have to respect that in the long run. I can't get away with just programming wild sh-- all the time."

In 2010, rumours that the legendary hotel was going to be demolished to make room for a surface parking lot prompted local blues musician Kathy Kennedy to organize a rally in support of the hotel.

Though the information turned out to be untrue, Kennedy collected more than 3,000 signatures and several letters from local musicians, politicians and longtime patrons in support of saving the hotel.

Kennedy had also been working to have the hotel included the city's registry of historic properties, though with little luck, she says.

Kennedy says she feels Smith's diversion away from the blues will only make it more difficult to attract faithful patrons, and that the venue should remain dedicated to the genre that gave it its reputation.

"The Windsor will always be a blues room. It doesn't matter who tries to change it," she said.

"It should be a regular stop for all the big blues names, and a constant and supportive venue for all local blues artists to evolve and fuel their love for the blues."

Kennedy has played at the Windsor several times but says she won't be back until the venue becomes dedicated to the blues once again.

"It is disrespectful and careless to not acknowledge the worth of this great room," she said.

Though Rankin and his bandmates were introduced to blues at the Windsor, he says he was happy to see it become home to rock shows that have been lacking a venue in recent months.

"It's a great venue for live music in general, and especially with the Albert still being closed, there's been a vacuum for rock and punk shows. So I think its great that they're kind of mixing it up."

Smith argues that it's tough to make any venue successful focusing solely on one style of music if you can't bring out the crowds to support it.

"It's very difficult to survive on one genre," he said.

"But because the blues is such an important part of that venue's history, I can't rightly say that I can just go willy-nilly the way that we did at the Albert. A room like the Windsor needs to not modernize but just adapt."

The Windsor hosts an acoustic jam night every Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and a blues jam every Saturday from 3 to 7 p.m. Blues/roots guitarist Tim Butler plays Tuesday nights. Jan. 31 local indie rock band The Girth plays Rock n' Roll Draft Night; Feb. 1 features The Legion of Liquor; Feb. 2 is a Manitoba Music showcase featuring Mise en Scene, Salinas, Flying Fox and the Hunter Gatherers and French Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2013 c9

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