Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Paradise' lost

The Blue Note Café was once a Mecca for musicians. Now it's just a parking lot

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The iconic neon sign followed the Blue Note from Main Street to its short stay on Portage Avenue.

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The iconic neon sign followed the Blue Note from Main Street to its short stay on Portage Avenue.

Opened in March 1983 in the former Main Spot Diner at 220 Main Street south, the Blue Note quickly became the place to go for late-night revellers, post-gig musicians of all stripes and local cultural cognoscenti. Operated by Helen Riddell, it was her son Curtis who became the face of the club. "Where else could you go at 2:30 in the morning?" asked Curtis Riddell. Licensed for 65 patrons, more often you'd find twice that number inside and an equal number outside waiting to get in. The club ran until 4 a.m. seven days a week. "We ran afoul of the liquor laws a few times," laughs Riddell.

Besides the cinnamon coffee (poured dramatically from great height by waiter Kevin Mutch) and homemade food, the attraction was the live music. "There was nothing like it in the city with a stage," notes former employee George West. While folksinger Jim Donahue was a mainstay, it was the impromptu jam sessions that became the Blue Note's calling card. Following their stadium concert in 1983, David Bowie's band showed up and jammed into the wee hours as did Rod Stewart's band, while Rod himself sat at a booth taking it all in. Guns 'n' Roses' Axl Rose and Slash hung out following their arena concert. Axl even sang Heartbreak Hotel. The Cowboy Junkies recorded a CBC radio set at the club. A drunken Long John Baldry sang Happy Birthday to MuchMusic VJ Monika Deol. Bluesman Johnny Winter loved hanging at the club and even gave Curtis's pregnant wife Petra his wife's special remedy, raspberry tea, to induce labour.

"A great memory for me," adds Riddell, "was the night Burton Cummings played for three hours, until 6:30 in the morning, singing all those great Guess Who songs." And who could ever forget Kevin Mutch wailing I Wanna Be Sedated. Stories of various hijinks are endless.

The open stage concept allowed for many surprises. "We had a lady come in and play this old Ukrainian instrument and she had everyone crying," chuckles Riddell. "The Dayglo Abortions showed up at 5 in the morning and played these songs about all this awful stuff until 6:30."

NHL players also frequented the club following their games (Mark Messier was once coaxed onstage to play guitar). The Winnipeg Writers Guild met there on Thursdays including Carol Shields.

The Crash Test Dummies coalesced from a loose jam band at the Blue Note. Leader Brad Roberts was Riddell's neighbour and early on worked at the club. In fact Riddell was the original drummer along with West on bass. "A lot of musicians worked at the club," notes West. "It was almost a prerequisite." What started out as Bad Brad Roberts and the St. James Rhythm Pigs gradually evolved as players came and went.

"Sunday nights were memorable with the original Crash Test Dummy Review and a cast of what seemed like thousands taking the stage," recalls Mitch Potter. Ray Charles' band showed up one night but needed a drummer to jam. Mitch Dorge got a late-night call to come down to the club and join them onstage.

Besides the celebrities, many local musicians, including Luke Doucet, Scott Nolan, Marcie Campbell and the Perpetrators, got their start at the club.

But it was former Winnipegger Neil Young who put the Blue Note Café on the international radar when he took the stage well past midnight on June 27, 1987 with his former bandmates. According to Dave Perich, "Neil Young stepped up to the microphone and announced, 'Hi, we're the Squires and this is our first gig in 25 years.' " Several Blue Note habitués claim to have shared a joint with the rock icon out behind the club. Neil and his Squires played a short set of old R&B covers. Six months later he released an album of original R&B songs under the title Neil Young & the Blue Notes. "That Blue Note jam had something to do with it," he later confirmed.

"We really thought we had something special at the Blue Note," muses West. "It filled a void. It was also a community effort. Everyone pitched in." The Neon Factory provided the iconic neon sign in exchange for food and drinks. Performers often played for free. "It became a home for me more than anything else," declares Dan Neil.

But the building that housed the club was less than ideal, with a sloping floor and a dank, musty odour. By 1993, faced with the cost of major renovations (the club had already expanded by taking over the adjacent barbershop), Riddell instead let the lease expire and relocated the club and its neon sign to the former Rickshaw Bamboo Terrace on Portage Avenue near Arlington where it continued for another five years before closing for good.

The memories, however, live on. "What made the Blue Note such a special spot," reflects Riddell, "was that it afforded people not only entertainment but also a lot of things that wouldn't have happened without it." Adds West: "Curtis gave everyone an awesome place to hang out, to play, to work, and the city was better for it. It was a moment in time that will never happen again and I miss it dearly."

 

Sign up for John Einarson's new Off The Record classes beginning in January at mcnallyrobinson.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2013 A1

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