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Times change

But let's hope this place doesn't

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I find it tough to believe the ramshackle entrance on the corner of this ancient building leads to one of the best bars in Winnipeg.

But this is my first time here. I don't know what to expect.

A step across the stamped-out cigarette butts that surround the door and I am inside the legendary Winnipeg bar known for its high-quality music and eclectic atmosphere.

It takes several moments for my eyes to adjust to the dimness of the room.

No amount of reading could have prepared me for the scene that unfolds. Times Change(d) is nothing like other local music establishments. No marble tile greets the feet of blues fans here. The floor is made of plywood worn by more than 25 years' worth of boots on their way to find a seat.

Around me the chatter of the gathered crowd mixes with the clink of beer bottles and the sounds of buses driving by on the street outside. My eyes rest on a picture high in the rafters. A young Johnny Cash stares at me from behind his guitar, a snarling look plastered on his face as he flips me the middle finger.

My companion and I make our way through the light crowd and find a table that has a good view of the "stage" -- although the space where Mississippi bluesman Watermelon Slim will perform barely deserves to be called that. The tiny platform wedged between the door and the opposite wall is hardly big enough for the gear that Slim has brought.

We order from the "Beer around here" menu. As I fill my mouth with the slightly bitter taste of Fort Garry Dark Ale, my eyes come to rest on the assortment of housecoats that hang on the wall across from me. I wonder at the significance of this colourful collection. Then my heart skips a beat. Sitting next to the row of robes is Watermelon Slim.

I turn to my friend and whisper, "Watermelon Slim is in the back!" My friend casually glances his way and remarks, "There's no place for musicians to hide in this place." When I turn to look again Slim has hidden his head behind a pink housecoat with white polka dots.

A voice through a bullhorn crackles across the room. "You are all good people who have excellent taste in music." The voice, belongs to the self-proclaimed janitor/president of the Times Change(d), John Scoles. He announces the show will begin with a young local blues protégé.

A man who is younger than me approaches the stage and picks up the shiny metal guitar. Resonator guitars such as this were a staple of early Mississippi Delta blues musicians. Despite this legendary instrument I am apprehensive: I paid to see Watermelon Slim, not some kid.

After one song I have changed my mind. This kid can play. As he bangs on his guitar and wails into the microphone, I am transported to a juke joint in the Delta during the '30s. The crowd is as enthralled as I am. We clap and stomp to classic tunes that have been played in blues bars since the 1920s. For his last song, the kid says Watermelon Slim will join him on the blues harp. The crowd roars as Slim slowly rises from his seat and limps to the stage. The retired truck driver in his mid-60s is dressed in a brown fedora, white polyester pants and a blood-red satin shirt that is out of place in the dingy bar.

He smiles and waves to the crowd as he raises his harmonica. As the first mournful notes of the blues harp wash over us I glance around. Above the door is a banner that says "What would Neil Young do?" I smile with appreciation as I lose myself in the blues.

Later, I try to learn the story behind the housecoats. Scoles has given multiple answers when asked about their significance. He used to write a column for Uptown Magazine called the Housecoat Diaries, which tried "to connect the mysteries of the universe with the human love of leisure wear."

Another time, he said the housecoats remind him of certain things that happened in his life.

Or maybe the housecoats "give people a chance to have a shared experience of being in a bar that's more like their living room than maybe even their own living room. There's no better feeling than the comfort of your own home, and if that feeling can happen in public, with strangers, that's the universe at its best."

My experience at Times Change(d) was unlike any other. The music and venue combine to make something unique to Winnipeg. Scoles is right -- the bar does strangely feel like my living room. My first experience in my "living room" was a great one and you can bet it won't be the last, I still need to see Big Dave McLean.


Krystofer is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. He loves to play and listen to the blues and ride his bike.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2013 A1

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