It’s 9 p.m. on a Tuesday in December and, save for a few heavily bundled commuters waiting at a bus stop, Osborne Village is a ghost town.
It’s not a particularly surprising scene. It’s a weeknight after all, and one of the coldest days since winter started in earnest this year.
Inside the Toad in the Hole, staff are preparing for what will likely be a busy night — as almost every Tuesday has been since Soul Night started as a weekly live music event in the Toad’s basement-dwelling sister venue, the Cavern, more than a decade ago.
An eclectic crowd trickles into the pub over the next two hours. Groups of young women in expertly styled thrift-store finds share space with those in tight jeans and crop tops. University students in tuques and flannel sit next to 30-somethings with facial piercings and dreadlocks.
They have all ventured out into the biting wind on a weeknight to take part in one more Soul Night before the Cavern closes on Dec. 31.
But Soul Night won’t start for two more hours.
At 9 p.m. on a Tuesday in December at the Toad in the Hole there are ice wells to be filled and beer fridges to be stocked.
Toad co-owner Kevin Monk walks through the British-inspired pub on his way to unlock the Whiskey Bar, an enclave for those with a refined palate on the south side of the establishment. He’s carrying a space heater under each arm.
"It’s a good thing we’re done here at the end of the month," Monk says to anyone within earshot, half-joking, half-not.
The heating system in the building is acting up and many of the dozen or so patrons scattered throughout the bar are still wearing winter coats while they sip on pints.
The Toad is leaving its post at 112 Osborne St. at the end of December and moving up the strip into the former Buccacino’s restaurant. Monk and his brother and business partner, Michael Monk, purchased the building at 155 Osborne St. five years ago and are looking forward to never paying rent again — which, at the Toad’s current location, is more than $20,000 a month.
"I’m feeling like I wish it was tomorrow," Monk says of the move. "Nothing in this building has ever been fixed, except by us and we don’t own it."
He adds, "there’s a little bit of nostalgia, but I’m freezing my ass off right now and how nostalgic is it when your last month is bitter?"
The Monk brothers took over the Toad in 2005 from its original owners, who opened the bar in 1990 and were responsible for creating the sprawling 8,000-square-foot space it occupies today by expanding into neighbouring businesses.
In the beginning, the pub was quite literally a hole in the wall, little more than a bar and a hallway situated next to a vintage clothing store, a coffee shop and a gelato joint. The Whiskey Bar was an internet cafe.
The building was constructed in 1906 as the Osborne Block and had residential suites upstairs and commercial space along the street, according to local historian Christian Cassidy. It was extensively renovated by Carlos Gabrielli in 1980 and reopened that summer as the Village Plaza, a split-level shopping and dining centre with a red brick facade. A 1981 advertisement in the Winnipeg Free Press lists the Arches Restaurant, Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlour and the China Cabinet as some of the early tenants.
A 1979 Tribune article describes this and other recent developments in the neighbourhood as the revitalization of a run-down remnant of beatnik subculture and Winnipeg’s "moderately priced answer to Toronto’s Yorkville and Vancouver’s Gastown."
It seems Osborne has always been a neighbourhood in flux.
In 2012, the Village was named one of greatest neighbourhoods in the country for its density, character and culture by the Canadian Institute of Planners. Since then, many long-running establishments have closed up shop and "for lease" signs are posted in windows all over the strip.
Monk says he is "always" concerned about the state of the neighbourhood.
"When we first took over, the Die Maschine was next door, the Collective was right there, Basil’s was operating — there was nothing empty," he says. "It’s going back up… everything comes in cycles."
Posted: 27/12/2019 7:00 PM
From the outside, Bulldog Pizza might not look like much more than your average pie place. Head inside, however, and the space reveals not one but two areas ready to host live music.
The north Main Street location, located between Bannerman and Cathedral avenues, was previously a Mr. Bones pizza location but went independent and became Bulldog Pizza around two years ago.
The relocation of the Toad and the closure of the Cavern signal a shift in the nightlife of the area. There will be a stage and Soul Night will continue in the new version of the pub — which is expected to open Feb. 1, 2020 — but live music won’t be as plentiful.
"We won’t be doing bands every day; we’ll be doing more special-event stuff," Monk says.
Osborne Village BIZ executive director Brian Timmerman says music venues are an important part of the neighbourhood ecosystem.
"There’s no doubt that live music, especially if that band has a following, it does benefit the district," he says. "People usually build in a few other stops when they come into the Village, so they may go to a restaurant, have something to eat, go to Baked Expectations, have dessert, and then go to a live music venue.
"I’m definitely hoping somebody comes in and fills that gap as far as live music venues," Timmerman says.
The Cavern is one of a number of small- and medium-sized music venues that have closed in Winnipeg in the last decade.
Among the casualties: Ozzy’s Bar & Nightclub and its sister venue The Zoo had its last hurrah when the Osborne Village Inn was shuttered in 2015; the Lo Pub and Bistro on Ellice shut down in 2012; and the Royal Albert Arms closed in 2013 — and again in October 2019, just six months after the venue’s triumphant return in June (although the Albert is set to reopen again under the management of David McKeigan from the Pyramid Cabaret).
Posts on Facebook also indicate that the Windsor on Garry Street will no longer be booking bands after January — the Free Press reached out to the venue for confirmation, but didn’t get a response by press time.
"The economics of running a venue are really, really tough," says Sean McManus, executive director of Manitoba Music. "Small venues really do such a service for the local scene and the local community in terms of helping musicians cut their chops and developing a real connection between the audience and musicians.
"The Cavern certainly does that, did that."
McManus says live music in Winnipeg is faring better than it is in larger centres like Vancouver and Toronto, where astronomical rent and fast-moving gentrification have led to a venue crisis.
"I don’t think we’re anywhere near a crisis here; we have a lot of faith in the creative community in Winnipeg that when one opportunity or one place closes, something else pops up," he says, adding Sherbrook Street and north Main are becoming music hotspots thanks to newer venues like the Handsome Daughter and Bulldog Pizza.
Still, out with the old and in with the new is never an even trade.
"There’s a sort of creative and sometimes sort of romantic association that people have with venues and it’s always sad to see something like that go away from the cultural landscape," McManus says.
It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in December and the six friends seated around a large booth in the Cavern are certainly feeling romantic.
"I came here in pyjamas once, like full-body red pyjamas with a butt flap." — Jasmine Ackerman-Stratton
"I loved it because I could just be myself. I didn’t have to wear a little dress or do anything a certain way," says Kaethe Friesen-Hughes.
"I came here in pyjamas once, like full-body red pyjamas with a butt flap," adds Jasmine Ackerman-Stratton, laughing.
The group has spent close to a decade attending Soul Nights together — although their attendance has dropped in recent years as people have had kids and grown out of their bar-going days. The weekly party served as a jumping-off point for new friendships and expanded musical tastes.
"You find a little community of people when you start going to things every week," Friesen-Hughes says.
"We became soul fans, I think… I would say it turned me onto Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner and, like, Clarence Carter," Ackerman-Stratton says. "It definitely helped open the door to amazing music."
The friends are having a reunion of sorts tonight. More than 30 people are expected to show up to celebrate one of the last Soul Night events in the Cavern before venue closes for good in three weeks with one final party, featuring local cover band Electric Feel on New Year’s Eve.
Rachel Friesen was particularly determined to attend the evening.
"I just have to say, I work at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning… I’m not staying the whole night, but I’m here," she says.
The friends have mixed feelings about the closure — they are sad to see the Cavern go, but cautiously optimistic about the Toad 2.0.
"I like knowing it’s here, even if I’m not able to go a lot," Friesen-Hughes says. "It was always a comfortable and safe place. I mean, obviously crazy stuff happens here — it’s a bar — but I didn’t drink for the majority of that time and I still had the best time ever."
"It’s been one of those places that has stayed the same, but you don’t care because you love it," Friesen adds.
The low-ceilinged room had a few different names before it was the Cavern. Kevin Monk recalls that it was the Soused Mackerel for a time and then almost turned into a jazz bar and then became the Hole in the Toad when the pub’s first owners took over in the ‘90s.
The Cavern came to life in 2005 during a rainstorm six months after the Monks moved in.
"The hipsters of 2005 were down there playing board games and there was a torrential downpour and all the storm sewers backed up and the whole downstairs flooded," Monk says, laughing. "It filled up in 20 minutes."
His brother Michael showed up to assess the damage and discovered there were brick walls hidden behind the drywall.
"He said, ‘Let’s f—-king make a rock ‘n’ roll room,’ so it was born by accident," Monk says of his brother’s reaction.
It’s 11 p.m. on a Tuesday in December and the main event is about to get underway.
Partygoers have travelled down the spiral staircase that connects the Toad to the Cavern and are congregating on the dancefloor. Jackets and bags have been piled in corners and shoved into booths and those in the capacity crowd of more than 100 people are standing shoulder-to-shoulder and hip-to-hip.
The Solutions pick up their instruments and the first notes of their impassioned set sends a wave through the tightly packed crowd.
The local eight-piece band has played Soul Night every second week since 2007. Vocalist Heitha Forsyth, also known as Sol James, joined the group eight years ago and can count on one hand the number of Tuesdays the Cavern hasn’t been at capacity for the event.
"It became this kind of phenomenon," Forsyth says. "I don’t know what it was that made this such a successful night; I think it was just consistency and time and location.
"I think a lot of places would like to figure out that formula."
The Cavern has also never charged cover on Soul Night, which in frugal-minded Winnipeg could be a factor in its success.
For the Solutions, Soul Night has been a huge part of the band’s musical development.
"To be able to go onstage every second week and play to a large crowd of people who are digging it, it’s integral to informing us of what’s working, what isn’t," Forsyth says. "It’s been the stepping stone to many, many, many gigs outside of the Cavern for us."
The basement venue is intentionally grungy, filled with graffiti and stickers from bands who have passed through. The stage is so low to the ground that there’s basically no buffer between the people onstage and the people on the dancefloor.
"You can’t go into your own little world as a performer; you’re forced to engage with people," Forsyth says. "This is why I do music, to connect with other people, to provide them with an outlet."
She says the Tuesday-night events have helped popularize soul music in Winnipeg, but it’s not the only genre featured in the venue.
"All styles of music were welcome — we did country and metal and jazz and techno," says James Brown, who was the sound technician and booker at the Cavern for more than a decade. "But we mostly concentrated on original bands."
“I spent a quarter of my life there. The people there were like my family. I don’t have a wife or kids or anything like that — the Cavern was my wife and kids. It was the best time of my life and I sure do miss it.” — James Brown
For Brown, one of the best parts of his job was seeing bands make it big after having played the Cavern, pointing to local acts such as Imaginary Cities, Attica Riots and Bullrider. He also has fond memories of the Sheepdogs’ early shows.
"The Sheepdogs used to drive all the way to Winnipeg to play at the Cavern for $200 or $300 and then sleep on my living room floor, and now they’re playing all over the world," Brown says of the Saskatoon rock band.
Although he says he didn’t leave the Cavern on the best terms in 2017, he is sad to hear of the venue’s closure.
"I spent a quarter of my life there. The people there were like my family. I don’t have a wife or kids or anything like that — the Cavern was my wife and kids," Brown says. "It was the best time of my life and I sure do miss it."
It all comes to an end on New Year’s Eve with local cover band the Wind-ups playing the final show upstairs at the Toad and Electric Feel playing the Cavern.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.