By Sarah Davachi
Vancouver is Canada’s West Coast conglomerate, a unique mix of every convention you encounter as you cross the border and traverse south: rainy Pacific North West weather, insanely high rental prices, palm trees interspersed with Douglas firs, loads of concrete, and a fair amount of mid-century modernist masterpieces. Having grown up in Calgary, the first major city you hit once you exit the Rockies headed east, Vancouver was always this sparkling beacon of easy living.
A first-time visit to the city’s downtown core — which is flanked by endless glass high rises on the west end, the most conspicuous case of addiction and mental illness you’re likely to ever encounter on the east side, and staggering natural beauty consisting of forest, mountains, and ocean all at arms length at the north shore — can be a bit jarring and perplexing. Vancouver is something of an insular city that rewards patient visitors slowly over time. In my years living here, I’ve come to value its ability to make one feel anonymous — a feeling of solace that I was never quite able to find during my brief time spent in Eastern Canada.
This can be a hard city to live in as a musician due to the high cost of living, but the community is tight-knit and extremely supportive, known in the ’70s and ’80s for groups like Pointed Sticks and Skinny Puppy, and in more recent decades for having spanned the spectrum between groups like Destroyer and Nu Sensae.
In the 1970s, acoustic ecology was born out of Simon Fraser University, spearheaded by experimental composers R. Murray Schafer, Barry Truax, and Hildegard Westerkamp; it’s a pretty fascinating practice and a point of pride for the city historically. Vancouver was also the first stronghold for the dissemination of gamelan music in Canada, which came in tandem with Expo ’86.
A few years ago, I got the opportunity to perform inside the former Expo Centre, a Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome that stands as one of the most iconic buildings in Vancouver’s skyline; it was pretty memorable, to say the least. Here are my favorite stops for any musician passing through this great place.
The COMPASS is an ongoing series of articles introducing touring musicians to great live music cities from the insider’s perspectives of the artist who call those places home. This series goes hand-in-hand with our free Touring on a Shoestring course to help musicians find success on the road on their own terms!
Due to harsh zoning bylaws, Vancouver venues historically have a pretty quick turnaround, which has helped coin its infamous nickname, the “No Fun” city. Despite its inability to keep smaller venues operating long term, there are a lot of amazing spaces in which to perform and see shows in Vancouver, each catering to different sizes and demographics. The Remington and Red Gate Arts Society, a stone’s throw from one another in the Downtown Eastside, are two of my favourite smaller venues; both art galleries with a nice, intimate vibe with dedicated clientele. Red Gate recently acquired a more formal sister space on Granville Island, known as the Red Gate Revue Stage.
If you’ve been out of touch with Vancouver for a while, you might remember VIVO Media Arts Centre as that nice little black box on Main Street. The organization relocated a few years ago to an enormous concrete warehouse space deep in East Vancouver, and they continue to put on incredible shows regularly. Selectors’ Records is an airy, minimal record store in Chinatown that occasionally hosts events and parties; I’ve done record releases and collaborations here over the years, always with a good turnout, likely due to its central location.
On the larger end of the spectrum, my two favorites for seeing big-ticket shows are The Imperial on Main Street and The Commodore Ballroom on Granville Street. The Imperial feels glamorous, like an old-money, private club, with an amazing PA. If you’ve never seen a show at the Commodore, do yourself a favor and rectify that as soon as possible; I think it might be one of the best places to hear live music in Canada. There’s a cool bowling alley underneath the venue, too.
One of the best venues in the city to catch uncommon acts (Kraftwerk played here in 2014 about a week before New Order graced the stage, and I just recently saw Yes and Todd Rundgren here a few weeks back) is The Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a gorgeous mid-century complex right in the middle of downtown that typically plays home to the Vancouver Opera and Ballet BC. If you like hearing the orchestra, The Orpheum Theatre, home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, is definitely worth checking out as well.
For a Canadian city, Vancouver also has an unusually high concentration of unique, alternate spaces that get used for music fairly regularly, such as Christ Church Cathedral downtown and the Planetarium Star Theatre in Kitsilano. Places like The Biltmore Cabaret and The Fox Cabaret, both in Mount Pleasant, are decent spaces for bands, if you’re not too concerned with the bar/club feel.
My absolute favorite venue in the city, though, is the Luxe Hall at Western Front. Western Front is an historic institution, an artist-run center in Mount Pleasant that was founded in 1973 by a group of local artists, including the criminally under-appreciated, late experimental musician Martin Bartlett and notable visual artist Eric Metcalfe.
Since the 1970s, they’ve been at the forefront of experimental practices in Vancouver — and, really, the whole of Western Canada — hosting exhibitions, artists in residence, concerts, media installations, an archive, and even an in-house Javanese gamelan. The Luxe Hall feels like a bit like the basement of an old church, but the vibe is tangible; as soon as you walk in, you feel the weight of every incredible thing that has come before you.
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I don’t do a lot of shopping in record stores these days, but there are definitely a number of them in Vancouver that are worth checking out if you have an afternoon to explore. My favorites in the city are Audiopile on Commercial Drive, Selectors’ Records in Chinatown, and Red Cat Records on Main Street.
If you like classical music, you’d be remiss to leave Vancouver without visiting Sikora’s Records on West Hastings. The Bach Section alone is split into, like, 15 different categories. It’s incredible. Sikora’s is also in the vicinity of two of the city’s best used bookstores, the iconic MacLeod’s Books and the lesser-known Paper Hound Bookshop, which has the weirdest (and best) collection of music books I’ve ever seen.
Also in the neighborhood is a Jimi Hendrix shrine; sadly, it’s not as interesting as it sounds, but I’ll admit it can be fun if you’re in the right mood.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Vinyl: How It Works and What That Means for You”
My favorite festival in the city is the series by Early Music Vancouver, which boasts year-round programming as well as a Bach Festival throughout the first few weeks of August. Part of this festival offers workshops in Baroque dancing, as well as harpsichord regulation and maintenance, which I’ve taken for the past four summers. They often work in collaboration with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, and they bring in a lot of international musicians and ensembles.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s New Forms Festival, Vancouver’s premiere electronic music festival, which is usually held in late September or early October. New Forms regularly brings in European musicians and DJs that you would be hard-pressed to see anywhere else in North America. Vancouver New Music, Music on Main, and Western Front New Music are responsible for the majority of the incredible contemporary and experimental music that passes through the city year round. Big Joy Festival is another favorite of mine; typically, it happens in early December and focuses on experimental music. Quiet City, a series of deep listening concerts programmed throughout the year by local musician Constantine Katsiris, is also always very on point in its presentations.
Food and Drink
The Alibi Room and Six Acres in Gastown are both pretty reliable for drinks and food; Alibi has the best brunch in the city and a large selection of beers. The Heatley in the Downtown Eastside is also decent for drinks and is quite convenient if you’re playing at Red Gate or The Remington.
For coffee, in Gastown, you have Revolver, Nelson the Seagull, Finch’s, and Prado, and then there’s Gene in Mount Pleasant, and Matchstick in Chinatown — all highly recommended and all are generally just nice places to sit and relax.
Vancouver is known for having world-class Izakaya-style Japanese cuisine, and you really shouldn’t miss out on this if you have the time. My favorite spot is Toshi, a small restaurant tucked away in Mount Pleasant; the nasu dengaku will change your life. Other restaurants I would recommend Chambar or Medina downtown (high-quality brunch and the most amazing Belgian waffles in the city), Nuba (really good Lebanese food), and Peaceful (northern Chinese food, probably the most amazing in the whole of Western Canada).
You can’t visit Vancouver without at least taking an hour to drive through Stanley Park, a majestic, old-growth forest that adorns the western edge of the downtown peninsula. You can just drive through the park or you can stop and walk through the many trails, visit Prospect Point and view the Lions Gate Bridge, walk the perimeter along the water (known as the Seawall), or visit one of several beaches. My favorite beach is Third Beach, tucked away near Siwash rock. I also love Spanish Banks, which is a bit farther out from downtown, en route to the University of British Columbia’s main campus.
Interested in hearing more about the sounds of cities from the artists who love them? Catch up on the full COMPASS series here, and check out Touring on a Shoestring if you’re planning your next bunch of road dates!
Sarah Davachi holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Calgary, and a master’s degree in electronic music and recording media from Mills College in Oakland, California. As a composer of electronic and electroacoustic music, Davachi’s compositional projects are primarily concerned with disclosing the antiquated instruments and forgotten sonics of a bygone era in analog synthesis, with concurrent treatment of acoustic sources – particularly organ, piano, strings, and woodwinds, often involving de-familiarization through processing. Her work considers the experience of enveloped sonic dwelling, utilizing extended durations and simple harmonic structures that emphasize variations in overtone complexity and psychoacoustic artefacts.