I’m sitting in Honey Martin’s on a Monday night. It’s just after 1 a.m. and only now has the place begun to fill up. A rock trio is hammering out solid covers of Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix, among others. Many musicians from the local music scene are here tonight, including Graham Playford who just came back from a gig.
A full-time musician with his band The Future Ex-Wives, who met working in a nearby restaurant alongside Montreal blues phenom Shane Murphy, Graham extols the virtues of the Montreal pub scene. “Here, you can stretch a bit . . . be musical. And it helps define your identity as a band.”
His eponymous debut album was the most direct way for him to make the transition from pub player to recording artist, and he recognizes the challenges presented with the Montreal music industry. “Montreal doesn’t force the transition like Toronto or Vancouver might,” he says. “But you can have a career playing music here.”
Both Anthony Lombardi and Nic Power are also at Honey’s tonight, listening to the tunes. They’ve been gigging in this West End pub for many years. Here too, on a rare night off, is stand-up bass player Jordan James, of Hellbound Hepcats. He knows how tough it is. They’ve just signed their first recording contract with Stomp Records after four years of playing up to five nights a week at bars, corporate gigs and even a trailer park. “Cross that one off the list,” he says, as we talk outside the pub. He attributes the success of pub-based bands to the patrons. “Montreal cares, even if it’s not quite profitable. Montreal really wants to have music, man.”
On a warm, clear night, patrons and musicians who frequent Honey’s might also be seen lounging on the terrasse at Grumpy’s Bar downtown. There is a lot of crossover in a small Anglophone music community, and Grumpy’s is a focal point.
The music is often based in Roots and Blues, “or in love and whiskey,” adds Baltimore Washington Brandes (of The Unsettlers and of Deer Ashes, Dear) while tending bar at Grumpy’s. “We have a genuine love for the music and for each other,” he says of Unsettlers’ success. “We got our start here … and at Barfly . . . and in Montreal you can play music seven nights a week and get a turn-out.”
Many noteworthy musicians have both worked the bar and graced the stage at Grump’s, including members of Ladies of the Canyon, Gern f (United Steel Workers of Montreal) and Ram Krishnan, of course (The Unsettlers, Bad Uncle and Brie Nelson). All have gone on to tour and record albums.
Shawn Beauchamp of USWM has enjoyed his band’s evolution-without-compromise, and cites Montrealers’ willingness to come along for the ride. “Montreal has definitely got the ‘pub thing’ going,” he says. “But we wanted to avoid playing all the same songs and covers . . . I hope we’ll never have to play another fucking three-set.”
The Montreal Anglophone pub scene isn’t the source of all things good, however. A well-known West End musician reveals some of the hardships of the venues. “They aren’t set up for music … and it was the artists who made those spots happen, not the other way around.” Also, despite the impressive support of Montrealers in the pubs, the media and production side of music here is notoriously deadbeat. “Fuck Montreal,” says another source, referring to the corporate music industry based here. “Montreal doesn’t nurture bands who stay here. It’s only if you get out and make it elsewhere that they take any notice.”
Notwithstanding, it’s no surprise that “elsewhere” is starting to open their doors to Montreal bar bands: Warner has signed Ladies of the Canyon; Shane Murphy has released an album, and is working on a second with Gordie Johnson (of Big Sugar) in Texas; and USWM have just turned their first touring profit, in addition to releasing multiple albums.
“We’ve got a good thing going here,” says Brandes, alluding to the geographic triangle of Honey Martin, Grumpy’s and Barfly. “A tri-Anglophone of music . . . or something like that.”
Sounds good to me.
Adam Kelly is a Montreal writer, actor and teacher.
Photo: The Future Ex-Wives at Honey Martin’s. Credit: Anastasia Arnan