Building the commons

by Mark Teo

Calgary heavyweights join forces for the Commonwealth

“PLACES WILL HAVE TO BE BETTER THAN US”

When Calgary was awarded the distinction of being named one of Canada’s cultural capitals last week — and, in the process, earning $1.6 million in federal funds — a predictable parade of platitudes and back-pats ensued: Mayor Naheed Nenshi, in an interview with the CBC, called the city “the capital of new Canadian play development.” Heather Klimchuk, the newly minted provincial Minister of Culture and Community Services, told the Calgary Sun that we “need to know the treasures we have in the arts and culture.” The Palomino promoter Spencer Brown tweeted a simple, if common, sentiment: “We did it.”

But Una Pizza’s Kelly Black, preparing to launch the Commonwealth Bar & Stage, along with the minds behind Craft Beer Market and the HiFi, isn’t ready to celebrate yet. Nor is he willing to pair the club-restaurant-venue — it opened on October 26 in the 10th Avenue S.W. space occupied by legendary venue The Warehouse — with Calgary’s surging cultural status.

“You go to a city like San Francisco or Montreal and walk into any hole in the wall, and it’s amazing,” says Black. “Calgary still likes its beer houses and chicken wings — you try to do something different, and it’s dismissed as pretentious. It’s the people who do things differently that advance culture.”

“There are so many faceless random places peppering the landscape,” adds Commonwealth owner-slash-HiFi founder-slash-Smalltown DJ Pete Emes. “For a city we love, we want this to be a cultural hub.”

Indeed, the Commonwealth plans on doing things differently. Using a historical space — at one point, a railroad shipping warehouse, at another, a focal point of Calgary’s early Chinatown, and, beginning in the 1970s, an irrefutable touchpoint of Calgary’s musical lore — the Commonwealth’s concept is anything but traditional. Spread out over 25,000 square feet with a 500-person capacity, it boasts a street-level lounge seating 30, a cavernous, second-floor stage, and the Atlantic Room, a basement space with a DJ booth and secondary stage. It’ll feature a Craft Beer-curated, American-inspired beer menu across three bars, with bourbon-heavy cocktails and Coney Island and Brooklyn lagers on tap. To top it off, its Cafeteria — a food window dubbed as an “indoor food truck” — features a menu of finger foods built for on-the-fly snacking.

“It’s a matter of recognizing and embracing Calgary, but bringing something new,” says Emes. “We’re not trying to live up to The Warehouse. If we’d given the space some lipstick and a facelift, then everyone would be comparing us. With the Commonwealth, you literally can’t tell you’re in the same space.”

He pauses. “People are going to be blown away by the scope of it.”

Emes doesn’t delve further into the details. To date, he’s been downright secretive about the Commonwealth: Its website doesn’t list an address, he doesn’t divulge any financial details about the venue and, in fact, Fast Forward Weekly has been the only media outlet to step onsite.

But here’s what he does share: Working with local designers McKinley Burkart, the Commonwealth’s visual identity is what he calls “modern vintage” — all exposed brick and steel girders — akin to a jazz-era bar spiced with liberal doses of WTF? Expect a “curiosity cabinet” and a row of stuffed crows adorning the bar.

“We were thinking of having a stuffed polar bear,” he says. “But we decided that was too much.”

Right. Still, taxidermy. An affordable food window slinging finger-foods. A two-stage venue promising Sled Island-style multi-floor performances. And, should the Commonwealth be as seminal as its brass suggests, beer houses and chicken wings will no longer cut it. At least not anymore.

“There’s no reason why a live venue or nightclub can’t have quality. A bar like The Commonwealth is going to set the standard,” says Una’s Black. “Take Una’s example: It helped change [Calgary’s food] landscape — it was cheaper when everything was astronomical. Now we have restaurants that are knocking us off. And they have to be better than us to survive.”

“That’s what the Commonwealth will bring. New places will have to be better than us, and that’s a good thing.”

LOOKING BEYOND CALGARY

Them’s fightin’ words. But the Commonwealth’s brass doesn’t pretend that the city, or their club, exists in a void. In conversation, Portland, Austin, Brooklyn and L.A. all come up as frequent inspirations. (Though Emes plainly states that he hopes the bar will be as influential as The Night Gallery, The Factory and Republik.)

Still, when asked for the Commonwealth’s closest comparison, Emes chooses to leave the city: He cites the U Street Music Hall in Washington, D.C.

“They were our friends we knew from the Internet, and U Hall was [initially] inspired by the HiFi,” says Emes. “They opened up their kitchen with a chef from D.C., and they took the concept to a whole other place. And they proved that [clubs] don’t have to be so regimented — you can have a place that’s more than a hole or a meat-market nightclub.”

Like the U Hall, Commonwealth’s live music offerings and menu will hold equal footing with its DJ nights. Its cafeteria, which operates independently from the venue, had its menu developed by Steve Smee — who, despite his lack of culinary-school training, has worked at Mercato, Una and Ox and Angela. He created a program more indebted to Asian cuisine than his CV’s traditional Italian fare. It’s a nod, says Smee, to the location’s Chinatown roots.

“We were given a blank cheque,” says Smee, when asked how he developed the menu. “We did research in Portland and focused on the kogi [Korean BBQ beef] trucks in L.A. We wanted to prepare things simply and let the ingredients speak for themselves.”

“And you don’t want to go to a bar and get bad breath,” adds Black. “The flavours are more palette cleansing.”

The result is a 10-items-for-under-$10 menu that’s built for dance-floor accessibility: The foods are small, edible without utensils and served up in to-go containers. Black says to expect Vietnamese-style noodle dishes, bun mai and a few Spanish and Mexican flourishes on the menu, all served in traditional lunch-line fashion. (“Western Diner in Mission, or the old 1980s cafeteria style was the inspiration,” adds Black.)

Then, there’s the music. While the Commonwealth doesn’t plan on hiring a full-time promoter, Sled Island festival director and Broken City organizer Lindsay Shedden has been brought on board to curate the shows. Accordingly, the first shows reflect Shedden’s Vancouver origins: The venue’s inaugural performances feature two West Coast acts in the form of Ladyhawk and Bison B.C.

And, she adds, the Commonwealth, along with not selecting a permanent promoter, also doesn’t have a codified musical philosophy — it’s deliberately not genre-specific. Its tentative schedule calls for live music on Wednesdays, with DJ nights occupying Thursdays through Saturdays.

“Whenever [Emes] would talk about how excited he was for the Commonwealth, I got so excited,” says Shedden. “I was saying, ‘please, please, please, let me be involved with this.’ Now, there’s so many shows in the works, and I can’t wait to put a band on that stage. The sound system is unmatched — it’s the best in the city.”

“AN UNCOMMON BAR FOR COMMON PEOPLE”

That’s the tag line for the Commonwealth. But who, then, are Calgary’s “common people”? The city’s fountain of youth is oft-celebrated — Statistics Canada’s 2006 census declared the city the nation’s youngest — its frequent knock was that its best and brightest tend to leave. Shedden, who herself moved from B.C. last year, sees that trend changing. “More and more people aren’t only coming to Calgary, they’re staying here,” she says.

And the Commonwealth, it seems, reflects Shedden’s observation — it’s not only targeting the young who flock to the city, but it’s targeting those who stick around. It’s meant to target Calgary lifers — not flaky opportunists.

“The simple idea is that it’s a bar for people that outgrew HiFi,” says Black. “That suburban, corporate-style restaurant is on the way out, and independent restaurants are what they’re talking about.”

It’s anyone’s guess if the bar will be a main player in Calgary’s nightlife scene. It is indicative, though, that Calgary’s profile is changing: It’s a city where independent business owners can forge massive, downtown projects. It’s a place whose establishment exerts global influence. And if it’s not a Canadian cultural capital, it’s hardly a cultural black hole. And while the Commonwealth is just a bar, it’s reflective of a new-guard Calgary that has little to do with the Stampede.

“The cowboy concept has dominated Calgary’s nightlife scene for so long,” says Emes. “That’s hokey. We want to celebrate another aspect of Calgary’s history, as a gateway for the frontier and a main outpost for the railway and Hudson’s Bay. We love this city and want to celebrate it.

“We want to create a culture. We want to create a scene. But you don’t want to overstate what we’re doing. It’s a bar. We’re not inventing the cure for a disease.”

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