The Embassy Live Music Cafe is a unique and cherished music venue in downtown Kingston, and this Saturday, they’re launching a compilation CD as a fundraiser for the non-profit venue.
“The idea actually came from (Westport-based musician) Shawn McCullough,” said Travis Blackmore, founder and chair of Lionhearts Inc., the food rescue charity that is also responsible for The Embassy. “He said, ‘If you’re looking for an idea for a fundraiser, why don’t you talk to the artists that play the Embassy regularly and see if they’ll donate a song that maybe they’ve already recorded?’ I had thought about trying to pull everyone in to record a new song, but that would be a logistical nightmare. I put the call out to the musicians, and the response was overwhelming. There were 18 artists interested right away, but only 13 were ready to go, so we’re calling this volume I, and maybe volume II will come along soon.”
The Embassy launched in January 2017 from St George’s Hall, on the Wellington Street side of St George’s Cathedral. During the week, the building is used for Lunch by George, a free soup and sandwich service for those in need. Lionhearts, in its day-to-day operation as a food rescue organization, delivered food there regularly and saw the opportunity.
“The Embassy came out of a bunch of us that were musicians and music fans,” said Blackmore. “We were down at the Kingston Street Mission with a bunch of guitars and people were calling out for their favourite songs. It was a great time, and we all really wanted to find a way to do it on a regular basis. I walked into St. George’s Hall and thought ‘this is incredible!’ So we made a deal with St George’s, and it’ll be three years come January.”
Part of the appeal of the space was natural acoustics and built-in stage.
“We wanted it to be professional enough that anybody would want to come down and enjoy a show,” said Blackmore. “We wanted to make sure people get food and a drink. And we wanted to pay the musicians. I’m a musician myself and we get asked to play for free all the time, and you really can’t do it that often. So we found room in the budget to pay the artists because they’re the ones that spend the time creating this wonderful music that’s a therapy to me and so many others.”
The Embassy runs every Saturday night starting at 8 pm, and admission is $5 and includes a beverage (coffee, pop, or juice – no alcohol is served) and a snack like a slice of pizza or a scone. However, the $5 is more of a suggestion than a necessity.
“Our door guys are amazing and make sure everyone gets in who wants to come in,” says Blackmore. “We’ll pass out 50-60 free entry tickets out to the Kingston Street Mission and places like that. If someone doesn’t have their ticket and can’t afford the $5, we’ll let them in.”
The Embassy is Kingston’s only regular live music venue that doesn’t serve alcohol. The space is set up for the audience and the musicians to get a true concert experience, but for many of the attendees, they simply can’t afford to go to other venues, whether for monetary reasons, or because they don’t want the temptation of having a drink.
“We’ve had such great feedback from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous because there isn’t really anywhere else to go and listen to live music that isn’t a bar,” said Blackmore. “The Grand and The Isabel are great, but they can be $30 or more per person. So we’ve tried to design The Embassy to give people the same quality you’d get at any other venue in town.”
For an artist like Jay Smith, better known as Smitty Kingston, playing The Embassy is an important part of his career.
“For me being sober now, it’s really refreshing to not have to worry about the temptation, or drunks bumping into your mic stand. It’s actually people being attentive and watching and clapping.”
Alexa Goldie has played The Embassy twice and has been amazed by the crowds she’s performed for there.
“For me, it was an eye-opener that this homeless community, which many of them are, was really safe and welcoming to everyone,” she said. “Even when I don’t play, I often watch the Facebook Live feed. The sound is amazing and it’s really fun.”
Both Smith and Goldie jumped at the chance to have their songs included on the compilation CD.
“I’ve played there five or six times,” said Smith. “When Travis first messaged me over text about, and I didn’t quite get it at first. I didn’t know if it was a coffeehouse or a charity gig or whatever. It’s really great that the musicians actually get paid. The first time I played there I tried to give the cheque back. Travis was like, ‘No, you worked, you get paid.’ There’s one couple I know that goes to The Embassy as their date night. They can’t afford to do dinner and drinks and all that, so they dress up as best they can and dance and make a night of it.”
There’s a sense of inclusion and appreciation evident amongst those on stage, and those watching the performance, Goldie agreed.
“You’re not just the background music,” she said. “I love watching people singing along to maybe some cover song. They come up and tell you how much it means to have you sing that song, and how much they look forward to Saturday nights at The Embassy.”
“It’s a little more of a concert setting,” said Blackmore. “What makes the DNA of it different is that we’re able to put some money into the artists, it makes it a legitimate venue, some place that musicians want to play, and we work hard to create that atmosphere. It’s a dry venue, and it’s an early venue, musicians are done by 10:30 p.m. and can go play another show after if they want.”
The Embassy Live Music Cafe Artist Compilation Volume I will be released this Saturday, Sept. 28, with performances from local musicians Shawn McCullough and Wade Foster, who are also included on the CD. Albums will be sold at The Embassy, Brian’s Record Option, and Limestone Music, which is now owned by Smith.
“The proceeds go right back into Lionhearts to keep The Embassy chugging,” said Blackmore. “We have an Ottawa branch now, and we did a soft launch of The Embassy Ottawa and we’ll be starting it full time in January. Lionhearts was moving into the Ottawa area with the food rescue side of it, so it made sense to try it there, too. We’re helping to feed hundreds if not thousands of people every week in Kingston and Ottawa, and through music, we get to bring everyone together.”
All of the 13 artists (which also includes Glorious Sons guitarist Chris Koster) that contributed to the compilation are from Kingston and the area, and all donated their songs to the cause. Alexa Goldie, who, at 20, has already been in the music business for seven years, has changed her sound from pop to country in recent years, but she knew she had the perfect song, I’m OK, ready to go.
“I’m OK was on my first EP and it was the last pop song I released,” she said. “I’ve never been a drinker, and my friends were always kind of judging me about that, and this song is about that, so that’s why I wanted it to be on this album. I was going to put one of my new country songs on it, but this fits the vibe so much better.”
This Saturday’s show starts at 8 p.m., and, as always, admission is $5 and includes a beverage and a snack. No one will be turned away.
The Embassy Live Music Cafe Artist Compilation Vol I track list:
- Abby Stewart – No More Falling Down
- Shawn McCullough – Change
- Chris Murphy – Away Up On The Mountain
- Celtic Kitchen Party – Amazing Grace
- Smitty Kingston – Perfect Ten
- Mattie Leon – The Best Things
- Jeff Callery – Who I Am
- Wade Foster – Rain
- Alexa Goldie – I’m OK
- Rory Gardiner – Don’t Stop
- Bon Evans – Just Like Yesterday
- Jon McLurg – Chords
- Chris Koster – Love is a Battlefield