The Tragically Hip. Sarah Harmer. The Glorious Sons. Bedouin Soundclash. The Headstones. The Arrogant Worms. These are just some of the bands and musicians that have called Kingston home on their way to national fame. Often, when you hear these names all at the same time, it’s because a Kingstonian is bragging about our music scene. Which we do often. And we should. We may be only the 25th most populous city in Canada, but it really feels like a much larger city when you consider the incredible amount of musical talent here, past and present.
With the recent launch of the Kingston Live podcast and a renewed focus on the Kingston music scene from Tourism Kingston, there is now strong momentum swinging in the direction of officially labelling Kingston as the Music Capital of Canada. I think it’s overdue and necessary, not only for the music scene (of which I am a part), but also as a key economic pillar in our city.
The Tragically Hip, our biggest export who deserve a lot of credit for putting us on the musical map over the last 30 years, is no longer an entity following the death of singer Gord Downie in 2017. The Hip’s last ever show on August 20, 2016, took place in Kingston and brought the eyes of the nation to our city as the concert was broadcast across Canada. Countless memorials and editorials focused on the band’s origins here. That torch, some could argue, has been passed to The Glorious Sons, who are now touring the world, have opened for The Rolling Stones (twice!) and have had number one singles in both the US and Canada.
So what’s next? We ran a poll last year asking who will be the next big thing, and it was hotly contested between country singer Abby Stewart and alt-rock band The Wilderness, in particular. But a thriving scene is so much more than a few big names. It’s the open mic nights (there are five!). It’s the venues — both the clubs and the theatres. It’s hearing music in the air in the summertime (Downtown Kingston hosts five weekly outdoor concert series.) It’s the support network for musicians, such as the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library (Joe’s M.I.L.L.) and Music Industry Kingston Emergency Support (MIKES).
We have great music festivals in spades. The Homegrown Live Music Festival has been running for 11 years, and this past May it featured well over 500 Kingston area musicians playing in over 100 acts. The Limestone City Blues Festival every August is one of the few remaining true blues festivals in Canada — While many other blues festivals have kept their name and invited headliners from nearly every other genre, the organizers, the Downtown Kingston Business Improvement Area, have made a point of staying true to the blues for 23 years. Skeleton Park Arts Festival has grown steadily since starting in 2006, and it’s remained a free community event with programming year round. And the Wolfe Island Music Festival has been named one of the best small scale music festivals in Canada.
We have a popular and successful symphony. We have two chamber music ensembles. A jazz society. A blues society. An Irish music club. Queen’s School of Music. A proud history of world-class choirs and military bands. And three community radio stations (CFRC, CKVI, CJAI). There are well over 30 bars, coffee shops, and theatres that regularly host live music. There is live music every night of the week, somewhere in town, all year round. There are opportunities to play or listen to pretty much every popular genre.
All of this is to say that we have an amazing music scene in Kingston. That’s irrefutable. But does that make us unique in Canada? Does having a great scene make us worthy of the ‘capital’ designation? Well, not to rely too heavily on the past, but Kingston has had that locked up for quite a while. In the 90s alone, Kingston bands were hard to avoid on rock radio in Canada. Not only the aforementioned Tragically Hip and The Headstones, but The Inbreds, The Mahones, and Weeping Tile helped prop up the local scene as they travelled the country. Kingston even caught the eye of Billboard magazine in 1997. In the ‘00s, Bedouin Soundclash, Jill Barber and her brother Matthew Barber all emerged out of Queen’s University. Ryan Malcolm (yes, technically he’s from Amherstview, but there is no music scene in Amherstview) won the first season of Canadian Idol in 2003. And the Abrams played the Grand Ole Opry in 2005, and were the youngest Canadians ever to do so.
With The Glorious Sons in the charts and making the jump to arenas and stadiums, artists like The Wilderness, Kasador, Miss Emily, and Tom Savage on the road regularly, and a strong music scene for both local and touring musicians, I think it’s safe for us to lay claim to Kingston being the live music capital of Canada. I simply can’t think of another city that has what we have, per capita or otherwise. When Joe’s M.I.L.L. opened in 2001, it was believed to be the first such independent library in the world. There are others now popping across Canada, the US, and around the globe.
We have the history. We have the legacy. We have the talent. And we have the claim to the title, should we choose to use it, of Canada’s music capital.