Top of the charts

Fans and bands unite to support The Grad Club’s national splash

CBC Radio 3 sent the out call for the best concert venue in Canada and The Grad Club’s friendly living room stage made the top ranks.
CBC Radio 3 sent the out call for the best concert venue in Canada and The Grad Club’s friendly living room stage made the top ranks.
Journal File Photo

Care to host a dance party in your living room?

That’s what staff at The Grad Club have been doing for the past 38 years, and guests have RSVPed with vigor. Now, the iconic campus haunt has made headlines as one of Canada’s top 10 live music venues.

In January, CBC Radio 3 announced its Searchlight Best Live Music Club in Canada contest. Voters nominated 114 venues, and week by week that number was pared down to 50, 20 and then to the top 10 clubs. Last Wednesday Radio 3 announced its winner, the Phog Lounge in Windsor, Ontario. But for Virginia Clark, who’s been manager at the Grad Club for nine years, making the shortlist was an honour in itself.

“When we got into the top 10 I couldn’t believe it,” she said over the phone last Friday as she got ready for the Julie Fader and Brian Borcherdt concert.

“We were screaming, we were so excited.” Clark said she sees the venue as one of a number of “small little grassroots clubs that are doing it for the love of music.” And small, grassroots clubs seem to hit the spot for Radio 3 listeners.

“A lot of the big venues—like the Commodore [in Vancouver] and the Horseshoe [in Toronto]—they were out of the running after the top 50,” Clark said.

The Phog Lounge, which has been open for just over 5 years according to its online profile, can hold only about 60 people.

Clark said the first floor of The Grad Club—which is located in a three-story Victorian house at the corner of Barrie and Union Streets—has a capacity of about 100. Upstairs, the club holds about 90 additional people, but most of the music is made in a high-ceilinged room on the main floor.

So what does a musty Victorian house at the edge of a university campus have going for it?

“We bring the best Canadian artists to a living room in a big house, so it’s pretty neat,” Clark said, adding that artists such as Jill and Matthew Barber, Sarah Harmer and Dragonette drummer Joel Stouffer have a strong connection to the place.

She estimates The Grad Club holds about 50 shows throughout the year, as well as fundraisers and other special events. Plants and Animals and a number of other Polaris Award nominees have come through the venue, she said, along with the internationally-renowned Tragically Hip, who frequented The Grad Club stage in the 80s. Clark, who also books shows for the venue, said she’s forced to turn bands down from time to time.

“I just have a lot of requests to come and play this very small room,” she said.

“That intimacy is what attracts a lot of people to come see artists there. And you can actually talk to the artist there after they’re done performing. It’s very social.”

Because Radio 3 broadcasts on Sirius satellite radio and online, Grad Club fans as far away as New Zealand and California heard about the contest, she said. “We have past Queen’s students mailing us from different parts of the world saying, ‘We’re voting for you.’

“I feel so spoiled to be at the Grad Club, even though I’m working,” Clark said. “I am so, so spoiled.”

Chris Kelly, a producer at Radio 3, said 10s of thousands of Canadians voted in the Searchlight contest. Because voting was done incrementally, he said couldn’t provide exact numbers. This was the second year Radio 3 ran its Searchlight contest. Next year, Kelly said, the station might look for the country’s best campus radio station.

“The tagline of Searchlight is ‘Seeking out the best of what Canada has to offer musically,’ and there’s so many little realms of that,” he said.

“There’s so many reasons, so many little niche things that are happening as to why Canada’s in the golden age of independent music.”

Last year Radio 3 looked for the best independent record store in the country. Kelly said the results were similar to those this year—smaller communities were overrepresented.

“The small venues have these loyal, passionate communities, and in a lot of cases they are the only option in that town for, you know, different, cool music—subculture,” he said.

Brent Nurse, who works full-time at the Grad Club, said the venue definitely has an intimate connection with the artists who come through. “The fun part’s taking them the beer,” he said on Tuesday as he wiped down the bar and stacked glasses during a pre-dinner lull.

Nurse said bands often invite Grad Club staff to go out with them after their sets, but musicians’ loyalty to the place is clear even when they’re not performing. One night, he said, Wintersleep’s Mike Bigelow stopped by the club to help him clean up after a show.

“The bands love the place—the bands want to play here,” he said. “We totally have that personal relationship with them.”

CBC Radio 3 will air a podcast to sum up the Searchlight Best Live Music Club contest today at

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