Home Feature Red Bird Live: a school, stage, and social hub for Ottawa’s folk...

Red Bird Live: a school, stage, and social hub for Ottawa’s folk scene

Photo by Audrey Pridham.

Having been opened for nearly two years, Red Bird Live has gained a reputable and friendly name across Ottawa’s music scene. The venue, which was previously an axe-throwing bar, has become one of the city’s most well-known music joints to unite fans and familiarize thems with local musicians. Almost every night, their shows are sold out unless you buy tickets well in advance.

Red Bird has three main components to its venue, which includes a music school, a performance stage, and a café. Once you step in, you’re met with a wall full of portraits and action shots of the various artists who’ve performed there. The café beside it serves local baked goods, coffee, and craft beer for guests to indulge in during the show. The seating looks quite reminiscent of a speakeasy, with old fashioned decal teal walls, lounge chairs, and high-rise stools in front of the stage.

A school, a venue and a cafe

Red Bird first came to fruition during the COVID pandemic thanks to its current owner, Geoff Cass. Geoff has had a long history in the folk scene, having been a recreational musician and operator of the Bluesfest School of Music and Art — an offshoot of his position as program director for Dovercourt Recreation Centre. With a background in music and education, he knew that opening a music school of his own would be a good fit for him after becoming familiar with various music teachers and students across the city.

Later, Geoff was able to acquire space in Old Ottawa South, and he soon decided to add an actual venue to the school to make it more appealing — along with the café.

Photo by Audrey Pridham

“I put the numbers together and decided it might be a good idea to give it a shot,” he said, “knowing that the [Ottawa] Folklore Centre was here for many years, [and] knowing that lots of people would love to see shows in a small venue.”

Since the space was completely empty, building Red Bird from scratch was not an easy task, Geoff said. But receiving help from the community made it easier. All of the teaching rooms, the stage, sound booth, and bar were built by Geoff and a large team of volunteers. The venue finally opened in February 2022.

“Once we opened, the community just kept being amazing. They wanted to play, [and] they wanted to take lessons here,” Geoff reflected.

Employing artists

The school portion of Red Bird employs local artists from the city who volunteer their time to teach young, aspiring musicians the tricks of the trade when it comes to pursuing a musical career.

“It gives them stable income so they can continue to pursue their performances,” Geoff said about the instructors. “They also have formed a really cool community amongst themselves and started performing together for bands.”

The lessons are pretty laid-back in tone as there is no formal curriculum. Instead, students who are interested in learning a certain instrument get to pick songs that they want to perform, and through their instructors, they build on the skills required to get there. At the end of the semester, the school also hosts open-style recitals for families and friends to prepare students for on-stage performances and to build their confidence.

The acoustics and decor of Red Bird are the most often complimented by visitors, Geoff said.

Long-time folkies lining up to support the venue

Guests can visit the bar in the back to enjoy locally-baked goods and drinks without the disrupting sounds of clanging dishes — as he believes in the importance of guests being focused on the music performance.

One of Red Bird’s notable volunteers and fans is Chris White, who’s been involved in Ottawa’s folk scene for years. He said Red Bird continues a tradition started by previous venues across the city that were a vital part of the folk scene’s history, such as the Ottawa Folklore Center and Rasputin’s, which have both been closed down for quite some time. He is fond of how Red Bird resurfaced following previous music club closures, he said.

“As soon as I recognized what [Geoff] was doing, it became one of my top three priorities, to support Red Bird in the initial stages,” he said.

Soon enough, Chris sent out a mass message to fellow community members and friends about Red Bird’s importance, encouraging them to visit.

“It’s a magical place. And so many amazing things have happened there, in terms of musical magic, because the performers love it. The sound, lighting, and the staging is awesome.”

A venue that makes you feel at home

Chris even helped host a series of concerts at Red Bird, which were live streamed in the afternoons. Some notable acts included Old Man Luedecke, Ball and Chain, The Toasted Westerns, and Jason Lang.

I had never set foot into Red Bird until a few weeks ago, when I decided to check out one of their Celtic Celebration shows that were occurring. The program features different string and bluegrass artists who perform some classic jigs.

However, these types of performances aren’t the only kinds that occur frequently – Red Bird also hosts Bluegrass Mondays, Coffee House, Bytown Ukulele Group meet-ups, and open mic nights in addition to their headlining acts.

The entire venue was packed the night I visited, and what immediately struck me was the variety of different guests there, young and old. You’d come across older patrons who may have been long-time fans of this genre of music, but also children who were probably first introduced to it that night. Either way, this demonstrates one of the core values of Red Bird, which is to introduce music lovers all around the city to new tunes and artists. The sense of community when you walk in makes you feel at home.

Winning new folk fans

The group that was performing that night was Jiig, who performed various covers of jig songs across Canada and Europe. The quartet consisting of bass, banjo, fiddle, and the accordion were sprightly, as their sounds bounced off the walls of the well-rounded acoustic space. As I looked around, many of the guests were singing along to their favourite songs as the four-part harmony between the group bellowed across the venue.

In all honesty, I never considered myself a huge listener of Celtic, or fiddle music for that matter, but I was immediately entranced. I believe that’s what Red Bird does to many of its visitors. You’ll go in feeling like a stranger to a particular type of music, but come out feeling completely enthralled by the experience, wanting more.

As for future plans at Red Bird, Geoff teased that they’ll be hosting an outdoor concert on Aug. 18. While he couldn’t reveal many details, he and the rest of the Red Bird team are excited and telling people to save the date.

“We want to continue to bring great musicians to Ottawa and give them as many chances to perform as we can,” he said.


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