Published in Penguin Eggs, issue #63, Autumn 2014
If you’ve never lived in Toronto, it’s safe to say that you’ve never heard of the Tranzac Club. Then again, that’s safe to say even if you have lived in Toronto. It began life in 1931 as the Toronto Australia New Zealand Club (TRANZAC) to support Australian and New Zealand Culture in Toronto. It did that, and a lot else, too. In the 1970s it became home to Friends of Fiddlers Green, a folk music club, and soon became a venue for seemingly anyone who needed a place to play. Today it’s as much a fixture of the city as the pigeons roosting on the head of King Edward VII in Queen’s Park.
And, still, it makes no sense at all. It’s hard to describe the building, screened by trees just off Queen Street West. The entry is papered with photocopies shilling fringe theatre and Reg Hartt film festivals. The tables don’t match, and the bar is real wood only because, when it was made, they all were. The rooms are set about like a warren—the Tiki Room, the Main Hall, The Southern Cross Lounge—with the larger one in the back for bigger things, like fringe theatre, and the Zine Library, and the Chris Langan Branch of the Ceoltóiri Éireann Traditional Music Weekend.
It’s dark, the floor creaks, and there’s no cover and no food that I recall beyond the bags of chips hanging on a rack behind the bar. And yet, I’m not sure if you could find a place in Canada that has had as large an impact in the world of roots, folk, and acoustic music. We often make statements like that, but I honestly don’t feel I’m knitting anything here. Quietly, and for decades, the Tranzac has provided a focal point for a range of musicians that are as improbable as they are delightful.
I was living in Toronto in the early 00s and then, as now, they had music every night of the week. Lit only by a few incandescent bulbs, Wednesday night was Gypsy Jazz night, typically with four or five guys playing petit bouche guitars, expertly, and singing in French or Roma or whatever it was. It was mind-boggling. I had no idea where you could get a petit bouche, let alone find someone to play one with. But there they were.
Thursday, as now, was bluegrass night. Some nights, snow flying outside the window behind the band, I’d be the only one there aside from the bartender and the band. I didn’t know of any of the players, not then, but I do now. Chances are good that you do as well. Doug Paisley sang and played guitar, Andrew Collins played mandolin, and Marc Roy played guitar and fiddle and mandolin. At the time, none had made any recordings, though all of them have now. Roy has been named the Central Canadian Bluegrass Guitar Player of the year five times, mandolin player of the year once, and two years ago was inducted into their hall of fame. Collins was named mandolin player of the year five times, and went on to form the Creeking Tree String Quartet. Today Doug Paisley is known for his songwriting, as on his newest release, Strong Feelings which is out this year. He’s been reviewed by Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, where Sasha Frere-Jones called him “a quiet wonder.”
At the Tranzac, though, it was different. “It was just exciting,” says Andrew Collins. “It was fun and exciting without any forethought on how to make any of it work. It was just focused on the playing, and improving the level of music, and being surrounded by people that shared that drive. … It was all just friends who had a mutual interest.”
One night Paisley noted over the mic that Roy had turned 19 that week and was now legally allowed into bars. That he was so young was the least of it. Roy was astonishing in every way: beautiful rhythm, blistering runs, and an otherworldly confidence. I approached him on a few occasions, though it seemed that he didn’t really speak. He’d mumble something, look at the floor or to the left, as if expecting something.
As impressed as I was, I didn’t realize how good they really were. In Canada, bluegrass has all the gravity of a secret handshake; it’s just not a musical language that we understand, nor is it one that we typically have much access to.
“In retrospect,” says Collins, “the nice thing was that there was no void waiting for us to fill. You have to go out there and make people know that you exist and perform and get your music out there some how. Even though we were in a vacuum of this kind of music, that was in some ways an advantage because we were also educating people [who might] discover that they really like bluegrass music, but we were the access point so in some ways it elevates us in stature because, for those people, we were their starting point.”
I, frankly, was one of them. Over time I began to recognize some of the other people who came in to watch from time to time, and so many of them were musicians themselves. Chris Coole, Chris Quinn, John Showman, Dan Whitely, Max Heinemann—after sets at the raucous Silver Dollar, where bluegrass was accepted as a novelty more than as something to be honestly appreciated, they came to the Tranzac, perhaps sitting in, perhaps not. It was quieter, and if the audience was smaller, it nevertheless was less oiled and more knowledgeable. It was perhaps the one place in town where bluegrass, consistently, was not a joke.
At the heart of it, these were young people making music—they weren’t trying to advance a career, or sell tickets and recordings, and the stress that comes from music as a life, rather than an activity, hadn’t yet set in. “There is a lot of work required to make a living doing what you love,” admits Collins, something he would learn all too well in time. It was different. There weren’t the fireworks of Collins’ Creaking Tree Quartet, or the need to be unique within a crowded singer-songwriter market. It wasn’t Appalachia, or a job. It wasn’t a festival, or a contest, or a project. It was just music. And, tucked away in Toronto, they were free.