By Zenith Wolfe
Small music concerts are coming back to Ottawa, thanks to a new local venue.
Red Bird is a live concert space on Bank Street in Old Ottawa South that has drawn in many local performers and music lovers since its founding in February 2022. Recently nominated for best venue by the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition, Red Bird also operates an all-ages music school, a summer music camp and a bar.
Owner Geoff Cass decided to open the business after losing his recreation programming job during the pandemic. He said there’s been a constant need for a small music venue since Rasputin’s Folk Café and the Ottawa Folklore Centre closed in the late 2000s. Ottawa residents have since had to drive more than 45 minutes to attend shows in Wakefield or Burnstown, he added.
“A lot of us that chat in the neighbour- hood thought it was silly that we have to go so far to see a really great band in a small space,” he said. “I know that many artists haven’t had a great small venue to play at in Ottawa (either), so I knew there would be demand.”
Red Bird hosts live concerts almost every day with a variety of themes: Bluegrass Mondays focus on old southern blues, Wednesday Broadway Nights offer an open mic for fans of musical theatre and Thursdays through Sundays feature local artists or bands.
Winnipeg-based career musician Jordie Ouellet performed at Red Bird on April 25, though he didn’t originally intend to play at the venue.
Ouellet stopped briefly in Ottawa on his way to visit family in New Brunswick, and he decided to busk on Bank St. an hour before the concert. Organizer Chris White invited him inside to play on stage alongside Tony Turner, famous for writing the 2015 protest song “Harperman”, which Ouellet found exciting.
“I grew up playing jazz and funk music (so) improvisation is a huge thing for me – the less I know about the music that I’m about to play, the more interesting it is,” Ouellet said. “And being on stage, as a musician, is the best thing.”
Ouellet said he came back for two open mic nights before leaving Ottawa. He enjoyed Red Bird’s supportive crowd, inviting atmosphere and talented musicians.
“It feels very professional, and it’s not just like going up to some random bar with a stage. Live music is Red Bird’s thing. It’s got a great vibe to it,” he said. “Once I hit New Brunswick and I’m on my way back, I’m coming here again.”
When the venue isn’t being used for concerts, it doubles as a music school. Cass said their “recreational” lesson plan allows students of all ages to freely pick the instruments or songs they want to practise over their half- hour sessions. Teachers also show them how to perform and behave on stage, which Cass called uncommon for music schools in Ottawa.
“The idea is to get better at an instrument for sure, but not with any particular goal in mind. Just for the enjoyment of playing and loving to play,” he said. “You’re (also) playing to hopefully be comfortable on the stage one day, and I feel it’s going to happen sooner at this spot.”
Janet Sutherland, 64, became a Red Bird student in fall 2022. Though she played piano as a kid, she said she always wanted to play guitar, so she’s learning ukelele as a
Sutherland said she enjoyed the freeform nature of the lessons. She hopes to someday join the Bytown Ukelele Group that performs at Red Bird once a month. She added that it’s important to “develop the next generation of musicians” at easily accessible musical community centres.
“I can walk here,” she said. “They offer such an excellent variety of programming, so I come here several times a week.”
This summer, Red Bird is offering morning and afternoon summer music camps for children and an early evening camp for adults. The four-day camps offer group lessons in singing, string instruments, musical theatre and folk or rock-band performances. Each program ends with a Thursday night performance organized by the campers.
The teachers also serve pressed sandwiches, baked goods and alcohol at the venue’s bar. Cass said this combination of three services strengthens the business and makes it an appealing spot for everyone.
“People coming in for lessons see the posters on the wall for a show, (and) they can have a snack (or) a glass of wine,” he said. “They all sort of rely on each other to keep going and keep being successful.”
Zenith Wolfe is a freelance journalist and content writer in Ottawa.
Photos: Zenith Wolfe