By Steve Higham. Steve grew up in the Ottawa Valley, and after a few years of studying and living out west, he moved to Ottawa in 2011, married a franco-Ontarian, and bought a house in Vanier. He spends his free time going to shows, cycling or snowboarding, and annoying friends and family with unsolicited facts and trivia about city landmarks.
The Neat Coffee Shop is located about 80km west of Ottawa, overlooking the Madawaska River at the intersection in the tiny village of Burnstown. (That’s not a typo – there’s literally one intersection). It might not be on the radar of the ordinary music-lover in Ottawa-Gatineau, but it probably should be.
There’s a killer playlist of Canadian folk/rock bands just waiting to be made based solely on who has played at Neat over the past decade or so. A quick scan of the many posters on the wall reveals names like Steven Page, Sarah Slean, Royal Wood, John K Samson, Matthew Good, Whitehorse, Bif Naked, Corb Lund, and many others.
“When I saw we were playing in Burnstown, I thought ‘oh cool, they probably don’t have music there.’ Then we show up and realized, f-cking everybody has played here!”—Tom Wilson, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings
A few years ago, Tom Wilson of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings put it this way: “When I saw we were playing in Burnstown, I thought ‘oh cool, they probably don’t have music there.’ Then we show up and realized, f-cking everybody has played here!”
There’s something about Neat that’s, well, kind of neat. Carved into the stone above the front door is the year 1889, when the building was constructed as a schoolhouse. And there remains a sense of timelessness about the whole place, and not just because there’s no AC and the debit/credit system crashes (bring cash). In an era where artistic success is largely measured by Youtube views and Instagram followers, there’s something inherently refreshing about seeing a band that you love playing a small venue in the middle of nowhere.
It’s an intimate space, to be sure. Capacity is little more than 100, creating a cozy, personal atmosphere that feels more like a living room show than an actual music venue. The crowd tends to be a mix of cottage-dwelling baby boomers, urban escapees, and music lovers from across the Ottawa Valley. Lots of people seem to know each other, and you can eavesdrop on reunions taking place out on the patio and in the garden before everyone shuffles inside.
“There’s a killer playlist of Canadian folk rock bands just waiting to be made based solely on who has played at Neat over the past decade or so.”
That kind of scene makes even a veteran band like Great Lake Swimmers look a little self-conscious, as they did when they took the stage back on June 8, as if they were just starting out as a group and their parents had invited all their neighbours over to hear them play. Of course, with Tony Dekker’s melancholic vocals and landscape-inspired metaphors, it quickly became obvious that an old schoolhouse in rural Ontario is exactly where a band like Great Lake Swimmers feels comfortable. Any nervous energy (real or perceived) quickly dissipated as the band took their audience through a setlist of 17 songs that spanned their discography.
And it isn’t just the Great Lakes Swimmers who shine in this rural venue. So far this year Neat has hosted big acts like Matt Mays, Scott Helman, Page, Good, and Whitehorse, just to name a few, and they’ll be playing host to groups like Five Alarm Funk, Fast Romantics, the Sadies, The Beaches and Ben Caplan before the summer’s over.
Afterwards, as is the norm for a show at Neat, band members hang-out and mingle with the departing audience. Partly, this is because they don’t really have anywhere else to go, as bands often spend the night on-site. But you also get the impression that the bands enjoy the opportunity to connect with people in a way that really isn’t possible at a bigger show. If you’re seeing a band you really love, plan to stick around, and chances are you can get your merch signed and maybe even have a drink with the musicians.
A few other tips for seeing a show at the Neat Coffee Shop:
- Get your tickets ASAP. Tickets go quickly, especially for bigger names.
- Arrive early. When you arrive, you’ll be given a sticky-note with your name on it. You’ll then stick your note on a seat to reserve your spot, so the sooner you arrive, the better your seat.
- Once you’ve picked your seat, hang out and have dinner. There’s a menu with a solid selection of food, beer and wine, and this is really part of the whole Neat experience.
- Still have time? Wander around and check out the handful of shops in the village, or scope out the view from the bridge over the Madawaska.
- Don’t worry about earplugs. The acoustics are surprisingly good for a building that’s 130 years old and wasn’t designed for live music.
- Be open! This is the kind of place where strangers talk to each other, so be prepared for that if you’re an introvert.
I’m a big fan of Ottawa, but sometimes it feels good to get out of the city. One of the best things about living here is the fact that you don’t have to go far to escape, and if you’re a music-lover who enjoys a getaway every now and then, this place should be high on your list of destinations.
Neat Coffee Shop is located at 1715 Calabogie Road in Burnstown. Keep an eye on their website for upcoming shows, and drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the newsletter. You can also follow them on Instagram @neatcafe for the latest news.