There is something about performing on the Rainbow stage. As a fledgling singer over 20 years ago, I remember the acute sense of nervousness I felt walking onto it, standing as green as could be, high above the crowd, looking out past the packed dance floor below me, the bar area beyond, the balcony area above me, and surrounded by the enormous talent of musicians who were there to strut their stuff during a jam night.
I felt like I didn’t have a right to be there, rubbing elbows with the who’s who of some of Ottawa’s established and up-and-coming musicians. And even with its rustic, intimate charm, its prestige and vastness went beyond any physical characteristics I could describe. It still does. Each time I climb the stairway and walk through the entrance, I’m immediately greeted with that big, beautiful stage, and a marvellous rush of familiarity that sweeps over me. Memories of performances, the automatic calm and cool vibe that is ever present, and the wonderful friendships and connections that have been made inside these stone walls. It’s like coming home to an old friend.
The Rainbow has often been the destination point for many-a surprise post performance by a celebrity artist after finishing a show elsewhere in the city, who still had the itch to play on. Unforgettable moments like the night Buddy Guy suddenly appeared after his Bluesfest stint on a smouldering hot July evening to electrify the crowd, and later placed a guitar pick in my hand…or the night Jeff Healey still had energy to burn on the Rainbow stage after his gig at the NAC on a cold January night.
It’s the smells, the sights, the sounds, the emotion, the history, and the energy soaked into these walls by the patrons and performers over time that have made this place the unique live music venue that it is today. The Rainbow has survived the changing tides of this sometimes fickle and unsteady business, but throughout, has retained its pledge of support of local, national, and international live music. It continues to be Ottawa’s home of the blues, but also welcomes acts of many other musical genres, with performances every day of the week. It also boasts the longest running open blues jam in the city, held every Sunday afternoon.
This weekend, The Rainbow Bistro, owned and operated by the Sivyer family, celebrated its 30th birthday, which included a performance by the great David Gogo on Friday night, followed by a Birthday Bash Extravaganza that featured an array of headlining acts on Saturday night. Packed houses on both nights reflected the support, love and devotion for this landmark institution.
The Rainbow stage sizzled with talent for Saturday night’s festivities, which was organized by Juno award winners, MonkeyJunk. Guitarist, Tony D., bellowed an introductory remark, “I never get tired of saying this, but WELCOME TO THE FU*KIN’ RAINBOW!” before he churned out the first sweet harrangs on the guitar. Joined onstage by bandmates, Matt Sobb (drums/vocals), and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Steve Marriner, MonkeyJunk played a short set of their powerhouse rockin’ blues, and had the crowd on the dance floor immediately.
Special guest, Ottawa’s longtime blues legend, Drew Nelson, strapped on his guitar to join the lads onstage, along with bassist Mike Turenne. Nelson reflected on the days he performed in the restaurant on the lower level, before The Rainbow was built. He later joked about how the original plans included band rooms complete with showers. His gritty vocals and Dylan-infused blues brought even more to the dance floor, and I could sense a clear love for this man, whose career has spanned nearly 40 years. There was some great slide work, along with an amazing harp solo by Marriner, and guitars going full tilt. He ended with a slow-burning blues number, that stirred the room into a pendulating motion.
Next up was Loudlove singer, Pete Hammond, introduced as the sinister minister by Marriner. Hammond emphasized how so many musicians owe so much to The Rainbow in launching their careers, how much they’ve learned and grown throughout the years, how it has become a sacred place, and what an honour it is to play on the stage. He also thanked the boys from MonkeyJunk, as well as a list of others who have put Ottawa on the map. He then broke into some reggae-laced blues, with a great number called, “What’s My Number”, that completely packed the dance floor, and kept the drone of the groove going for quite some time. It was passion-fuelled bliss.
When this year’s Maple Blues Award recipient, Paul Deslauriers got up to play, the energy built into a frenzied solo of duelling guitars shared with Tony D. It was a kindred exchange of masterful playing which sent the audience into the zone. This was further intensified by Don Cummings, who slid into first with a blaze of glorious Hammond, and brought everyone to their knees. It was an indescribable moment, and a feeling that something historic was taking place. Deslauriers sang and played powerfully, and had an amazing stage presence. I especially enjoyed the driving blues number, “Goin’ Down”, with more heavily fuelled guitar licks. It was magical.
Other highlights included Curtis and Matthew Chaffey of The Split, with Marty Sobb (Autumns Cannon), who joined in on guitar. The brothers entertained the crowd with some rockin’, jumpin’, and jivin’ madness, which featured Curtis on guitar, accompanied by Matthew’s Jagger-meets-James-Brown vocals. Paul Reddick joined MonkeyJunk members onstage later, and gave us a taste of his harp-playing skills and that great gravely voice. Other performers included saxman, Zeek Gross, Jumpin’ Joe Hawkins, Scott Doubt, Rob (Pappyland) Pappas, George Pendergast, and Neil Barrington.
The energy shared by the wealth of talent onstage was matched by the enthusiastic hunger of the crowd, engaged in a slow churn of bodies in motion the whole night through. Congratulations to The Rainbow Bistro for their 30 years as a beacon of light in the live music scene, where many began their careers, and left their blood, sweat, and tears on the stage. We thank you.