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Locals Only! A Guide to the Music Venues of Hamilton

Blog/FavouritesSeptember 7th 2023
Alex Ramsey

Cover photo by Zach Maretski

At this very moment, live music in Hamilton is at a critical point. A new crop of artists and musicians have emerged, leaving Hamilton’s cluster of interconnected music scenes feeling the most energized they have been in years. Promoters and music collectives like Melted Media, YourIn, and Steel City Hardcore, among many others, have taken a DIY approach to booking shows, alongside an assortment of new spaces which have begun to host live performances.

Just this month, Supercrawl organizers Sonic Unyon announced the lineup for their fifteenth anniversary festival, which features CanCon stalwarts Broken Social Scene, BadBadNotGood, Shad, and more.

Meanwhile, the Sonic Unyon-operated venue Bridgeworks opened in Central Hamilton during lockdown and has since held shows from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Death from Above 1979, and Dizzy among many others. Long running Hamilton venues like Casbah, Doors Pub, and The Corktown also managed to weather the storm of months-long COVID-19 lockdowns, and have reemerged with frequent performances from local artists. The Gladstone Tavern and Corktown Pub have also both begun to host shows with more frequency in the past year.

Sarah good and the bads   into the abyss (don gleeson) 2

​Photo by Don Gleeson

Like so many regional music scenes however, emerging artists have continued to connect outside of the local big name festivals and concert halls. In the late 2010s, DIY venues like Hammer City Records and HAVN were essential for offering spaces for punk and experimental musicians to perform respectively. Now, another generation has stepped into their shoes to fill the void.

Since relocating from their former location on Locke Street to 267 King Street East, Into the Abyss Records has materialized as a reliable milieu for local art and music. Like a combination of record store and gallery, Abyss had been host to open mic poetry readings dubbed ‘Light Lounge’, an improvised music series called Temporary Ensembles, and frequent collaborations with Hamilton weirdo music group Strangewaves, among many others.

It was just something I think Hamilton needs

“A primary goal was to find a place that we could have shows in regularly,” says shop owner Brad Germain on their decision to move into the new space.

During this year's Record Store Day, Abyss hosted the inaugural ‘Abysstival’ which saw 8 local artists perform in the shop over the course of one day. “It was just something I think Hamilton needs,” says Daniel Conroy, the vocalist of noise rock band cute and the organizer of the festival. “A DIY space that is doing bigger type stuff but still focused on being local.” Already having worked with Germain at Abyss for some years, Conroy took the lead on the festival and assembled a roster of mostly new(ish) local acts - Slow Reader, Sullen, Matty Simpson, Golden Feather, Zuto, Sundried Whales, and cute.

“That was a really special day,” recalls Germain.

Sarah good and the bads   into the abyss (don gleeson)

​Photo by Don Gleeson

Another record store that has emerged as a part-time music venue is It’s Alright Ma Record Store, located at 338 Barton Street East. Chris Gibson, the store’s owner, says he began to open up the shop for shows booked by friends

In the spring Hamilton-based musician Luther Griggs booked a night of hardcore at It’s Alright Ma featuring locals Hogtied, Wedge and his own powerviolence band Cease. “There were like 50 people in here, which seems ridiculous because it's such a small spot,” says Gibson. “But then like another 40 or 50 outside, that was pretty impressive.”

Since then, It’s Alright Ma has continued to play host to Hamilton noise musicians like Shadow Pattern and Sourpussy, and punk outfits Decomposeur and Golden Shitters.

Yet even while DIY venues have continued to sustain a colorful music scene in Hamilton, the reality of skyrocketing rents, financial strain and bureaucratic red tape looms over them.

Cease   it's alright ma 2 (zach maretzki)

​Photo by Zach Maretski

Tucked away in an alley behind a convenience store in Hamilton’s Strathcona Neighbourhood is The Killroom, an indoor skate park and venue which frequently hosts a myriad of bands playing metal and hardcore. They also have closed their doors indefinitely and deleted their social media presence while the operators deal with Hamilton bylaw staff. The operators of The Killroom were unavailable for comment but according to reporting by The Hamilton Spectator, the closure occurred after the operators had failed to secure proper licensing for the space.

As of August 11, a petition calling for the reopening of the venue has just over 1200 signatures. “This venue plays a significant role within not only the skater scene but as well as serving as a popular all-ages live music venue, especially for local punk/metal bands,” argues the petition, which is addressed to Mayor Andrea Horvath. “To many of us, even those outside of Hamilton, this place is a sanctuary, a place where we feel like we are home, and a place where we can be ourselves.”

Although punk and hardcore has always been an essential part of the GTA’s musical landscape, the scene has practically exploded in recent years. In Hamilton, The Killroom was a key facet of that rebirth. Yet, like in years past, the venues which sustain cultural communities are often operating at high risk of losing out due to financial strain and rising rents.

To many of us, even those outside of Hamilton, this place is a sanctuary, a place where we feel like we are home, and a place where we can be ourselves

Gibson echoes concerns regarding the financial aspect of running a DIY space while still having landlords to pay rent to each month alongside the everyday costs of running an independent record store. ”It's not cheap to order from distributors,” he says simply.

At Into the Abyss, the shop has turned to hosting fundraisers at the shop after their landlord upped their rent by close to 900$. “It was essentially a clause in our lease, so I kind of knew what was coming,” says Germain  “But it was still more than we could sustain when it came.” The shop also resorted to opening a gofundme to raise funds to counterbalance the rent increase. “I think some places maybe feel weird about fundraising for your own spot, but it doesn't feel weird to me because it is a space that is used for the community so much,” explains Germain.

“I think people see the usefulness in contributing something to the shop because we're contributing something to the community.”