by Mark Hodgman
There's something mysterious and intimidating about entering a building without any windows or way of seeing what's behind that door. It may seem like a small thing, but it always has a way of catching me off guard and in my experience I'm usually pleasantly surprised with what I find. A prime example is my first experience of attending an event at Prince Albert's own Jam Street Music Sessions.
I had heard of Jam Street, but didn't really understand what it was. I thought it was just a place to take guitar lessons, I didn't know they also operated as a live music venue. So when I heard that Saskatoon's alt-rockers Autopilot were going to be playing a show there, I was a little confused, but I also knew that I was going to be there.
My brother and I braved the cold February evening air six years ago and arrived to the venue, windows draped, doors closed, but the soft rumble of music being played over a sound system behind brick walls let us know that the show was indeed proceeding as scheduled. The door pushed open, the in-between set playlist gained clarity and a rush of warm air welcomed us in as we stepped over the threshold in, reaching for our $10 bills.
“Hey, thanks for coming! Uh, can you take off your shoes?”
We were a little confused, but complied. Then I looked past the small table with the cash box and stamp pad. Carpet. Weird.
We ventured in, blowing air on wrists to dry the star freshly inked and placed twonies in our pockets, spotted a couch, and grabbed a seat. It had been a long day at work and the cushions, much like the general atmosphere felt warm and friendly, maybe even intimate. People chatted over the house music, attendees nodded greetings, kids laughed and darted in between small groups of friends catching up and musicians setting up instruments and fumbling with mic stands. Lucy James, Jam Street's owner/operator came over and greeted us. We weren't at a business or venue, we were in someone's home.
We sat on the couch until the bands started, then stood up off to the side. I hate sitting during music, but I also didn't want to block anyone's view. There couldn't have been more than 30 of us, but in that small room it felt like a crowd and the bands fed off of the energy. There was no stage, no big lighting rig, no chance of anyone hiding behind any facade of being a rock star, just a paper thin division between those making music and those enjoying music being made. This is the place where dreams born of MuchMusic and VEVO can actually leave the homes they've made in imagination and enter reality. Where those under that magical, yet often arbitrary, age of 19 can play and listen to live music.
The aforementioned Lucy James started Jam Street Music Sessions to “give kids (and adults) the skills and the opportunity to experience playing music in a band.” For the better part of a decade Lucy has done just that. Many bands have formed and/or developed at Jam Street with most of them being comprised of minors. Many of these bands had the opportunity to gig outside of their home turf after some time under Lucy's guidance.
These shows included other small all ages shows around Northern Saskatchewan, some venues in Saskatoon, and one band, The Wolfe, even played the Toronto leg of the final Vans Warped Tour and was a top four finalist for the CBC 2017 Searchlight Competition.
Another of these bands that I think bears mentioning is Jettfire. Jettfire was formed by Ben Myo, Loic Bolay, Tucker James, Alain Tahir, and Andrew Dynna while they were all in highschool. After some shuffling of members and stylistic changes, Jettfire evolved into one of the most entertaining rock bands I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. Ben has this nervous energy and genuine enthusiasm that really sticks out in most groups and makes conversations with him great. It also translates really well to a live performance. The music itself of Jettfire exuded a fervor and disarming naivety that ultimately pulled you into the fun no matter what mood you were in. I had never seen a young band before or since be able to interact with an audience so easily and entertainingly. When I asked Ben about this and how their rapport with the audience came to be he responded “Stage presence isn't something you can teach, but it's something you can definitely practice... When you have fun on stage it's just natural for people to want to join in.”
*Jettfire in actionat BEDRock music festival From L to R Alain Tahir, Andrew Dynna, Ben Myo, Tucker James
I think there's something very profound in that statement. Any activity we do in community is full of these seemingly elusive qualities. And what better way to teach than to literally facilitate? All ages shows and venues like Jam Street are crucial for the art of live music to continue in our somewhat isolated neck of the woods. If your favourite band won't come to your town or play at a venue that will allow you to attend, the next best thing (or maybe in fact the better thing) is to just become your favourite band.
2020 was a year for significant change in many ways, especially for Jam Street. Lucy moved to Europe with her family this summer. While the internet has made it possible for her to continue helping with the administration and scheduling of lessons, Jam Street obviously needs hands on deck to function. She is relying on other teachers to continue her work of being a source of knowledge and guidance to the current students and bands. Ben Myo (who currently plays in the bands Friends and Between Bridges) is now the head teacher of Jam Street. Jam Street is also now sharing it's space with a local theatre group.
It's hard to be easy with change, especially when the change is directly affecting something that was so great. I asked Ben if the venue side of Jam Street would be impacted by this. “Not at all! Jam Street is still Jam Street...When it's safe to have shows and open mics again we for sure will.”
Jam Street is there for bands going through growing pains in a way that I really wish I had available to me when my band first started out. I'm excited for this new chapter and hope to see you all at a local show as soon as this pandemic is over.
*photos courtesy Ben Myo