It is Friday, 10:30 p.m. and the place is wired. Under a purple spotlight, the lead singer of the high-decibel band Leonard Conan howls lyrics at the sweaty mass of young men and women jostling in the overheated darkness. The crowd is a jumble of goatees, lumberjack shirts, leather jackets, black-rimmed glasses, berets and thick-soled Doc Martens. At the Double Deuce Roadhouse, a half-minute motorcycle ride from the Halifax waterfront, the patrons work hard to look as though style is the last thing on their minds.
This is, after all, the pinnacle of cool in a city that is suddenly being called one of the coolest on the continent. And there is no need to take the word of the clean-cut college frat boys, the lanky skinheads, the bleary-eyed garage musicians from the suburbs who have congregated at the Double Deuce. Somewhere in the crowd are a couple of record executives from New York and Seattle hunting for new musical talent. And earlier that day, a writer from Spy, the satirical New York monthly, phoned the Deuce’s management to arrange another story on Halifax the Hip. “The whole thing,” admits Mike MacKinnon, 28,
Leonard Conan’s lead guitarist, “is a bit overwhelming.”
Now, wait just a minute. Is this the same place that Rudyard Kipling once gave the stodgy moniker “Warden of the honor of the North”? That has the background of “a conservative, colonial city,” as historian Lou Collins put it? Is this the worka-
day provincial capital, university town and naval port at the heart of the depressed Maritimes? Not according to a recent issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the New York City-based fashion monthly, which placed Halifax firmly among a new group of alternative North American hot spots, including Seattle, Wash., Austin, Texas, and Chapel Hill, N.C. In recent months, the British music magazine Melody Maker and the American entertainment weekly Billboard have raved about Halifax and its exploding music scene. A more self-absorbed
A new music scene in the old provincial capital is suddenly winning rave reviews
city might be tempted to believe its own press clippings. But, as Greg Clark, co-manager of the Double Deuce, notes: “We know we’re not the centre of the universe. It’s just nice for people to know that we’re part of it.”
To understand Halifax’s newfound fame, it makes sense to start at Café Mokka, a funky downtown coffee bar where the decidedly laid-back crowd has seen and read one too many foreign press stories discovering their city. “Oh Christ, not another reporter,” Roberta Forsyth, 27, a black-clad bookstore clerk
and student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, tells a visitor good-naturedly. To her bearded tablemate, Tony Publicover, 33, who left Halifax a decade ago because he found it too stagnant, the media hype is simply “absurd.” Nearby, Peter Wuensch, 29, the café’s sidebumed co-owner, smiles as he considers the ephemeral nature of what is fashionable. “The magnifying glass has fallen on Halifax for a minute,” he explains to a backdrop of recorded jazz. “It will pass.”
In truth, no one in the college-oriented café looks old enough to remember the city’s last brief brush with trendiness: the 1960s and early 1970s, when American draft dodgers and visiting artists and actors spread the word in the United States of an easygoing, salt-caked “San Francisco North” in Nova Scotia. Now, at any of the coffeehouses, bars and clubs that cater to the new wave of Halifax hipsters, the fashion is black turtlenecks, poetry readings and other Bohemian earmarks. The grunge-rock look is also evident, although there is a certain irony in that; grunge’s old plaid shirts, blue jeans, toques and working clothes have long been standard issue in most Nova Scotia cities and towns. “Fashion,” explains Forsyth, “has overtaken the Maritimes.”
Yet, any search for changes in the city of 115,000 people must go beyond the born-again beatniks. Even those deeply skeptical of Halifax’s new image admit that the place has acquired a certain worldliness in recent years. “It’s not Greenwich Village,” says Stephen Cross, a 34-year-old theatre director who recently moved back to Halifax, where he was born, after a decade in New York. “But sometimes I wonder if this was the same place I grew up in.” In those days, the city could never have supported today’s diverse crop of musical festivals—jazz, gospel, Celtic, alternative, classical—or the fringe theatre and fílm and busker festivals held each year. Like others, Cross notices a shift in attitude on the Halifax streets, where the university employees, hospital workers, government bureaucrats and navy personnel who are the backbone of the economy no longer bat an eye at the wailing street minstrels or the young skateboarders weaving through the historic downtown.
If Halifax really is, as Harper’s Bazaar put it, “the very anatomy of a hip city,” the changing face of the population is partly responsible. Although the city lost 12,000 jobs from 1990 to 1992, newcomers continue to pour in—former back-to-the-landers, returning native sons and daughters, past graduates of the area’s five
universities and colleges, followers of the Karma Dzong Buddhist Church that
transplanted its headquarters from Boul-
der, Colo., in 1985, and added to the city’s cosmopolitan
flavor. Concludes Andrew Gillis, 36, a local musician and journalist: “The people from away give Halifax its soul.” Still, Halifax would likely have remained their little secret had it not been for the sudden burst of musical activity that focused a larger spotlight on the city. Punk, grunge, pop-rock—the raw, dissonant music has few obvious links to the city’s seagoing roots or the Celtic-oriented music that is so popular in the rest of the region. It seemed a novelty last year when Sloan, a band composed of four young Halifax-area musicians, signed a guaranteed two-record contract with Geffen Records, the label that carries Cher, Joni Mitchell, Guns ‘n’ Roses and the Seattle grunge-rock giant Nirvana. And after two other alternative local groups—Eric’s Trip, based in Moncton, N.B., and jale, an all-female band from Halifax—signed with a Seattle label called Sub-Pop, the music world was suddenly abuzz with talk of “the Halifax Sound.”
For all of that, most homegrown musicians scrape by playing gigs in bars. The best-known alternative bands pack them in at the Flamingo Café & Lounge, Café Olé and the Double Deuce. Some make recordings for small, local companies. But all hope to get lucky and sign a contract with the recording executives from Toronto, New York and Seattle who frequent-
ly fly in. “Everybody wants to be the next Sloan,” explains Clark, who regularly books about 20 groups from the Halifax area into the Deuce.
In fact, the city’s downtown teems with Sloan wanna-bes, complete with battered guitar cases and the requisite baggy combat pants and flannel shirts. Some are the sons and daughters of well-to-do lawyers and doctors, who shake their parent’s garages and basements as they strain for the next highpowered hit. Others dream of being discovered even before they learn the rudiments of
handling drumsticks or laying down a decent bass line. “We’re going to get our public relations machine going, then we’ll learn the instruments,” says Forsyth, who is forming an all-female band. A few, like Rob Lemon, 23, who grew up in Yarmouth, N.S., and now plays guitar for pocket change on Halifax’s
Spring Garden Road, come from small towns and rural areas, attracted by the slim hint of musical fame that Halifax seems to offer. “Man,” he says, “this is the only place to be.” To Halifax’s Old Guard, of course, the city’s sudden mini-celebrity seems slightly bewildering. “Perhaps all of this hip business
can help create some jobs,” speculates John Dick, 57, chairman of the Halifax Board of Trade’s economic development committee.
Mayor Moira Ducharme welcomes the publicity but wonders about its long-term effects on the city. “We’ve always been a well-kept secret,” she notes, “but sometimes I’m con-
cerned that too many people will find out about us and the city will change too much.” Apparently, some people think it already has: when the daily Halifax Chronicle-Herald recently ran a front-page article on body-piercing (lip-, noseand ear-piercing as a fashion statement), the newspaper received bag loads of negative mail.
But traditionalists need not worry. For the most part, Halifax’s citizens have a history of standing firm against the shifting winds. “The truth is that there are many scenes here, and after the alternative music thing passes they will still be going strong,” declares Ian McKinnon, 31, a Halifax manager and leader of Rawlins Cross, a folk-rock group. Even in the steamy gloom of
the Double Deuce, the buzz over the city and its music is viewed with more than a hint of amusement. “They say we’re the next Seattle,” yells Steven Singer, a 24-
year-old guitar player. “Who’s going to be the next Halifax?” In a city that makes a subtle art of not taking itself too seriously, life will go on long after the record scouts have stopped coming.
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