An Interview with Executive Director Steve Edge
on the 30th Anniversary of the Rogue Folk Club
May, 2017 - Part II
THE WISE CLUB
And then we had this couple of regulars, Jackie and Stan Parker, and they moved to Calgary shortly after, but Jackie kept saying, "You've gotta do shows at the WISE Club." I had no idea what that was. Said, "Yeah, okay, all right," you know, "Yeah, but you can't keep doing them here, you've gotta go to the WISE Club." So still no idea what it was, but one day I went to the Cultch and at the break, I went out into the parking-lot, which used to be there, great little place before they built that stupid building next door, and across the lane, I could see there was a little shield on the back of the wooden door, and, "I wonder what that is." So I walked over there and it said, WISE Social and Athletic Club. "Oh, that's the WISE Club. Oh, this makes sense," because geographically, it's behind the Cultch, you know, "This would work."
So we went in there and nearly died by walking into the upstairs, because it was the headquarters of the darts association and everybody that plays darts smokes. There were about 50 chalkboards and so the place was full of chalk dust and old tobacco smoke. It was absolutely disgusting! You could slice the air with a knife, you know. It was horrible, toxic. Ugh. We had a work party one weekend. We shoved all the dart boards into the back. They were double-sided dart boards. Dangerous. If you missed the dart board, you'd hit the other guy. We got rid of all that. We painted the walls, cleaned the bloody toilets. God, really disgusting. You know, turned it into a place. We had this guy volunteer, Paul Rennie, who did some carpentry, made some tables.
TONY MONTAGUE: Those were specially made!
STEVE EDGE: Oh, yeah. So then we started doing shows in there in '88. We did a show in there in September. It was bloody freezing! We had Sam Weis at the WISE. She's a guitar player, originally from Seattle -- well, originally from the prairies, but now lives in Florida. Great guitar player and she was the first one and then Martin Carthy, and Martin was on a really cheap guarantee and there was no percentages involved. I should have given him more money. I just gave him his guarantee, because he sold out. We made a shit load of money that night. Kept us alive. So Martin Carthy saved the Rogue Folk Club. He was the first saviour, if you like, you know, after Janet. So yeah, so that was fantastic and that put us on the map, and then we stayed there. '87, backtracking a little bit, we did the Folk Fest Hangover for the first time. The Oyster Band did, I think, seven songs during the whole festival, including main stage set.
TONY MONTAGUE: I remember those days.
STEVE EDGE: And, you know, Ian was saying, "Well, we've been paid," I believe, "$700 a song so far. This is really frustrating." we thought, "Well, why don't you come and do a gig with us and Spirit of the West on Monday night at the Savoy."... Folk Fest Hangover and it was amazing. Spirit opened for them. Oyster Band played their first ever full concert set in North America, you know? Nice feather in the cap. And Arthur Johnston, who was a union leader from Glasgow, sang a few songs ... Great! And, you know, we did a bunch of shows then, at the Folk Fest Hangover. So we got the precedent there. We did several of those, and the next year we did some more at the Railway and in between times, I'd met Capercaillie. I think they were at the folk festival.
We booked a double bill at the Commodore with the Oyster Band and Michelle Shocked. It got taken away from us by Mr. Cristall, because he happened to be in London when I was negotiating with Pete Lawrence and ... and he said, "no, we're having that show, he's not having that show," and he stomped all over us. So he took that one away. And I thought, "Right, I'll get you for this." So what I didn't know, it was very unfortunate, is Anne Blaine had been responsible for bringing Capercaillie to the folk festival and I phoned their agent and booked Capercaillie for a show deliberately to spite the folk festival as a retribution for that, you know. And the person who was most offended by that wasn't Cristall, unfortunately, it was Anne Blaine, and she was the innocent victim. I really feel bad about that, but anyway, she's fine, she's a friend now. But that was unfortunate. But yeah, that kind of put us on the map as well, because it was a big band and they sold out and we did a whole bunch of shows with Capercaillie until Manus joined the band. Yeah, Capercaillie helped.
We also did the final farewell tour of Silly Wizard, we put them on at Robson Square and that was fantastic, and two of them are gone now, Andy Stewart and Johnny Cunningham. Fantastic band.
So the WISE Club is what really put us on the map, and it became such a fast roller coaster ride from then on. We did 50 shows a year in there. We had the Morris Men run the bar so they could organize a tour of England, which I went on. They ran the bar for two years, and then after they raised the money for that, they didn't want to run the bar anymore, because it's pretty stressful. I said, "All right, we'll run the bar, then." So we ran the bar for a few years, and then the WISE Club looked at their licence and realized that we'd been breaking the law for all this time, because they had a licence downstairs, and because there's no lockable door between the two bars, then the downstairs licence prevails. So they said, "No, you can't run a bar any more” they said. And this was 2001, so we'd been there for 12, 13 years. 2001 there was a transit strike or lockout, which lasted for – I think it was at least 9 weeks. It might have been longer. Maybe 13. It was hellish. The WISE Club's not exactly on a bus route, it's not far, and if you don't have a car, it's bloody impossible to get to. So -- with the transit stopped, people stopped coming, and -- and then The Wise said, "Right, you can't have minors." I remember Dave Lidstone bringing his daughter to a show once and I said, “Sorry, she can't come in," and she burst into tears. She was about six, I think, or eight, and she thought she'd done something wrong. And that was what really hit home. I thought, "No, this is not going to happen again"
At this point, though, we were losing money. We couldn't put on any decent shows, we couldn't afford to bring anybody good in, and nobody was coming to our concerts because of the transit thing, and we almost went out of business. We ran a fundraiser at the WISE where we raised a lot of money. Mad Pudding and a few other bands played.
TONY MONTAGUE: That was when, 2001?
STEVE EDGE: 2001. But we couldn't afford to do any more shows. But that kept us alive, and then Fiona Black had just started a series at Cap and she said, "Well, just co-produce -- present with us. Won't cost you anything, but it'll keep you on the map and keep you going until you get back on your feet." So that bailed us out as well. So she was the next saviour of the Rogue Folk Club. You know, so that was amazing, because she was bringing in much bigger bands because it was a bigger room, but we were still keeping the flag flying and we could occasionally do a show here and there.
I remember way back when the Fringe used to be in the East End, we couldn't do shows in September, so we had to find somewhere else. We ended up at St. James because we found out that it was available for rent and we put Dervish in there, we did Chris Smither and Kelly Joe Phelps and the World of Slide Guitar, which is still one of my favourite concerts, and they all sold out. I thought, "Well, this is a good alternative," you know, so -- and then when the WISE Club started to tell us, "Well, we really don't want you here." They were running the bar at this point and we were only getting 50 people in for a show and they're not drinking enough, so they said, "Well --"
TONY MONTAGUE: But they wouldn't let you run the bar.
STEVE EDGE: No, they couldn't, because they said that the licence downstairs prevailed and they couldn't allow us to have our own licence anymore, so we lost that revenue stream and they were not happy with the amount of money that was being raised and they could make more money putting on their own shows or having somebody else do it. So, you know, I said, "Well, we'll probably have to find another venue," and then the President of the Board then, I forget who it was, said, "Good." So, I can take a hint. At the same time, St. James were very, very encouraging. They said, "Look, we'll build you a cupboard here, you can put all your gear in there, you can have as many shows as you want," this, that and the other, "Of course you can have a licence." So we did.
TONY MONTAGUE: When was that?
STEVE EDGE: This was in the beginning of 2004. A couple of years of just sort of stumbling along and flying on the coat-tails of Capilano College, as it was then. And just doing the occasional show and the occasional outside rental at St. James. Then we moved in in January of, I think, 2004. We've been there ever since.
One of the nice things was we left our lights, which we'd paid for and we'd hung up on the bloody ceiling at the WISE hall at great personal injury cost, we left them there so that there was another viable venue. So we'd basically created one and left one in the east end and then we built another one on the west side. So, you know, that was – I didn't feel bad about that. I thought, this is good.
THE ST. JAMES HALL
TONY MONTAGUE: So I think we've reached about 2004 or something.
STEVE EDGE: Yeah, we're at St. James, now, and we've been going ever since.
TONY MONTAGUE: When was the other -- there was another sort of crisis where you knew –
STEVE EDGE: Well, there was a couple of interesting ones. One where Canada Post, because we used to mail everything out, they used to do what they call second class mail, which would mean you do all the sorting for them and it would cost us five cents to mail one out, and that overnight went up to 50 cents. You know, which is quite a big leap. So that hurt. That almost put us under. The other one that nearly put us under was the feds came in and said "You’ve been bringing in foreign workers." "Well, yeah”. So they said, "We're going to send an auditor." This guy came around to the house and he went through all of the concerts that we'd done and if I didn't have a contract for it, he estimated what it was, and then he sent us an invoice and it was going to kill us. And the guy came back and said, "Well, look, this is the bill, this is what you owe us, but," he said, "we're not so much interested in punitive measures which will put you under. We're interested in future compliance, so if you will promise to always remit withholding tax and always do the tax waiver stuff in future, we'll waive this fine."
And so both of those, we went to the press and said, "Look, Canada Post is going to kill us," and then, "Revenue Canada is going to kill us," and both times they rescinded, or they helped us out – Canada Post, they didn't just put the rate up, they were going to stop us from having the permit to actually do this second class mail, so we'd have to go back to putting it in envelopes and go first class. It would have cost us even more money, but then they rescinded that too. So both of those were crises. There's probably been others as well.
TONY MONTAGUE: What are the biggest challenges?
STEVE EDGE: The challenge is the imagination of the audience.
TONY MONTAGUE: Good. I'm glad you said that.
STEVE EDGE: Well, it's hard, because people have got X amount of money, which is diminishing all the time, to spend on entertainment, and then there's people that they've heard of that cost a lot of money and they might blow their entertainment budget, because they've heard of them, and then there's people that we do which are reasonably priced and they could come to that, but it's a time commitment too. So we want people to come to every show and they don't, they never will. But there are some people who want to do that and so we get a few. But we get quite a few regulars. It's interesting, we get a lot of people saying, "Oh, every time I come here, it's sold out." Well, yes, because you're only here on the nights that it's sold out. Yes. I can't really argue with that. But what I've always had to do -- I mean the radio show helps, because I'm always looking for new music, because bands split up, stop touring, or whatever …
TONY MONTAGUE: So you've gotta listen to new music.
STEVE EDGE: So you've gotta keep it fresh and so we do that, and so it makes it easier having a radio show, because it gives me more time to listen to stuff, but, you know, it does mean that I'm spending a lot of time listening to music. But it's not really a punishment. And then you have to decide who you're going to book and which has got a reasonable chance of success, and also that blends in, fits in, with the kind of the format of the stuff that we do. People expect a certain quality, which I think we deliver, but there has to be, I think, a balance between unknowns with some fresh new stuff and well-established artists everybody knows is going to be good. But you can't just have that. You've gotta have both. And I'm very conscious, particularly with CITR, which is a pioneer in community radio in this respect, we have to obey Cancon, Canadian content regulations. It's not as hard with a speciality show like the folk show. I only have to do 12 per cent Canadian content as opposed to 35, but I always do at least 35. The other one which CITR invented and has now been adopted by a few campus stations and very few other stations anywhere, is Femcon, where there's either women singing, or it's at the fore ... playing the instruments or whatever, and I try to do that as well, and that -- the Femcon advisory is 40 per cent and mine is generally 45 to 55. It's somewhere in that range. So, yeah, not that I'm trying to be more tokenist than I should be, but I'm just conscious of the fact that there are -- you know, it's easier sometimes for guys to make money and be a touring band and to be the high profile than it is for women, and so -- and also I like the sound of women's voices. You know? And so -- and if there's a woman that's a great fiddle player, then that's a bonus.
TONY MONTAGUE: And the truth is that I think probably more than any other music -- well, even classical, I mean folk has always welcomed women -- I mean there are certain situations when they weren't, but generally speaking, the whole body has been created as – I would say as much by women as by men.
STEVE EDGE: Yeah. So I like to keep that going, but also it's -- you know, a very egalitarian music, and it's a very egalitarian society which we should be living in and so I want to give everybody a fair chance, but you can't necessarily book music from Outer Mongolia and Vietnam every week, you've gotta be a little bit more conscious of the fact that we don't know anybody from Outer Mongolia or Vietnam who would come to a show if we put it on, so we've gotta be a little bit more conscious of where the audience tastes are likely to lie and how far they can stretch.
But we stretch boundaries quite a bit. We used to be primarily Celtic, and then there was either -- well, the Irish government used to fund all the tours. Anybody that couldn't get a job in Ireland became a musician and they had tours around the world paid for by the government. It was fantastic. That gravy train stopped and the bands stopped touring and this was part of the 2001 recession for us, because we suddenly lost the supply of bands. There's only the die-hards or the well-knowns that could, -- you know, people that didn't mind losing money or the ones that were guaranteed to be a successful tour that would keep it going.
TONY MONTAGUE: There's always the thing of, you know, the American dollar and when that's high and the Canadian's low and the bands don't want to come here because they get more money elsewhere.
STEVE EDGE: Yeah. A lot of bands as well, with the pound and the Euro, if the Canadian dollar's weak, and also the transportation and the time difference and stuff ... there’s no real reason why they would want to be coming out here unless they want to see the world. Which a lot of people do, fortunately. And if they are seeing the world, they'll probably want to come to Vancouver, because it's one of the best places on the planet, and what we are gradually educating people into is that if they're going from Britain to Australia, it's a hell a lot more sensible to come via Vancouver than it is to go through Abu Dhabi or Singapore. So we're trying to make that happen more often. You know, it's a 14-hour flight from here to Auckland. That's nothing. From London to Auckland via Singapore, it's 24 hours. It's ridiculous.
TONY MONTAGUE: So moving on now, what are your aspirations?
STEVE EDGE: Well, obviously I want to be able to bring in my favourites as much as possible. I've certainly done that. There's a lot of favourites that get regular gigs if I can get them. You know ... with Martin Carthy or Martin Simpson and Martin Hayes ...
TONY MONTAGUE: You're fixated on Martins.
STEVE EDGE: It looks that way. Martyn Joseph's coming back next year, as well, and they all play Martin guitars. We could call them the House Martins, I suppose. But yeah, there are certain bands that I would not say no to, like Tom Russell is another artist I wouldn't say no to, and Fred Eaglesmith, because I know they're going to sell tickets, but if we get a chance to bring Kate Rusby in again, I'd do that. But there's so many favourites that I've got, if I ever had the chance to bring them in, I'd do it.
I'm also really interested in what's going on locally, because when I started doing this, when we started putting the Rogue on, if any of the local musicians, like that Sunday Umbrella Band, for instance, if they wanted a session, they had to go to Seattle. There was nothing in Vancouver. Within a few years of us starting up, there was a load of people starting to play locally. There were sessions sprouting up, there were schools coming up, there was -- you know, Michael Pratt opened Celtic Traditions a bit later, and that was part of it.
TONY MONTAGUE: Well, the whole Celtic thing broke in the sort of -- with Riverdance, like about '93.
STEVE EDGE: ’95.
TONY MONTAGUE: Before that, you know, there was people who loved it, but we weren't very numerous.
STEVE EDGE: We were starting to make inroads before that. Riverdance actually hurt us more than anything else, because it made it too big and it was too fast all at once.
TONY MONTAGUE: That's what really launched the big sort of wave of everything Irish.
STEVE EDGE: Well, maybe, but I think we'd been really pushing it quite well before.
TONY MONTAGUE: I know. I mean it's been very popular in England since, you know, the --
STEVE EDGE: Well, yeah, the '60s.
TONY MONTAGUE: -- '70s, early '70s.
STEVE EDGE: But, you know, I think we were riding the wave of Celtic music until Riverdance. So yes, the general interest may have gone up, but our audience lost attention because of Riverdance. It was basically a black hole that ... well, OK, it did encourage an interest in playing that kind of music. I guess It was part of the process.
TONY MONTAGUE: Anything with Eileen Ivers is going to be good.
STEVE EDGE: Well, yes, this is true. I mean there were a lot of good people in there, a lot of great bands. It changed the scene quite dramatically. I think it was largely to the detriment of the local scene and certainly to the detriment of the Rogue, which is unfortunate, because I was actually at a festival in Brittany where Bill Whelan and company were starting to explore that, so we were at the very grassroots of that in 1990 in Brittany with the Bulgarian State Orchestra and pipers and teaming up with Paddy Keenan and all these sort of people. It's -- that was one of the most influential events I've been to, but -- and it was really the precursor of Riverdance. Unfortunately it went the wrong way, but, you know, it was a big deal.
TONY MONTAGUE: I think it's worked its way out of the system.
STEVE EDGE: I think it has now, yeah. But there's still some of that. You get certain bands that are still pounding djembes with their fists and playing those stomping fiddle tunes with drums. So that's unfortunate, but there's a lot of good stuff that's come out of it since then as well. I know there are some people that turn their noses up at Loreena McKennitt, but I think that some of the stuff that she does is exquisite and the band members that she has are phenomenal.
TONY MONTAGUE: I agree. I just find her vocals sometimes a bit too classical.
STEVE EDGE: Yeah, but it's passionate.
TONY MONTAGUE: What are you doing to bring young people into the Rogue? Because I get the feeling that the membership is just getting older every year, really.
STEVE EDGE: Everybody's getting older every year, that's just a natural fact. What we've always done is we've brought in younger bands and younger performers and they bring their own fans in. The trick is to get some of them to come back. Or preferably all of them to come back, but then you've gotta have something else that appeals, and it's really hard, because you don't want to make it one-dimensional. You don't want to have just young Celtic bands or young bluegrass bands or young singer-songwriters from the local scene, because at some point, it -- you know, they're going to lose interest, because they're going to hear the same thing all the time, so -- and the core audience would get disillusioned by it. So ... to try to balance everything and just to make -- it's not so much about the band names for me.
You know, if it's a Rogue gig, I want people to know that it's going to be quality; they're going to get a good experience. They're not going to have to pay an arm and a leg to get in. They're going to be treated with a lot -- not just respect, but they're going to be treated as house guests by the volunteers and they're going to hear some fantastic music, the sound's going to be good. We're going to make it as comfortable as we can even though it's bloody hot in there and the pews are hard and stuff like this, but we're working on it, and, you know, they -- the idea is that this is the Rogue, it's not so much that it's Fred Eaglesmith or Martin Hayes or Martin Simpson or whoever, it's that it's something at the Rogue, it's gotta be good. I don't think we've missed all that often. I think most of them have been pretty good and some have been outstanding. Particularly this year, we've had some incredible experiences.
TONY MONTAGUE: No, I'm just thinking there might be some sort of discount for --
STEVE EDGE: Well, there are lots of discounts. We have free for six and under, we have 12 and under at half-price, we've got student's discounts, we have got obviously the Parcel O' Rogues and that's cheaper than everything else. It's a $24 average price and you're paying 15 by buying a season's ticket, it's a hell of a deal. You can't discount certain things like beer prices and stuff like that, but -- well, you can, but it would be pointless.
TONY MONTAGUE: What's the situation with people bringing kids in?
STEVE EDGE: Well, you can still do it, it's fine. We get a special occasion licence, there's no problem. We couldn't do a special occasion licence at the WISE hall, because their bar licence downstairs overruled it. It was unfortunate. But there isn't a licence pertaining at the St. James, so that gives us a good potential.
THE LARGER PICTURE
TONY MONTAGUE: So maybe try and sort of pan out at the end to see the larger picture, where do you see the Rogue Folk Club, but also folk music, fitting into the larger picture of music in Vancouver and feeding into it?
STEVE EDGE: Well, it's certainly a big part of the Vancouver music scene. I think there are a lot of musicians, particularly young ones that are playing some kind of music that's got roots. They may be singer-songwriters, but they've got roots, they've done some of their time researching and learning. They haven't done necessarily the Dylan method of learning 3,000 folk songs before you put pen to paper, principle! I think it's quite rare, but, you know, there are people that are willing to explore their roots. That's good. My favourite analogy is, if you're playing sports, you just need two coats and a ball and you've got a soccer game. If you're playing folk music, you need maybe an instrument, you need a voice. You know, you can do a hambone thing or you can play the fiddle or guitar or banjo, and you've got music, and if you've got something to say, it probably carries a bit more weight if you can sing it rather than just standing on a street corner and shouting it.
So music is such an integral part of everybody and the easier it is to make it, and then the more people can get involved in it, that's great! Now, it's my job as kind of the musical travel agent if you like, to listen to a lot and I filter a lot and I do play favourites, but my spectrum is wide, so I try to guide people to the best that I can find. I may not be right that much, but I think I'm right fairly often, but, you know, like any traveller, you're going to want a travel agent saying, "Oh, this is the resort, this is the hotel you should go to." It's the same thing with me. I'm trying to make it easier for people to -- you know, not look at the world atlas and try to decide which hotel to stay at in which town and which country, but to sort of say, "Right, well, if you like this kind of music, then try this band." So, if you're interested in fiddle music, then, you like Martin Hayes, but have you heard Vasen from Sweden? Well, maybe you could take it to another level.
So it's -- it's interesting. So we've branched out -- you know, we never used to do the Gypsy jazz festival, and now we've been doing that for ten years. Well, you might ask is it folk music? Yes, I think it is, but it crosses boundaries and I like the idea of crossing boundaries. I love the idea of having the world of slide guitar, you know, Debashish Bhattacharya bringing the Indian slide and Martin Simpson playing the English or the British North American style of slide, and, you know, that's exciting when those territories meet. And you hear somebody like the Afro Celts, who we never presented, obviously they're too big, I mean physically big -- but we did bring Bellowhead in, so, you know, it's not beyond the realms of possibility.
Where do I see us going? Everybody has some connection with roots music and I think if we can hit some of those points ... the inclusivity and the friendliness and the approachability of it which I think is so appealing, and it's real. Okay, there are people using loops and stuff like that, but essentially it's people who are actually good at what they do presenting it to the very best of their ability with very little in the way of embellishment or artificial aid and it's real music that comes from the soul or just the genius of the player, and if we can bring that to an audience, then that's what I want to do.
Obviously there's an enormous amount of personal taste, but one rule which I have is I will not present anybody I don't like. So it doesn't bother me if I'm eliminating somebody from that, because if I don't like them anyway, then I'm not missing not having them, you know, but I won't book somebody I don't like just because we can make money on it.
Return to Part I
View dozens more historical pictures
Listen to Stephen Fearing on the Rogue's opening night at The Savoy - May 10th, 1987
Listen to an Interview with Steve Edge on CBC's North By Northwest
Listen to an Interview with Spirit of The West's J. Knutson by Steve Edge
Read the Mayor's Proclamation declaring May 2017 Rogue Folk Club Month (pdf)
Read a 10th Anniversary article by Tony Montague
See a list of everyone who has ever played at the Rogue
Read more historical articles & interviews