Words & photo by Aileen Duncan
Can you imagine how many songs there are in existence? Think about it. Humans are capable of such vast creativity, but it can be overwhelming to know what’s worth listening to. It helps if you can find a knowledgeable guide to make sense of the music that is historically important, underground, or cutting edge.
The Mercury Lounge inadvertently strives to fill that role. As a venue, they’ve survived while many others exist only in Ottawa’s past. Since opening in November 1996, they’ve been able to stay fresh, true to their roots, and musically relevant for 20 years. That’s no easy feat for any business, especially one based in the Byward Market, where market trends create a precarious existence. Yet not only is the Mercury Lounge surviving, it is thriving. Their musical programing is on point, and the club’s owner, John Criswick, says business is better than ever.
Trevor Walker, a regular DJ who has been spinning at Mercury since nearly the beginning, speaks to their musical philosophy.
“It’s music edutainment [education with entertainment]. You’re learning because you go to the club and listen . . . [I try to] play something that they haven’t heard before.”
Claudia Balladelli oversees musical programing, and speaks to this same idea.
“We book underground music. We’re looking for left-field, ground-breaking acts . . . [it’s edutainment because] people haven’t always heard of the band,” she said.
Their approach to curating music indicates an acceptance of different kinds of talent. Criswick refers to the Mercury as “the root of house culture in Ottawa” but they host to a wide variety of music. Walker and Balladelli spoke about the many groups that have played, representing soul, funk, Latin, jazz, hip-hop, and even rock or punk at times.
An acceptance of diversity extends beyond the music.
“It’s a culture of tolerance and respect, and a safe place for people to experience no matter where you come from in life,” said Criswick.
Beginning with a club culture that doesn’t encourage aggression, to their popular Wednesday “hump night”—geared towards LGBTQ+ community—they try to make the space inclusive to different communities.
Embracing diversity also manifests in atypical ways. For example, they collaborate with embassies to bring a foreign artist to Ottawa, and to bring more people from that particular community to the show.
Yet Balladelli and Walker admit that at times, attendance is not as high as it could be.
“It’s a hard sell to get people to try something new,” Balladelli said. “Sometimes it’s musically life-changing, but there is only 50 people on the dancefloor.”
Criswick acknowledges the wide range of guests makes it more difficult to stay current for the wide range of demographics.
“People coming to the club now were not alive when it was originally opened,” he said. “And many people who made it happen in the early days are now only guests on a twice annual frequency.”
However, the challenge posed by a wide demographic base is also a source of strength. Every five years or so, the Mercury Lounge experiences a shift in clientele, with new faces presenting themselves and discovering the bar.
“It’s generational,” said Walker, speaking of the revitalization. “In 20 years we’ve seen four or five shifts.”
What may the future hold for the Mercury Lounge? Criswick hinted at plans to re-open the middle level with a “completely new” concept in spring 2017, which was closed over two years ago following a disastrous flood. The future could be bright.
“I hope to keep it going another 20 years,” Criswick said with a smile. •