An hour before Upstairs Cabaret opens its doors Thursday night, the line outside will have already started. But the scene is more tail-gate party than a red carpet affair.
Guys dressed head-to-toe in denim, huge belt buckles and cowboy hats keep girls in skin-tight plaid and braided pigtails warm until they can all hit the dancefloor at Victoria’s hottest country music night, Gone Country Live.
Inside, the bar is transformed from sea-side lounge to southern-style roadhouse, with bales of hay and people crushing cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The dancefloor is packed with line-dancers and two-steppers. There’s hootin’ and hollerin’ all around. And in the air — the sweet sound of live country music — courtesy of house band, The Tumblin’ Dice.
The event, now running monthly at the time-honoured live music venue and nightclub in Bastion Square, began as an idea by a local bartender eight years ago and has ballooned into one of the biggest, and most anticipated, club nights in town — with the venue packed to capacity early, leaving many waiting outside all night hoping for a chance to get in on the party. Go to another club nearby and there’s a high probability you’ll see some of the spillover.
“I always had a love for country music,” says Gone Country creator Joel Friesen, who grew up “driving jacked-up muddy pickups” in Sidney and working on his family’s 3,000-acre farm in Manitoba. “It hasn’t always been cool to express that, but as you get older you get more comfortable with it,” he says with a laugh.
Friesen originally thought a country-themed club night in a city like Victoria would be a tough sell when he pitched it to what was then Red Jacket nightclub, but with the support of his manager and his friends, he made it a success.
“The first one was packed to the gills,” he says.
Friesen held an event every few months before he took off to the Cayman Islands to work. It wasn’t long though, before he was back in the saddle, so to speak. He moved back to Victoria, became the general manager of Upstairs and decided to get back on the horse.
Friesen approached Ryan Evans of The Southern Urge, a rock ‘n’ roll band with country compulsion who played a weekly gig at Upstairs Cabaret’s downstairs partner Darcy’s Pub, to form a new band to play live country music covers at the revived event. Evans (vocals, guitar) partnered up with Andrew Laing (guitar), drummer Luke Renshaw (Hannah Georgas, Jets Overhead), and bassist Leigh Grisewood to form an in-demand country cover band with set lists that include popular “new country” artists like Keith Urban, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw alongside “old country” favourites like Hank Williams and even a few originals. (New single “This old House” http://goo.gl/Y1BKy )
“After we did the first Gone Country we knew we had something special on our hands,” says Evans. “It’s come from a humble gathering of great country music fans, to the biggest night this city has ever seen. Now we have people coming from places like Nanaimo, Duncan and Vancouver just to see what everyone’s freaking out about.”
“The entire dance floor is so focused on the band,” says Friesen, who is now in operations development for Upstairs and Darcys. “People are singing along, everyone’s all smiles, dancing, yelling, the vibe is so high. It’s just a room full of people whose primary focus is to have a good time.”
For those coming from out of town or who just want guaranteed entry, Friesen puts 100 priority access tickets for sale online (tinyurl.com/bc3gj6o). Ladies are always free.
Keep your ears open for a country music concert announcement too. Friesen will be announcing a concert by a multiple Juno and Canadian Country Music Award winning artist Thursday night. M
Gone Country Live
Thurs., Feb. 21
(15 Bastion Square)
Doors at 9pm