“There’s a sonic point on the stairway, where it’s just hushhh. All of a sudden it’s quiet. It’s quiet and now you’re in this place.”
Joe Gurba’s voice grows calm as he describes a spot on the stairs down to the Elevation Room. It’s the place where the sound of espresso machines and chatter from Transcend Cafe instantly vanishes. It’s the point where you are immediately submerged in the sounds from the stage and in the communal moment taking place. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat there, holding on to the banister, overwhelmed as a crowd created a moment of togetherness in the small basement. Joe knows that feeling well:
“Great music is great music no matter what, but the other half of it is making this community moment where everyone’s happy together. It’s a human experience, shared in common, completely unalienated by money or by commerce. It’s just art. And we share it together and we all realize that there’s more to living than just staying alive– that there’s a value to life. Many of the shows had those moments. Many, many of them. ”
So when Transcend announced that it was closing its Jasper Ave location, I slumped with disappointment. The young venue was the site of an enveloping love for both artists and audiences. As I talked to musicians who have played and worked the space, I realized I was not alone in thinking there was something distinct about descending ER’s old carpeted stairs. Musician Doug Hoyer, who worked sound for the ER, stresses that its separation from the “clatter of commerce” upstairs allowed the Elevation Room to emerge as dedicated space for both large and small acts.
“People take the steps– they willingly come downstairs to engage themselves in the show. … We’d get some really high end shows like Bry Webb coming through, some real, premier artists. But it’s also a great entry-level space for a lot of new performers where it might be their second show. It’s great for them to be able to have an experience where they’re playing their songs and it’s a full room and it’s quiet and [people] are listening. It’s not just some loud bar.”
In the end, having the basement space proved to one of ER’s biggest assets. But Joe explains there was a steep learning curve when he took over booking in April of 2012. Unlike Wunderbar or the Artery, the Elevation Room had no “built-in crowd.”
“I learned a lot of lessons about booking here. When I first started I booked it like it was Wunderbar, because that’s what I’d booked. … [In the end] I definitely tried to gear it towards artists who don’t play very often, at least not as headliners, artists who only play once every couple months. Because it’s not out of the way, but it’s not on Whyte Ave, so I wanted it to be a special show so people are willing to travel.”
And no one disputes that he succeeded in creating special shows. Matt Gooding started working sound at the Elevation Room this winter. His band, Ghost Cousin, was one of the first to play the room in a secret show held to test the space last spring. According to Matt, ER is the “the kind of place you want to play.”
“There were so many shows of such high quality every week. It’s a testament to Joe’s booking [and that] all of the bands that played really cared about what they were doing. Nobody was just filling a spot at a bar. They were all invested in it. … It’s a venue that cares about the shows and respects the artists and tries to make every show great and the kind of show that the band wants … Elevation Room fostered a culture where the artist respects the venue and the venue respects the artist.”
Craig Martell, owner of the beloved Wunderbar, is also quick to speak to the power of Joe’s work:
“It breaks my heart that it’s closing. And Joe, I’ve always had a lot of respect for, more than most people in this town, because he can do almost anything. … For him to take The Elevation Room, which as far as the space goes, in my mind, had absolutely no emotion or feeling—that room, to me, the room itself was boring, here’s a white room with no decor, totally rectangular, it’s like if you rent an apartment and it has white appliances and white tile and beige carpet and that’s it, and you’re like “I hope I don’t spill anything,” that’s ER to me—Joe made it something special, against all odds.”
But while some fans are mourning the loss of the venue, we might learn from Joe’s unruffled attitude. Shortly after the closure was announced he took to Facebook with these mollifying words:
“This is sad but I would like to believe that creation and destruction are cyclical and complementary and any hope for eternity will always be in vain.”
In our interview he echoed this sentiment, stressing that it is people, not rooms, that make those life-affirming moments.
“Any venue’s closing is going to harm people’s chances to play for people. And Elevation Room is a nice venue. … But nonetheless, any space where people can meet can be a show.”
In other words, to paraphrase another fine songwriter, don’t mourn– organize. Knowing the Edmonton music scene, that shouldn’t be a problem.
The Elevation Room will be holding a love-filled farewell show this Wednesday, February 27 at 8 PM. Come out to sit on the stairs while The Joe, Doug Hoyer, Ghost Cousin and Tyler Butler sing their goodbyes. You will be reminded that there is more to living than just staying alive.
(Craig Martell quote courtesy of Keisha Armand)
Want to discover more about the mysterious inner workings of the Elevation Room? Check out my full interview with Doug Hoyer and Joe Gurba to hear about their favourite shows, the fantastic disaster that was the Christian Hansen show, and the political plans Joe had for the ER!