by Craig Gilbert
If there had been live music at Cheers we might still all know Norm’s name.
In the face of all adversity or perhaps because of it, the Branch 31 of the Alberta Command of the Royal Canadian Legion has become arguably the hottest spot for live music for literally hundreds of treacherous elk-infested miles.
As in, if you disagree and you happen to be in the mountain town, get ready for an argument – a laid-back, chilled out macchiato of an argument with a 10-kilometre snowshoe hike somewhere in the middle.
In the last couple of years manager Sue Henderson has found a formula for keeping the Legion alive by, of all things, breathing life into it, and it’s almost all about music.
“Bands contact me, I don’t contact them,” she says. “So they want to come to Jasper, not just for the mountains, but because they want to play. They know the Legion is the place to play, because it’s more of an intimate show. You’re ‘with’ the band when they’re playing. It sounds like they’re playing to you.”
Henderson weaves the traditional with the contemporary in the hall that extends from the bar, with local beers flowing through new taps and lines, to the sitting area, where patrons can enjoy the pub-plus menu, and the dancefloor, which plays host to folk, rock, dance and drag shows on near equal measure.
Due north of the floor is the stage, which might have one of the coolest monikers in the country.
Welcome to the Stand Easy.
“Everybody just wants to play on our stage, because they hear good things about the Legion,” Henderson explained. “Their friends have played here. They’ll say ‘we’re going to B.C.,’ (and are told) ‘well, you have to play the Legion.’”
She whispers: “This is a great place.”
It was pretty good before she got there in August 2015. Legion president Ken Kuzminski was running a tight ship, one of the best rooms in Canada in the opinion of Juno winner Joey Landreth, who played the Legion most recently March 6 as part of a 12-show tour behind his new seven-track album.
“It’s a wonderful place,” the Winnipeg native said not far from Pearson in Toronto, his attempt to MacGyver a skateboard truck and wheel assembly to a piece of waning luggage interrupted. “They’ve built a really cool clientele. People know what to expect from the room, they come for the vibe as much as the music. They let the town vouch for them. Not every room in Canada has that. There are a lot of venues where it’s ‘Play something we know, monkey.’ Lots of places are like that. So it’s very special and unique when they kind of let you do your thing.”
Since August of 2015 Henderson has been cleaning and brightening, creating what must be one of the liveliest and most modern Legions in the Alberta command. Three new taps went in just weeks ago, as did some tall, dark and handsome additions to the house PA.
“I had to change some stuff up,” she recalled. “The place, when I arrived, felt very cold. There was nothing up to date. I put all the (gig) posters on the wall, got a big screen and changed the layout of the bar. It looked like a cafeteria in here (and) it’s nothing against the other managers, but I have background in, I guess, venue management (she ran a bar on CFB Borden in Ontario), and I wanted the visual to appeal to people when they walk in. If you don’t see it, you’re not going to stay.”
She added newer elements for younger vets from theatres such as Afghanistan, who weren’t around for the First World War, so they could relate.
The upgrades included another television in the back, where track-lit dartboards line the walls, surrounding pool and foosball tables, couches and chairs.
That second space has been used by outside parties in the past, and there are talks of it hosting a satellite campus for Grand Prairie Regional College’s culinary program (there are one or two hospitality-based businesses in Jasper if you’ve never been).
“I wanted to change the look of the Legion, that it’s not just a place for vets, it’s for everyone to come and relax and enjoy.”
There’s something unique about a resort town that attracts people from across the globe let alone this part of the country to work whatever job they can get (read stables, read dish pit, read cleaning ski boots, read cleaning) just to be near the Rockies. It creates an off-book talent pool that adds to the atmosphere here, an energy just esoteric enough to charm the tourists and add an appropriate level of mystic to the mountain town.
“Friday nights are the night,” Henderson explained. “Jam night starts a little later, but we have bands who travel from out of town, and just get on stage and sing a song. But the talent that is in these little stores – working at the liquor stores or CN, driving boats in the summertime, plumbers, firefighters – is unbelievable. They know there is one place they can come and get on that stage and they’re good.
“They are good.”
The Athabasca Barnburner and their brand of grassroots not-really-folk, not-really-rock has become synonymous with jam night at the Legion.
“We show up, and our beer is already poured,” member Liam Cullen said. “Any night I’m going to steer you toward the Legion because it’s the best venue in town and they accommodate whatever is happening – music, but other events like the meat draw… you know they do yoga sometimes?
“Everyone is so accommodating, the management. They’ve got local beers, beer from Valemount on tap. They treat us really well as musicians. We do lots of benefits and fundraisers and stuff like that trying to promote local music and they just treat us like gold.”
When Henderson took over the Legion was booking live music any day of the week. Henderson pared it down to Thursday and Saturdays with Fridays reserved for the jam.
“They kept kind of giving their jam night away to bands, so they jammers never knew when to come, so they stopped coming,” she explained. “I took over and we sat down and had a little meeting about the Legion and what it is. I very rarely put anything on a jam night because now my jam night guys know where to go on a Friday night.
“It makes me feel good. My husband asks me why don’t I take a Friday night off once in awhile? I can’t. Friday night is my favourite to be here because I get to see my jam guys. I’ve made friends with these guys and girls and when I see them on the street, they are important. They are awesome and they make the arts and music scene in this town just phenomenal.
Henderson calls it the Cheers treatment.
“I’m kind of like the momma bear to them,” she smiled. “I hear this from a lot of bands: they play a venue, and the staff don’t even talk to them. Well, they’re playing on our stage, and they’re people and I want to know them. They’re not just a singer or a guitar player, they’re somebody’s brother, or father. They have kids and a real job out there and I like to know what they do when they’re not travelling. When they come back the next time, they walk in and they’re like ‘Sue!’ We’re the Cheers of Jasper – we know your name.”