The Queen West rock block ain’t what it used to be. From the Queenshead turning into Tim Horton’s to Shopper’s Drug Mart annexing the Fun Haus to most of the purple paint being stripped off the eyesore that once was The Big Bop, the Queen and Bathurst area has lost a lot of its venues in the past couple years. Even places like Savage Garden and the Rok Boutique have changed hands–but still seem to be serving their original purpose–as the shadow of the Queen & Portland condo development looms larger every day.
But in the face of all the gentrification and redevelopment in the area, one rock bar still rears it’s ugly head: the Bovine Sex Club, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary with a month-long bender. I went in there for the first time in forever last weekend to see Bongtrealers Barn Burner and Hamilton’s finest Monster Truck, and not much has changed. The place is still about as wide as a hallway, with the stage a few paces from the front door and the walls and ceiling decorated with Christmas lites, old bicycles and stickers from the various artists who’ve performed there. The place still caters to heavy rock and punk bands, although the iPod always seems to be playing rap and other strange music. Doors are always at 9, but don’t bother showing up before 10 if you’re only there for the live music. Do show up early if you like to get sloshed on four-dollar Bohemian. They became a “Molson-only” bar along with the rest of Queen St a couple years back, but still serve the cheap stuff. (They now serve PBR, everyone’s favourite cheap hipster swill, as well.)
I used to frequent the Bovine quite regularly back in ’06-’08, before the local stoner rock scene began to burn out and fade away. Bands like Diablo Red, Sin Dealer, Nice Cat, Electric Magma, Mister Bones/Georgian Skull and Lodown had me coming out to the ol’ Sweatbox every so often, to the point where the two brunette bartenders knew my face, if not my name. (Neither of them work there anymore, it seems, as there were new faces behind the bar last Thursday.) I can remember when they still served Blue and had Jagermeister on tap, and even when they’d show Hockey Night in Canada on their old, beat-up TVs on Saturdays. They’ve since become known for showing some crazy videos behind the bar, though they only had one Claymation short and a Suspect Video promo reel playing between the four screens on my last visit.
Mind you, I’ve never been a big fan of the place. Although they’d usually get good crowds on weekends, most of the people weren’t there to pay any attention to the bands on stage, and as such, they implemented a policy to end every show by midnite unless there was somebody popular playing. On the plus side, it got rid of the bloated clusterfuck bills I’d been accustomed to, giving way to streamlined, two- or three-band lineups, and got me home at a decent hour. Most of the “regulars” wouldn’t show up till after the music died, and if they mistimed their entrance, they usually waltzed in without paying. (Not that any of these bands were in it for the money, but it kinda sucks to have people see you for free when they’re not on anybody’s guestlist–especially when you need gas to get back to London/Windsor/Hamilton or wherever.)
Alas, since the dawn of the new decade, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been back to the Bovine–well, if not on one hand, then at least on both. Somehow, I don’t think that place misses me too much. After all, I always drank the cheapest, shittiest beer they had, and never left more than a dollar tip. That being said, I have seen some memorable shows at the BSC these past few years. Here’s my Top Five:
5. Brant Bjork and the Bros @ NXNE, June 18, 2010: Brant Bjork’s been a North by Northeast staple for several years. Used to be, he’d always play the ElMo on a Thursday or Friday nite and a late, late-nite gig at the Bovine on Saturday, taking the stage at 2 am. But I guess he’s mellowed out in his old age (Gods and Goddesses being a prime example), as he switched things up last year by playing a 7 pm gig outside on Thursday at Yonge Dundas Square, then taking the Sex Club stage at midnite on Friday. (I didn’t even hafta line up to get in this time around.) There’s just something special about seeing a stoner rock luminary in such a small space that makes me mark it on my event calendar every year. Although I usually prefer the annual ElMo gig, his band was a lot tighter at the Bovine last year vs. the outdoor performance, and the mood inside was electric.
4. Anvil, April 19, 2008: The Story of Anvil had just screened at HotDocs two days prior and this gig was my first indication that Anvil wasn’t the same band I’d seen several times at the Kathedral/Reverb/Metal Bar playing to 25 people at 2 am. The ol’ Sweatbox was packed to the tits, and they had to bring their security guys inside to prevent people from moshing. It was also the first Anvil gig I’d seen where they didn’t play “Smokin’ Green,” which seems to have been permanently dropped from their set. Seems that their US management doesn’t want them promoting illicit drug use–though they still play “White Rhino” nite after nite after nite. (I guess the brass has yet to catch on…)
3. Bison B.C. @ CMW, March 12, 2010: The closure of the Big Bop a couple months beforehand forced the two major North American metal labels to find alternate venues for their showcases at CMW. Roadrunner was just up the street at the Hideout with its latest batch of karate-chopping metalcore bands, while Metal Blade used the BSC to showcase its Canadian talent, namely Aeternam, Barn Burner and Bison B.C.. I’d been making my rounds earlier in the evening, criss-crossing the downtown core in search of heavy rock, so when I showed up at the Bovine, the line was already quite lengthy. I caught Barn Burner’s set through the walls of the venue, only to be let in a good 30 seconds before Bison started their stampede. My timing was impeccable, and the East Van bangers put on one helluvaset!
2. Youth Brigade @ NXNE, June 18, 2009: Another festival gig, the Sterns were in town for a screening of Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records. They later played an outdoor gig in the Square, which was memorable in its own right, but their 2 am performance on a Thursday nite takes the cake. I had just stumbled across the street from a Forgotten Rebels gig at a nine-tenths-empty Reverb, and was let in within 15 minutes to a hot, sweaty mess. Downing Canadian beers by the fistful, Shawn Stern led the band through a ballbustin’ set, culminating in a rousing, crowd-aided “Sink with California.” When a fan tried to jump the barrier at Yonge and Dundas, the results were much different than they were on this nite, as an open invitation was made to come up on stage for the grand finale. It was great watching 25 years of hardcore history in the flesh, a gig I won’t soon forget.
1. Mister Bones/Electric Magma/Nice Cat, December 2006: This remains one of my favourite local gigs, period. Three of the area’s finest heavy rock bands on one bill, with a solid helping of killer tuneage in between, everything from Witch to “Dragonaut.” When the music between sets meshes perfectly with the bands on the stage, it makes the evening that much better for the fans in attendance. The Magma guys later told me that they supplied the tuneage, so I can’t give the venue any credit, but it was still a great gig.
Feel free to share any Bovine memories by leaving a comment below.
P.S.: The Bovine is always one of the go-to spots for heavy rock during Canadian Music Week, as I bring you my CMW preview on Smokin’ Green tonite. Get yer pens and paper ready, and tune in from 1 till 3 am at 88.1 on yer radio, channel 947 on yer TV or www.ckln.fm on yer computer! Playlist and podcast posted over here afterwards.