Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Wheel Club

I've been meaning to post about this place for a loooong time, and a recent visit (after a 6-year gap) has provided just the right impetus.

Discretely located on Cavendish blvd. just south of Sherbrooke St. West, in NDG, The Wheel is a private club which graciously opens its doors to curious, country-lovin' non-members every Monday evening for its weekly Hillbilly night. Doors at 8, Fun 'til 1. And getting there at 8 is a must if you want to snag a table. This place is packed with old timers, twenty-somethings and everyone in-between who come through these doors in search of a unique, authentic experience that helps you forget you're in a modern mega-city and it's -20 outside.

Part '70s rec-room, part Legion, with wood-paneling and checkered tablecloths galore, The Wheel Club is tucked away in the basement of an otherwise unremarkable building, and is like nothing I've ever experienced before. Created over 40 years ago by local old-time country music legend Bob Fuller, Hillbilly night gives musicians and music fans - amateur or not - a place to converge and enjoy the experience of playing music, talking and dancing together in a place that feels like their own.

The Wheel has a house band, backed by Fuller on upright bass, that will cover all manner of old-time country music - bluegrass, honky tonk, hillbilly, etc. - but with one caveat: the cut-off date is 1965. (After that, things started getting a bit glamorous*). Note the absence of a drum-kit, in true keeping with the purist's preference for a bass-driven rhythm section.

Monday night is also open mic night, and anyone with a song to sign is welcome behind the wagon wheels to give it a whirl. Many local players on Montreal's alt-country music scene cut their teeth at the Wheel. It's a safe and welcoming place to get a feel for playing in front of an audience that doesn't seem to mind if you sing a bit flat until you work the kinks out. This is no place for show-offs.

Any feelings we may have had of crashing someone else's party were quickly dispelled by the friendly atmosphere, despite being among the very few first-timers there. Even the hipsters sitting at the table next to us, to their credit and with fiddle in hand, were obviously there to play some music. I was envious of their ability to mingle through the crowd of regulars, knowing several by name, and of having a place to regularly come to that feels like a small-town home away from home. That's a rather precious thing in a sometimes alienating city.

One highlight is the snack bar, where you can buy a basket of munchies, including cheezies, chips, popcorn, and pretzels, to go with your draft beer. I remember a combination Dad's cookies/popcorn basket on my first visit in 2003. I also like the personal-sized pitchers. Perfect for the ladies.

Another bonus is the raffle. We didn't stick around late enough to take part this time (I think the draw is at 12:30), but last time, tickets were sold at about 10:30, and at the time of the draw, a couple briefcases were brought out to the front of the stage area. Inside were the prizes: your choice among dozens of mix-tapes of old-time country music from Bob Fuller's massive collection of 45s. It doesn't get much homier than that.

If getting there from my north-end neighborhood wasn't such a pain in the butt (count on at least one-hour travel time by multiple modes of transit), I'd be there way more often (they have a Sunday dart league! /sigh). Friends with cars are good, but then you have to draw straws over who stays sober. At any rate, folks in NDG have a good thing going. Here's hoping it'll stay around long after the old timers get a bit too long in the tooth to shake a leg.

For a more in-depth look at The Wheel Club, see Craig Morrison's site, Montreal's Roots Music Scene

The Wheel Club
3373 Cavendish Blvd.
Directions here.

*Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, image from The Porter Wagoner Show, c. 1967

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