The Blue Jay Sessions spark excitement as live entertainment returns to Calgary
By Mackenzie Mason, Arts Editor
Live music is finally back in Calgary, starting at Mikey’s on 12th Avenue for the Blue Jay Sessions — a live event for country singers and songwriters to showcase their work and the stories behind it in an intimate setting. This year’s lineup of Blue Jays consist of local artists from Mariya Stokes to Aaron Pollock. Photos courtesy of Dan Clapson
COVID-19 has put the world on hold, which puts Calgary’s live music venues and restaurants in a tough spot. Dan Clapson, co-founder and creative director of Eat North, and Miraya Stokes and Devin Cooper, local country musicians, have all felt the effects COVID-19 has put on those in the entertainment industry.
But with a little social distancing and some plexiglass, live music is back at Mikey’s on 12th Avenue with the Blue Jay Sessions — a live event for country singers and songwriters to showcase their work and the stories behind it in an intimate setting.
In case you missed it, the COVID-19 pandemic is still alive and well, with Alberta accounting for the second highest rate of new cases, according to Maclean’s.
As of the end of August, Alberta surpassed 13,300 COVID-19 cases, and while the province’s overall numbers are going up slightly, Calgary has 214 fewer cases than the Edmonton zone, which has the most cases in the province.
The music and restaurant scene downtown were hit hard in March and April when Canada implemented physical distancing orders, forcing many restaurants and venues to reduce hours, lay off staff or even close completely.
Event organizers have also had to cancel or postpone events until 2021. This is precisely what Clapson and Eat North have had to do.
“(Eat North) does a lot of events primarily in the late spring and summer into the early fall, so it was quite jarring for us work-wise,” Clapson said.
“We were in Saskatoon getting events set up for the Juno Awards, and that got cancelled while we were there. You can sink a lot of money into an event before it happens so that wasn’t ideal.”
But that didn’t stop Clapson from giving artists a space to create and showcase their talent.
“When everything shut down, we immediately pivoted to a weekly virtual version of Blue Jay. We kept that format alive for the first three months of the pandemic, just giving musicians something to do and generating income for them,” he said.
“Even though it was of no profit to us, we still helped to stimulate the artist community with that. One of the most interesting things coming out of the pandemic for us was realizing how we can utilize live stream software in interesting ways.”
With musicians relying heavily on the income they make touring and performing live, Cooper was concerned about supporting himself without the hundreds of shows he does a year.
“Basically all of my income and everything I did was based around live touring, and not being able to play live has definitely had an impact on that,” Cooper said.
Despite the struggles, Cooper believes the pandemic has forced musicians to be creative and come up with different ways to find an income.
“I think it’s been a great opportunity to look at other ways to create a sustainable business without having to 100 per cent rely on live touring, whether it’s doing streaming shows, putting out videos or continuing to release music.”
The latter is something that has kept Cooper busy.
“(Quarantine) has given me a lot of time to work on new music, writing songs and recording,” he said.
“The past couple of years have been so busy on the road playing shows across Canada, so it’s actually been kind of nice to have a break to get reorganized on the business side of things.”
After two years without releasing a single, Cooper kicked things off again three weeks ago by releasing the country song, “Last Time Last.”
Cooper wasn’t always a country boy though, despite growing up in Innisfail, Alta.
“I started playing guitar when I was seven and grew up playing rock and blues. I went to college in Calgary, and that’s when I really started getting into country music,” Cooper said.
When asked about how he got into music, Cooper said he was always playing country music — he just didn’t realize it at the time.
“The music I played growing up was rock music with country lyrics, so when I started taking music a little more seriously, I realized that everything I was saying in my music was what was being said in country songs.”
Contrary to Cooper, country music was always a big part of Stokes’ life growing up.
“My parents owned the Stavely Hotel, which is the bar in my hometown, but I used to sit on the stairs outside of the bar room and watch all the bands come through town and once in a while they would let me sneak in and sing,” Stokes said.
“I ended up picking up a guitar when I was about 14. I was singing my whole life, but 14 is when I really got into songwriting and guitar and the rest is history. I moved to (Calgary) when I was 18 to pursue a career in music, quit my job when I was 20 and I’ve been doing this ever since.”
This was supposed to be the “biggest year yet” for her career as she was scheduled to release an album in the spring and go on a big promotional tour afterwards.
“Most of my shows and dates were cancelled which was tough, especially in the beginning, but things are starting to pick up now.”
“It’s still not the way that it was obviously, but it’s just nice to connect with people at a safe social distance,” she said, referencing her recent live performances at the King Eddy’s Alberta Country Music Series happening every Saturday night.
Though all have faced their hurdles during COVID, they’re ready to perform live again at Mikey’s on 12th Avenue in early September with the Blue Jay Sessions.
“The Blue Jay Sessions started almost a year ago now, and features three or four musicians that sit in a circle,” Clapson said.
“It’s called ‘a round’ in the country music world, and they take turns telling stories and singing songs. Sometimes you could hear a pin drop in the room because people are so invested in the actual music experience.”
Not only are the Blue Jay Sessions a captivating experience for those who attend, but it’s also a great experience for the musicians and songwriters.
“It’s an opportunity for us to play a lot of songs that haven’t seen the light of day yet, where we’ve written them but they’re not released or they’re not recorded, and (we) get to tell those stories behind the songs and how they are written,” Cooper said.
“Not every song is recorded and made to go on radio, so sometimes (we get to play) the slower ballads,” Cooper said in regards to the intimate, hear-a-pin-drop atmosphere that the songwriter rounds brings.
“The really cool thing about the Blue Jay Sessions is that when you come to watch them, you get a very different side of the musicians that are up there,” Stokes added.
“A lot of (musicians) do big, fast-paced full band shows and it’s all about energy and movement. But this one is really just about storytelling.”
“It’s very intimate and you really get an inside look as to who the artists are, how the songs were written and that whole process,” she said.
Though music lovers miss a tightly-packed, smaller venue like Oak Tree Tavern, the venue that housed the Blue Jay Sessions last year, safety has to come first at the moment.
Mikey’s has had time to adjust to COVID restrictions and now that Calgary has made masks mandatory, Calgarians can feel safer going out for a night on the town and enjoy some long-awaited live entertainment.
“We will still have singers sitting on stage in a semicircle, spaced out of course, and for the storytelling portion of the event they will sit and talk into the mic, but when it is their turn to sing they will walk to the side of the stage to perform their song,” Clapson said.
Tickets are being sold in advance for Sept. 2 to Sept. 4 by whole tables for you and your group, with proper social distancing measures put in place in the venue.
Don’t forget your mask, and have a root’n toot’n evening!