Will Victoria ever see another venue like the legendary Harpo’s?

There was a poignant throwback moment during one of Pearl Jam’s recent shows in Vancouver when Eddie Vedder gave a shout-out to a legendary Victoria venue.

The lead singer of the legendary grunge band recalled how the fledgling group played Harpo’s Cabaret in the early 1990s, and added that he used to swap postcards with Gary Van Buskirk, one of the venue’s bookers.

Harpo’s closed in 1995, but fans — and, clearly, musicians like Vedder — still reminisce about the shows they saw and played there. 

So what made Harpo’s so special? And can anything these days compete? 

The CBC podcast This is Vancouver Island asked local music and festival director Oliver Swain to weigh in. He’s not old enough to have gone to shows at Harpo’s himself — but he does remember hanging around outside as a teenager, hoping to catch some of the magic happening inside.

The magic of Harpo’s

A lot of that magic was down to Van Buskirk and fellow booker Marcus Pollard.

“Gary and Marcus were just visionary programmers and they were really, really diverse in their programming strategy,” said Swain. 

The early 1990s also happened to be a particularly vibrant time for music on the West Coast. 

Consider some of the musicians who played Harpo’s: Pearl Jam (when they were called Mookie Blaylock), Alice in Chains, No Doubt and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Cultural shift

Swain said there’s been a cultural shift away from venues like Harpo’s, where people would go to listen to live music and to dance. 

“Now, a lot of that is the realm of DJ’s,” said Swain. 

However, because live music is more rare, Swain argues, it’s also more appreciated. 

When people go to see a band, he said, it’s like taking in fine art.

“I think it’s actually created a great situation for bands who are wanting to connect really specifically with their audience, and create [a] kind of special relationship.” 

A young caucasian man with a mustache and long brown hair is sitting outdoors. Wearing jeans and a linen blazer, he is looking off into the distance.
Oliver Swain is a musican and the artistic director of the Seaside Music Festival and co-director of The Village Choir. (submitted by Oliver Swain )

While Swain acknowledged that cultural and economic shifts have led to some venues closing in Greater Victoria, he said there are still plenty of opportunities to see great shows at places like the Victoria Event Centre, Hermann’s Jazz Club and the record store Vinyl Envy.

He said the intimacy of smaller venues can make shows even better. 

“There’s a huge amount of diversity out there, and the talent is incredible and the experiences are so much more like high fidelity emotional experiences,” said Swain. 

He said those experiences are heightened when you start going to shows regularly enough that you get to know fellow music lovers.

“That kind of richness from the community … it’s unbeatable in the arts world, in my mind,” said Swain. 

For more, check out the latest episode of This is Vancouver Island: 

17:19What would a dream music venue look like in Victoria?

Longtime music fans were thrilled recently when Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder shouted out a legendary Victoria music venue. Harpo’s Cabaret closed in 1995, but fans still reminisce about shows they saw there. So what made Harpo’s so special? And what would the ideal music venue look like in 2024? We ask local musician, and Seaside Music Festival artistic director, Oliver Swain. 

Islanders, this is a podcast for you. Life on Vancouver Island isn’t all sunset strolls and forest bathing — it can be frustrating, isolating and expensive. We’re going to talk about the good, the bad and everything in between. Hosted by Kathryn Marlow, every Tuesday.

Tune into This is Vancouver Island every Tuesday on CBC Listen or wherever you get your podcasts.


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