After many months of fine-tuning, Ottawa’s newest live music venue is finally ready to drop.
“We’re hoping Tuesday,” Geoff Cass, owner of Red Bird Live, said in an interview at his business located on Bank Street in Old Ottawa South.
The place could double as a comfy living room with its soft loveseats, Persian-style rugs, funky light fixture and surrounding walls painted in velvety deep shades of tucson teal and royal purple. Its centrepiece is a large stage equipped with top-of-the-line sound and lighting systems from Ottawa Special Events.
“I just can’t wait to open the doors, to tell you the truth,” said Cass enthusiastically.
Red Bird Live has three revenue streams. Along with the live music venue, there are five small teaching rooms for private or semi-private music lessons in piano, guitar, drums, voice and other instruments.
"Our challenge for the next little while will be to establish ourselves as a music venue that also has drinks, as opposed to a bar that has music."
As well, the new centre has its own licensed café, spruced up with photographic art by award-winning Andrew Wright from his Tree Corrections series. The café has partnered with Almonte-based Equator Coffee.
“Our challenge for the next little while will be to establish ourselves as a music venue that also has drinks, as opposed to a bar that has music,” said Cass, whose plans include open-stage nights, jam sessions, family-friendly gatherings and evening shows featuring performances by folk and Americana artists.
There will be an emphasis on local bands as well as attracting touring artists to Red Bird Live for more intimate shows.
“We’re obviously not going to be booking punk bands; we’ll leave that to House of TARG,” he remarked of the alternative live music venue just up the road.
Cass has hired close to 20 part-time staff from the music industry.
“One of my goals was to give musicians a place to spend as much time as they want teaching, playing, working and creating an income for themselves that allows them to pursue their music. That’s really important to me because, over the pandemic, they’ve lost all of that. I want them to have a landing spot here.”
The 45-year-old married father of twins said he was on the receiving end of “tons of support” from the community when it came to turning what was formerly an axe- and knife-throwing venue into Red Bird Live. Friends and neighbours from Old Ottawa East and Old Ottawa South, as well as Wellington Village and other areas, got involved.
“The support was unbelievable,” he said. “I’m really very fortunate for sure.
“I don’t know how we’re going to fit everybody in for our volunteer night. There have been so many people out painting, assembling furniture, building walls. It’s been unreal, it’s been really great, and the excitement is amazing.”
Cass has one volunteer named Scott who learned about the Red Bird Live project on Facebook. “He has been here just about every single day, installing ceiling tiles, insulating walls, building the stage. He’s retired, and he wants to be a part of this. Sometimes he’s here before I am, just working away.”
Cass got the idea for Red Bird Live after COVID-19 hit in 2020, wreaking havoc on his career. He had worked for eight-plus years as a director at Dovercourt Recreation Centre and ran the Bluesfest School of Music and Arts, both of which were affected by the pandemic.
“When one door closes, another one opens,” said Cass, who also plays guitar and sings in the local folk and alt-country band Gentlemen of the Woods. “I had always dreamed of Ottawa having a place like this because it’s so badly needed.”
Cass said his intention is to “complement the music scene” and not compete with other venues. His new business has a strong environmentally friendly focus, from compostable everything to chemical-free commercially graded cleaning solutions.
Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, views Red Bird Live as more than a new live music venue.
“It’s a clear indicator that this sector, all but eviscerated for the last two years, can and will come back,” Benjamin, who’s also a board member with the Ottawa Board of Trade and Ottawa Film Commission, told OBJ.
'Music brings us together'
“Geoff Cass is helping to lead what I predict will be an electrifying resurgence of live music activity across Ottawa and around the globe, because he knows what many of us do – music brings us together. Let’s face it, we’ve never needed that more than we do today.”
Launching Red Bird Live has not been without its headaches.
First, there was the financial risk. Cass borrowed money through the Canadian Small Business Financing Loan. Then, there were the delays and the unexpected. Because Cass wanted to increase his maximum crowd capacity from 30 to 100, he needed to upgrade the HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems in his new space.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life for so long,” Cass acknowledged, comparing the experience of opening his business to a stressful home renovation. “The worst thing you can ask anybody is, ‘How is your renovation going?’ because it’s never going well and there’s always this, that and the other thing.
“That was really hard, throughout the summer, when everyone was going, ‘How’s it going? How’s it going?’ and I was trying to stay positive,” said Cass, who credited his wife, Nicole, for keeping him focused and on track.
“I don’t know where I’d be without her. There have been challenges, for sure, but seeing it now is just really exciting. I know the community is super behind it and ready to roll.”