This year marks the 35th anniversary of Louis’ Pub, the University of Saskatchewan’s venerable student hangout. However, beyond simply being a longtime watering hole for students, Louis’ is also one of Saskatoon’s most storied and highly-regarded concert venues.
Originally opened as Louis’ Hangout in 1981, the venue — named after Canada’s love-him-or-hate-him founding father Louis Riel — has obviously seen its share of changes over the years. Articles in the Sheaf from the venue’s salad days lament the “ugly historical decor,” while praising the $2.10 bottled beer. Some change is good, some not so much. Among one of the things that has remained consistent, however, is a propensity to bring great shows to town.
While you might not know it when having a post-exam beer or stopping by for lunch, Louis’ has created and continues to live up to a raucous legacy of live music. Assistant manager Dan Smolinski understands fromexperience the importance of bringing crowd-pleasing musical acts to the campus.
“The first show I ever went to was at Louis’ in 1998,” Smolinski said, in an email to the Sheaf. “I’d just gotten my driver’s licence, and my friends and I drove from my hometown to Saskatoon to see Reel Big Fish play. That was one of the best nights of my life and I use that night as a constant reminder that we are responsible for building lasting memories for students.”
When it comes to choosing acts to play Louis’, Smolinski notes the process is fairly intuitive.
“The student demographic is always the most important factor in deciding the acts we bring in to Louis’,” Smolinski said. “We work together closely with other schools and national university programmers to monitor trends in student activities and entertainment.”
The booking staff have historically done an impressive job at keeping up with these trends too, hosting bands from all walks of life — from contemporary international acts like Blitzen Trapper and Tokyo Police Club, to national treasures like Alexisonfire, Joel Plaskett and Propagandhi, to underground legends like Dinosaur Jr., the Melvins and Pixies frontman Frank Black.
While touring acts obviously do very well at the venue, sometimes talent also comes from within. Local ambient instrumental group The Basement Paintings — who recently completed a 10 date tour of eastern Canada — celebrated the release of their latest album Mystic with a show at Louis’ on Mar. 5. Bassist Justin Thompson and guitarist Paul Hillacre both spoke positively about the experience.
“Louis’ was probably one of the best experiences we’ve had anywhere,” Thompson said.
Hillacre also had kind things to say, noting the venue’s optimal size.
“It’s almost the size of venue that our music is catered towards,” Hillacre said. “We need it to be kind of pounding and have fairly high fidelity hearing of the other people in the band.”
For The Basement Paintings, playing a venue the size of Louis’ was somewhat of an accomplishment.
“We’ve kind of just gone back and forth between Vangelis and Amigos,” Hillacre said.
Likewise, Thompson agrees about a size hierarchy when it comes to local venues.
“It’s probably a pretty steady scale up the chain,” Thompson said.
They aren’t wrong, either. Louis’ seems to be in a league of its own when it comes to club style venues in Saskatoon. While the aforementioned Vangelis and Amigos fill up at 170 and 300 people, respectively, and the Capitol Music Club at 290, Louis’ can accommodate an impressive 579.
“It seems to be kind of hard to bridge that gap between Amigos and Louis’,” Thompson said. “We only did it by really pumping our release show.”
From there, the next step would seemingly be O’Brians Event Centre, which can hold up to 1000 people and would almost certainly price out most local acts. As such, Louis’ seems to fill a certain gap in the city.
When asked about shows they’ve attended at Louis’ as audience members, both Hillacre and Thompson had good memories to share.
“I’ve actually only seen I think two shows there, but they were both awesome. I went to Phantogram, and that was one of the best shows I’ve been to,” Hillacre said. “Louis’ has a really cool vibe for sure.”
Thompson agrees about the venue and its qualities.
“I saw the Melvins there — that was pretty dope,” Thompson said. “I honestly kind of wish they booked more music there, because the vibe is sweet and it sounds good.”
From drone music to Sloan music, Jay Ferguson, guitarist for Canadian indie rock veterans Sloan speaks fondly about his innumerable performances at Louis’. The band, who in Ferguson’s own estimation have playedLouis’ 15 to 20 times, have been appearing on the Louis’ stage for nearly a quarter of a century.
“I think we can tell how long we’ve been playing there because every time we would go there, you’d go into the dressing room and there’s all those signed photos that are on the walls. There’s singed photos of us from 1993-94,” Ferguson said. “I would put Louis’ as one of the more pleasurable university bars/pubs to play at for sure.”
When asked what the appeal of the venue has been over the years, Ferguson cites a variety of pleasant aspects.
“We always sort of joke that the lower the ceiling, the more exciting the show. Louis’ is downstairs and you have a relatively low ceiling compared to a lot of venues,” Ferguson said. “There’s not a big barrier between the audience and the band and I find those make for more exciting shows.”
Interestingly enough, the U of S campus — familiar to most students as a snowy, muddy hellhole — is also among Ferguson’s favourite aspects of playing Louis’.
“I also find it’s nice landing on a nice campus,” Ferguson said. “This is almost embarrassing, but we would bring croquet sets or bocce along to amuse ourselves on tour. There’s a nice patch of grass that’s near and we can set up and play sports and hang out outside, or read. I find it’s a really nice campus to pull up and hang, and it’s low key. I always look forward to going there.”
Musicians aren’t the only ones to have kind words to say about the venue and the talent it brings to town. As someone who bangs his head from time to time and has opened up a pit or two in his day, I can certainly say from experience that the energy at a Louis’ show can run high.
Jessica Klaassen-Wright, a fourth-year English major, also has fond memories at Louis’ to speak of.
“I went to see Blitzen Trapper, which is one of my favourite bands, so the experience was fantastic because of that,” Klaassen-Wright said. “The sound was really good as well, which I find doesn’t often happen in some of the places I go to in Saskatoon.”
Braden Bessel, a third-year renewable resource management student, also recalls a memorable night at the venue.
“The first show I went to I think I was 16. I saw Ra Ra Riot and Wintersleep,” Bessel said. “Ra Ra Riot ended up being one of my favourite bands for quite a few years after that because of the show — I went for
Bessel also appreciated the lower level dance floor at Louis’.
“I think it’s a good set up actually. If there’s people who want to get down and start dancing or maybe moshing, they’re allowed to, but if you don’t want to there’s still lots of viewing space where you don’t have to necessarily be in the middle of everything so you can still sit back and enjoy,” Bessel said.
For Jeremy Britz, a third-year visual arts major, Louis’ provided a rare opportunity to see a favourite band.
“I saw Tiger Army with the Unseen back in 2008,” Britz said. “I remember it was a really good experience because Tiger Army was one of those bands that just doesn’t really come around here often, so to get to see them was pretty sweet.”
Like Bessel, Britz liked the separate lower dance floor.
“Louis’ was a good venue for [the show] too. I think a lot of people complain about how it’s set up and how it’s tight in there but I think that’s really good for a punk show,” Britz said.
A testament to the venue’s ability to book strong talent can be found by looking at how many bands have grown in popularity after playing Louis’ earlier in their careers.
“What’s interesting about Louis’ is that it was probably the place where your favourite stadium/arena grade band used to play before they really made it big,” Smolinski said. “Nickelback, AFI, Green Day, Billy Talent,
Tegan And Sara and Metric were all gracing the Louis’ stage not more than a decade or two ago,” Smolinski said.
Speaking to Smolinski’s observation, it’s worth noting that April 2016 alone will see three Louis’ alumni bands — Death From Above 1979, Pop Evil and Sloan — returning to Saskatoon and playing different venues. Regarding Sloan’s venue change, Ferguson offered optimistic disappointment.
“I guess it’s fun to try a new venue, but I’ll miss our game of bocce on the lawn near Louis’,” Ferguson said.
Decades after opening its doors, Louis’ continues to be one of Saskatoon’s most exciting music venues and Smolinski promises no end in sight as he plans 35th anniversary celebrations. For fans of rock, metal, hip-hop, punk, country or all of the above, Louis’ continues to have you covered, and if you’ve never been to a show there, maybe 2016 is your year.
University of Saskatchewan Archives & Special Collections / The Sheaf / September 18, 1997
Supplied / The Basement Paintings
Supplied / Ryan Jackson