After years of successfully creating music programming for Bluesfest's Music School, Geoff Cass decided the time was right to get into the game for himself.
So, this week, he opens Red Bird Live, a combination concert stage, licensed cafe and music school at 1165 Bank street in Ottawa South in what used to be an axe-throwing pub.
Decorated in a cool sixties vibe reminiscent of Ottawa's coffeehouse era, Red Bird Live is a retro cafe bar and photo gallery in the front, a 100-seat stage area in the middle, and studios for private music lessons in the back. Outfitted with state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment, it's the right size for singer-songwriters and storytelling artists, like Kathleen Edwards, Danny Michel, or Amanda Rheaume, to perform in. It would also be perfect for jazz.
In addition to regular concerts, Cass has a furnished the space with musical instruments so that patrons can meet, improvise, play along and — perhaps — for their own band to use.
“This is a big risk, for sure,” Cass, 45, says during a break in a staff meeting “I was ready to do something on my own when the pandemic hit. Opening a live music venue during a pandemic is incredibly risky. COVID-19 hit the industry hard, but after the experience I've had programming the Bluesfest Music School, I knew this was the right time for me.”
Until recently, Cass taught Environmental and Recreation Education for 10 years before moving to Dovercourt Community Centre where, as the program director, he spearheaded camps and after-school programs and Bluesfest's School of Music and Art until the pandemic in 2020 triggered layoffs.
“Teaching was a lot of fun but I moved from teaching to managing the music centre pretty quickly,” he says. “I really took to it. We started the Bluesfest music program with nobody and worked our way up to a really good roster of students and became an important part of the community. I want to do the same here. I'm a better administrator than teacher at this point. I very much like running a business.”
Fortunately, Cass was working with one of the sharpest people in the concert business, Bluesfest's CEO Mark Monahan, who was there to help guide him through the initial planning stages.
“He was very supportive of this idea,” Cass remembers. “He said, 'You can't run a club on its own. They don't make money.' My job now is to program the room, give people really good reasons to be here, and take away as many financial barriers as I possible can,” he adds. “The key is to make Red Bird a great experience from start to finish, keep it affordable and making sure people know about it through marketing.”
Red Bird Live opens this week with live music, and already has a number of music students lined up for lessons.
“I started dreaming of a space where people could learn to play and enjoy music,” he says. “What brings me comfort is I have three complementary businesses under one roof. Each one feeds the other really well and will give me a much better chance of surviving.”
“It's going to be a venue first that happens to serve beer and wine, rather than a bar that has music playing in the corner.”
“I have the support of the community,” he adds. “The Glebe and Ottawa South loves independent businesses that work with them and for them. I'm not here to step on anyone's toes. I'm here to complement the music scene.”
Raised in Toronto, Cass moved to Ottawa 25 years ago for school and never left. Married to wife Nicole and with 13-year old twins, he says opening the venue was a family decision.
“It was a big decision for all of us. The kids think it's cool, and Nicole's very supportive. Without her willingness to do this, Red Bird wouldn't have happened.”