West End Cultural Centre celebrates 25th anniversary

Winnipeg’s most intimate venue throws itself a birthday party

WECC artistic director Jason Hooper (left) is excited about the venue’s 25th anniversary concert, which features local musicians like Lorenzo (top right), Cara Luft (middle right) and Vanessa Kuzina (bottom right). Daniel Crump
WECC’s 25th anniversary concert features local musicians like Lorenzo. Supplied
WECC’s 25th anniversary concert features local musicians like Cara Luft. Supplied
WECC’s 25th anniversary concert features local musicians like Vanessa Kuzina. Supplied

Twenty-five years ago saw the formation of bands such as Nirvana, The Odds, Fugazi, Green Day, Uncle Tupelo, The Roots and countless others.

Some of them didn’t make it out of the ‘90s and most of them never played the West End Cultural Centre, the former church on the corner of Ellice and Sherbrook that opened its doors as a music venue in 1987.

To celebrate, the WECC is presenting a slew of shows as part of its 25th Anniversary Series. The show on Saturday, Oct. 20 is especially noteworthy. Consisting of 16 musicians covering the music of such Winnipeg greats as Neil Young, Lloyd Peterson and Alana Levandoski, it’s going to be one of those collaborative, ephemeral nights.

“We looked at our motto for the year, which is ‘25 years of great music, culture and community’ and how best to put those words into action,” artistic director Jason Hooper says. “There are so many great musicians in Winnipeg, how do you narrow that down? Who wants that job? Why not get as many together as we can and see if there’s interest in collaboration?”

Winnipeg being Winnipeg, there was, and such artists as Jessee Havey and Lorenzo, Keri Latimer and Red Moon Road, and JD Edwards and Cara Luft were paired to work on songs from the “Manitoba Songwriter’s Canon.”

“It was such an honour to be asked to take part,” says Luft, who just released her first self-produced disc Darlingford. “I have the honour of being paired with JD Edwards, and it’s been so much fun, just getting together and choosing the songs and singing in harmony.

“As a solo act I don’t get to sing all that often with other musicians, so it’s been an absolute treat.”

Though the song list hasn’t been finalized (that’s a surprise for the evening itself), Hooper is excited about what everyone has chosen.

“I’m really pleased with the selection,” he says. “I love having (musician/producer) Lloyd Peterson involved because he was in the Cheer, and they opened for Spirit of the West at the first-ever performance at the West End Cultural Centre 25 years ago. It’s great to have him be a part of it.”

It had such magic, and still does.

Local musician Vanessa Kuzina on the West End Cultural Centre

Another performer involved in the evening is Vanessa Kuzina, an artist known for both her solo work and her material with Oh My Darling.

Paired for the evening with Heather Bishop, it’s not the first time she’s hit the stage at the WECC. Kuzina released her first solo disc, Peony, there in 2007.

“I remember being so excited and nervous at the idea of being on that stage showcasing my songs for the first time,” Kuzina says. “It was before the renovation and I am thankful that I had the opportunity to experience the theatre how it was. It had such magic, and still does.”
Luft agrees.

“All of my CD release shows have been at the West End, both solo and back in my Wailin’ Jennys days,” shesays. “They were all amazing concerts - such a great vibe. As an audience member, there was a Christmas show that Jane Siberry did back in 2003. I was sitting on the floor up front and I remember the evening being quite magical.

“I ended up driving Jane to get pizza after the show.”

Hooper also has a collection of favourite moments, most of them before his time at the WECC, which began in 2009 when he became the house manager after the renovation.

“The first time I saw the Cowboy Junkies was here,” he says. “I was kind of a casual fan and seeing them in such an intimate space really brought home the power of a live show. With that intimate and quiet sound it was a really moving evening for me.

“Most recently, probably last year when the Wooden Sky played with Sunparlour Players, it was my first time seeing them, (and I was an) instant fan. The Wooden Sky are just such phenomenal performers.”

It seems that whether they’re working behind the scenes, performing on the stage or sitting in the audience, the West End is simply a place for music lovers to come together and enjoy a unique night.

“It was always the place that I could count on seeing really good music of any genre as well as emerging and local artists,” Hooper says. “Really top-calibre people that were really strong musicians and songwriters, and even if they were just starting out, there was a chance you were going to see something really good.”

Published in Volume 67, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 17, 2012)

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