The little venue that could … and does

Ironwood owner Patrick MacIntyre has helped build Calgary’s live music community. PHOTOS: JARED SYCH

Keystone venue creates community cohesion serving up great music and food over 20 years after opening

It’s fitting that the Ironwood Stage and Grill is named after one of the strongest and most resilient trees in North America. From creating conflict internally within the music scene before it first opened in April, 2003, to closing, changing hands, and re-opening to changing hands again in September of 2006 and then moving a few blocks west from its original location (the building that currently houses The Blues Can) down 9 Ave. to the old Garry Theatre space in April of 2010, a lot of waves might have capsized this little venue that could. 

The recent pandemic, a minimum wage that has nearly tripled since The Ironwood first opened, and inflation have also imperiled the Ironwood.

Speaking with owner Pat MacIntyre from his office up winding stairs above the green room behind the stage, he reflects that since he purchased the name and fixtures in September 2006, he’s featured music almost every day except during the pandemic, when he offered music through the Iron Window series with musicians playing in the front window to appreciative listeners on 9 Ave.

MacIntyre purchased the business from Josh Marantz, who at the time managed Tom Phillips and the Men of Constant Sorrow.

MacIntyre knew Phillips from his time running King Henry VIII Pub on Stephen Avenue, which had thrived off the downtown lunch rush and happy hour until MacIntyre augmented the success by bringing in music in the evenings, even firing up pizza himself after the cook went home for the day. Phillips and the MOCS played most Saturday nights there for years.

“Fronting King Henry VIII, I wanted to get out of a bar that was mainly booze oriented.
I wanted to curate live, original music,” MacIntyre recalls. 

To that end, when he hired musicians, he encouraged them to play originals. They would ask, “So I can play one or two originals?” MacIntyre would tell them he wanted 80 per cent originals. Back in the days when many bands were human jukeboxes cranking out Bon Jovi covers, this was seldom done; Henry’s was a venue that helped smash that barrier. Original music now abounds, although the Ironwood is also renowned for musical nights celebrating Bob Dylan’s or Bruce Springsteen’s or Neil Young’s birthday; these tend to sell out quickly.

“When (the Ironwood) was going under, the place wasn’t worth a whole lot. The equipment was old, everything was old, the tables and chairs were pretty beaten up and shit.” MacIntyre heard stories of musicians from across the country showing up to a locked venue. “But, marketing wise (the owners) did do a decent job of letting Calgarians know that the Ironwood was a place to listen to music. So I decided to bite the bullet and pay a bit of a premium to keep the name and then figured, you know, because I’m so fucking charming (laughing), how I could smooth it over with
the musicians.

“That took a little time, but we got that done and then just opened with doing it seven days a week.” 

Since that time, the Ironwood has hosted a tremendous array of musicians, from beloved Alberta songwriters like Dave McCann, The Lovebullies and Richard Inman to travelers like Danny Michel, Dan Bern, Petunia and The Vipers, Balaklava Blues and of course, one of MacIntyre’s sweetest moments, Texas songwriter James McMurtry.

When it was time to move to the new venue at the Garry Theatre, it was literally a leap from a set in the old place to one in the new place. “So, April 13 of 2010 we were doing nine shows a week. And that’s when we moved down here. We did half a show up there and we got our final license which is the liquor licenses and got the band that was playing up there to walk down the street to here and everyone followed with a table and chair and JT had the stage all set for them and they walked in. Everyone followed us, put down their tables and chairs, and the band walked on the stage. And we didn’t stop for a lot of years.”

The original Ironwood was born from the ashes of Karma Local Arts House, located in what is now rebranded Marda Loop but was really on the Altadore side of 33 Ave. S.W. Founded by Lynne Thorimbert and Soren Borch and operating from 1998 to 2001, it also featured live original music seven nights a week. Karma treated songwriters as the gems they are, and had legends like Ian Tyson happily hosting songwriters’ circles there.

While Thorimbert and Borch sold the place and took off to beaches in Thailand for a while, by 2002 they were on the lookout for a live music venue. Thorimbert drove this writer to look at a run-down place called The Horseman’s Club in November of 2002 (there had been a previous Horseman’s Club in the ’80s in Erlton). It turns out Calgary songwriter Lorrie Matheson also had his eye on the place for the same reasons. Bad blood, now long since dried, erupted, and at least Matheson got some killer songs out of his anger (check out Shrug & Sigh from 2013’s The Night is
for Keepers).

Thorimbert and Borch opened the Ironwood at the location that is now The Blues Can in April, 2003. Many supporters of the project threw in their money (it was funded with a version of crowd sourcing before the term existed) and time (my husband Russ re-built parts of it and built the wine rack and bar, including placing those round transparent panels where lights shine through from below that are still there at The Blues Can). 

The first liquor license was in Holly Crawford’s name; at the time, they needed a “respectable” name on the liquor license, and she was an established well-site geologist who also happens to be my sister.

“The keg fridge here at Ironwood is the old beer fridge from Karma. I had it in my garage for a while,” MacIntyre says. “I had it on the stage and had a couple of student refrigeration guys turn it into a keg fridge. I had some old brass taps in the garage, too. I think that’s good karma to have that here.” Yep, literally.

The current Ironwood has become a miracle of community glue, from MacIntyre lobbying AGLC to allow children (the original Ironwood was non-smoking so minors could attend; Thorimbert insisted on that so my daughter, Samana, could continue to enjoy live music as she had at Karma from the time she was two years old).

“That’s what I wanted to do when I first opened. I was lobbying the AGLC to allow me to have kids here all the time,” MacIntyre says. It worked out.

“We have the School of Rock (a local business that provides music lessons for kids) and we’ve had the younger kids that came through here, and they played here in some of those Academy and Westwinds Big Bands and stuff like that, and now they’re in bands that play here. 

“One of the things I love about that is when the bands are coming in, I’m usually in the office doing something. And they’re all congregating at the bottom of the stairs and I’m not bragging or anything, but I hear them go (whispers), ‘Hey, hey, we’re playing the Ironwood!’ and what I take away from that is they feel like they’re playing a gig in a bar not in a gym eating those little triangular sandwiches. They feel like they’re playing a gig in a room with sound and not an echoey gymnasium … (And) the parents are happy to come and have a beer and a steak.” 

While being a keystone venue for superb music in Calgary is the Ironwood’s wheelhouse, the food is an elevated experience to match, without being fussy. Grazing through the menu you can enjoy calamari, fresh salads (always fresh – never a limp one in all these years), top sirloin cooked to perfection, jambalaya, and, the superstar smoked brisket sandwich called theSCENE, named after
this publication. 

“We’ve had floods. We’ve had a whole bunch of different things happen. You know, when I opened, I think minimum wage was $5.50, now it’s $15.00, that’s not a business model anybody works on, it went up by 300 per cent so that business model’s out the window. Rent went through the roof, and now we’re dealing with inflation, which is crippling. You can’t really raise your prices because the people that are coming out, the first thing they cut is their entertainment budget. So, it just seems to be one thing after another. COVID! But, through it all it’s been a lot of fun having live music every night.”

MacIntyre, who also counselled Winos (now closed), Mikey’s and The Blues Can on including high-quality food choices to augment the music, urges people to go out to any place that supports live music. 

“Instead of going to Earls where you’re sitting in a friggin’ chain restaurant where the music is just loud enough that the conversation is (strained) and it’s just cold enough that you’re not comfortable, and everything is geared towards entrées. And they have little shitty deserts and you just had your main course and you’re cold and tired of screaming over the music, and you have to leave (because) they’re turning over their tables, what I’d like people to do is come out and support a venue and a musician and give it a night and you probably won’t go back to the other way. 

“It’s a nice evening; come down, have a meal, chat with your significant other or your friend or group that you bring. When the music starts you listen to some great music, you’re getting served throughout, and you have a great evening together instead of staring at a screen, not saying a word.”

Opportunities to do just that are coming up with Richard Inman and Zachary Lucky playing Oct. 5, WIL on Octo. 8, and The Skydiggers Nov. 7 and 8.

Ironwood Stage and Grill is located at 1229 9 Ave. S.E. For more information,go to