Canadian music’s next generation finds a home

By Nick Pearce
Kingston’s up-and-comers and hidden gems talk live shows and community.

The state of Kingston’s local music scene is a preview of the Junos a few years later — this city sets the course for Canadian music, year-in and year-out.
The Limestone City isn’t just known for its prisons and its university — this is where Bryan Adams was born, and Gord Downie strummed his first guitar. Any given night, there’s enough up-and-coming live shows in a three block radius to guarantee a pub-crawl.

The Wilderness

One of those bands is The Wilderness, who formed three years ago in the cramped doorway of a café following an open mic night. The band’s spent years hopping between the city’s pubs before piling into a van and crisscrossing North America.

Despite all the traction, their lead singer, Jonas Lewis-Anthony couldn’t play at their last show: the crowd had put down their beers to sing the bridge to The Wilderness’ “81 South”.

“I had to stop playing. I just said, ‘you guys do this. This is the best moment of my life.’”

Written while Lewis-Anthony was completely “miserable” on tour in Atlanta, the song is the final track on the band’s debut album. “81 South” and the other tunes making up Saxton’s River are the kind of danceable anthems that soundtrack break-ups and road trips in equal measure.

The band channels all that urgency into their live-show, putting on concerts that add up to three-hour marathon sessions for bar crowds. In these shows, the band pushes itself to match the crowd’s energy as keyboard player Liam Neale makes improvised percussion solos on everything from bar stools to empty kegs to Lewis-Anthony’s chest.

In moments like this, a local band starts to climb to the next level of their career.

“Maybe we’re big fishes in small ponds,” Lewis-Anthony said. “But when you see bands do good things in Kingston and start [to] take them way further, it gives you that sense, ‘It’s totally achievable.’”


That extends to stadium shows at the K-Rock Centre, where local band and Juno winners The Glorious Sons headlined their hometown arena for the first time.

In that show, local openers Kasador didn’t seem too far behind.  Formed at Queen’s University, the band offers powerfully relatable stories told over melodic, radio-ready choruses.

For one, their latest single, “Skelton Park”, takes its name from a local park but throws it together with an earworm hook that the audience picks up on close to immediately. It’s music you sing along to, whether you’re having a drink at a pub or crowd surfing in the K-Rock Centre.

“Something about this city has a better depth of creativity that gets smothered in a bigger city,” guitarist Cam Wyatt said. “[There’s] something freeing about being in a smaller city.”

According to him, part of that’s the lack of traffic. The show he played opening for The Glorious Sons was walking distance from where he lived — along with all the other venues and pubs offering live music. It’s that closeness that makes the music scene so supportive of young musicians who are just beginning their careers.

While the music community benefits from its big-city neighbours’ influence, it’s the tight-knit community that lets live music thrive in Kingston, according to Wyatt.

It all comes down to four words: “I can walk there,” he said.

Kris and Dee

Folk musicians Kris and Dee are one of those community members that make the music scene what it is. They’re established artists that sing intimate, evocative folk songs.

Recording their music at the Tragically Hip’s Bathhouse recording studio, they write intricately woven harmonies that can make a crowd go quiet.

“Our music is so intimate that it needs a certain kind of audience and a certain kind of place,” Dee McNeil said.

While the city can still play to raucous university crowds, Kris and Dee find a home in quieter, more personal spaces. Their music can be dark but it lives off a sense of community, grounded in the city around them.

“There’s an underlying current of hope. And not just hope but a little bit of kick-ass,” Kris Abbot said about the duo’s music.

That goes double for the city’s up-and-coming musicians.