Is modern life getting you down? Do you suffer bouts of depression, alienation, or, heaven forbid, hipsterism? Then get thee to Hillbilly Nite at the Wheel Club.
A Montreal treasure whose reputation is steadily spreading through the music-loving population, the Wheel Club is a Monday night institution among country and roots-loving folk in the city. But its appeal transcends the twangy sounds of eternal heartbreak: where else in the city — or in any major metropolis — are 20-year old hipsters warmly welcomed by a gray-haired bunch of spritely 75-year old step dancers? Indeed, where else can hipsters be seen acting unironically, sincerely, even joyfully? If pretension brings you down, the Wheel Club will feel like a blessing.
At first you will be confused: is this a Legion Hall? A Rotary Club? A Lion’s Club? Are we in Nashville in 1954? Are we on a surrealist film set? Why is the beer so cheap? Where do people go to buy long red denim skirts and matching plaid tops? Why is everyone so happy? Is this some kind of weird sociological experiment? What if I can’t escape?
Relax. This is the real deal, and it’s hard to find nowadays, especially in a city like Montreal. Bob Fuller started Hillbilly Nite in 1966 at the Blue Angel. The idea was to provide a venue for amateur and professional country singers. Now, 48 years later, many of the same patrons and performers grace the Wheel Club’s stage and dance floor, its long communal tables and orange plastic chairs. This is a tight community of country-loving musicians and fans, and newcomers are welcomed with open arms. You will never hear a song written after 1965 here. Bob Fuller is a little older and a little frailer than he was back in the day, but he still vehemently insists on the pre-‘65 rule.
Anyone can sign up to perform; a backup band stays on stage, apparently featuring three of the original performers, all 80 years old, all named Bob. At 10 p.m., a “regular” gets up and plays four songs straight. Monday night it was Bobby Dove, well-known on the Montreal roots/folk/country circuit, whose rich velvety voice has won her comparisons to Hank Williams, as well as other accolades.
The other performers ranged from an Albertan senior singing the old songs with his guitar, apparently a pretty regular visitor, to a young French-Canadian woman with platinum-dyed hair, accompanied by her Elvisesque guitarist friend (as well as the band), doing a bang-up job on those old songs. One young-at-heart senior got up on stage repeatedly to perform as well as introduce other singers; she was the star of the dance floor, enticing not only her own generation to shake some country booty, but also the younger crowd, who did a great job trying to follow those four-square line-dancing moves.
Tunes included the likes of Walking After Midnight, Don’t Fence Me In, Darling, You Can’t Love One, and piles of other tales of hearts, lonely, bleeding, and roaming free.
You owe it to yourself to check out Hillbilly Nite at least once. Go for the free licorice and old-school seasonal décor (who else hangs beach balls and sand toys from the ceiling?) Return for the tunes and the joy.
Hillbilly Nite happens every Monday at 8:30 p.m. at the Wheel Club, 3373 Cavendish, at the corner of Sherbrooke. Free. Tel: 489-3322.
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