The Biltmore Cabaret:
On the Search for Something New
Article and Photographs Provided by Abby Wiseman
There are more people on the dance floor than standing at the bar. This is a rare sight in Vancouver, but that is just the way it is at the Biltmore Cabaret. It’s Saturday night and the venue is celebrating its sixth year anniversary of hosting one of the city’s best dance parties: Glory Days.
The DJ tonight is Blue Hawaii from Montreal. He spins through his set playing new school hip hop to old school hip hop, house to afrobeat. Girls in ankle boots pulse to the rhythm. Guys in New Balance sneakers form a semi circle of appreciation in front of the DJ booth, basking in the glow of two red lights, one in the shape of a big G, the other a D. Someone brought their mom. Another wore his best suit. The rest are in jeans, skirts, Keds and Converses.
This isn’t a spot for six inch heels. You come here to dance.
I’ve been coming to the Biltmore since it re-opened its doors in 2007, bringing indie acts from across the continent to its intimate stage. I’ve seen comedy shows, boob baring burlesque dancers, emerging acts like Warpaint, LadyHawk and Run the Jewels. I’ve seen my local barista rock out with their new band and I’ve danced to funk, house, hip hop and 50s soul music. It’s the place to hear something unique, but mostly it’s the place where everyone, including their mom, can fearlessly shake their hips.
“I don’t think there isn’t any musical format we haven’t had at the Biltmore. Maybe classical music, but you never know, maybe that will be in the future,” said promotions manager Grace McRae-Okine. “Honestly, anything goes.”
I met up with Grace at Our Town Cafe in Mount Pleasant to discuss the significance of the venue she represents to the Mount Pleasant community and the Vancouver music scene. Wrapped in a warm scarf and wool sweater she sips her tea and breaks down what makes the venue unique.
“It’s the kind of venue where you see the band before they make it big,” says Grace.
When owner Zak Pashak re-opened the bar in its current format, it had been shuttered for many years. Pashak is a bar owner from Calgary who set his sights on the Vancouver music scene. At the time there were far fewer live music venues and Vancouver was living its reputation as “no fun city.” Pashak navigated the red tape and the Biltmore Cabaret was reborn, leading the resurgence of live music in East Vancouver.
Seven years later and Grace has the big job of keeping people coming through the door, which means the Biltmore has got to keep it fresh. The generations are changing over and the 20-somethings who could party on a Tuesday are now 30-somethings that aren’t going out as much. This brings a new challenge to the Biltmore to adapt to the tastes of the next generation.
“Even though people still appreciate their indie bands, music like EDM is a lot bigger now and those are the more party oriented shows that people are interested in,” says Grace. “People are wanting to go out and just dance and allowing for that is really important.”
Changing its scene and staying relevant is a challenge for any venue, but the Biltmore’s ability to tap into the local community for new acts and DJs who may not have the experience, but have the vision, will keep people coming.
“There are starting to be a lot more people who I would call closet DJs coming out. They’ve never put on a show professionally, but they’re just starting to get into playing underground shows and they come to us with an idea. We’re pretty open to it,” said McRae-Okine.
Grace sees the next year as a time to experiment with new parties as well as keeping the old favourites like the monthly Ice Cream Social and Glory Days, as well as bringing back Guilty Pleasures Retro Night. The biggest challenge is letting people know that the venue is up for almost anything and Grace wants to hear the whacked out ideas that could be turned into something amazing.
“It’s really important to give new styles a try and to give fresh faces their first chance to do something different,” said Grace. “I actually think it’s interesting that we’re not approached as much as you might think with new nights. A lot of people are afraid that if they haven’t done it before than they can’t, but they actually would have a lot of support from people who have the expertise.”
Whether it’s more retro nights or karaoke, the Biltmore is evolving as generations change hands. The crowd may be changing, but everybody and their moms are welcome.