End of the Rainbow: Ottawa staple set to close if new owner isn't found

·3 min read
Tony D will take the stage for what could be the last time on Sept. 18 when the club closes its doors. (© 2019 Scott Doubt Photography - image credit)
Tony D will take the stage for what could be the last time on Sept. 18 when the club closes its doors. (© 2019 Scott Doubt Photography - image credit)

Ottawa's legendary live music venue Rainbow Bistro is set to close for good due to pandemic-related struggles unless a new owner steps forward.

"We're at the end of our rope," said Danny Sivyer, Rainbow's long-time president and CEO, who will close the venue on Sept. 18.

"We've been living on government money for a year and a half. It pays some of the bills, but not all of the bills."

The Rainbow Bistro opened 37 years ago and quickly became a musical landmark in Ottawa's ByWard Market.

The venue served as a mainstay for local musicians, but also hosted a steady stream of blues and rock-and-roll royalty including Bo Diddly, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Dr. John and Albert King, to name a few.

The Bistro was also the home for a young Canadian band's first string of gigs outside their hometown of Kingston, Ont. That band was the Tragically Hip.

Sivyer says the up-and-comers were paid in beer: a case of 24 nightly.

Crowd limits imposed by the pandemic put an end to live music indoors, and profits dried up with current rules allowing for only 40 patrons at one time, according to Sivyer. The venue's capacity is 148 people.

"It just wasn't enough to pay to open the doors because we had to pay the band and a sound man and the doorman and the bar staff and everything else." said Sivyer. "We've just been waiting and waiting for the rules to change."

WATCH | Danny Sivyer, president and CEO of the Rainbow Bistro, on closing the venue:

'Learned to play at the Rainbow'

Veteran Ottawa bluesman Tony D was 22 when he took the stage for the first time.

Now the lead guitarist with Juno award-winning band MonkeyJunk, he is slated to perform solo for two final shows on the club's last night.

"It's been 37 magical, mighty, musical years," said Tony D.

"I learned to play at the Rainbow by watching all the players and getting all the musical opportunities of playing so many times there."

The musician says he's sad this musical legacy has to end, but he gives kudos to the Sivyer family for trying to hold on to the business during tough times.

Among the memorable nights he's experienced as an audience member, Tony D recalls watching a young K.D. Lang at the start of her career almost bring the house down.

© 2019 Scott Doubt Photography
© 2019 Scott Doubt Photography

"She had the place in a frenzy." he recalled. "For the encore, people were just stomping, they're banging their feet and pounding on the table and the whole building was shaking."

Sivyer launched the Rainbow Bistro in 1984 with partner Ron Knowles, Knowles returned to New Orleans in 1991 leaving Sivyer and his family in charge.

He says a new owner is the only way for music to play on at the Rainbow, including paying off all the debts so Sivyer and his family won't have to "leave with our tail between our legs."

The bar owner says without the crowds and the party atmosphere, the Rainbow has been a mere shell of its former self during the pandemic.

"When you look around the room, when you had a live band playing and nobody on the dance floor and just 40 people sitting quietly, it really wasn't the same vibe or experience that people were expecting," said Sivyer, who has accepted this could be the venue's final note.

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