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Little venue on the prairie, Amigos celebrates 30 years of burritos, beers and bands

Last weekend, my rock ‘n’ roll band played a joint 30th anniversary party. It was both the triple-decade anniversary of my band the Smugglers as well as a place called Amigos, a live music venue in Saskatoon, Sask.
Grant Lawrence’s band the Smugglers celebrated its 30th anniversary at Saskatoon’s musical oasis Amigos, which was also celebrating its 30th year as a live independent venue.

Last weekend, my rock ‘n’ roll band played a joint 30th anniversary party. It was both the triple-decade anniversary of my band the Smugglers as well as a place called Amigos, a live music venue in Saskatoon, Sask.

In the lead up to the show, a lot of people asked me why we were holding our anniversary in Saskatoon, so far from our hometown of Vancouver. The answer is that me and my band members have always had a lot of respect for longevity and legacy — to do something great, something special and something fun, for a long run. That’s Amigos all over. They opened their doors in Saskatoon as a venue and restaurant in the fall of 1988, at almost the exact same time the Smugglers formed in my parents’ basement in West Vancouver.

Within about a year or two of our band’s existence, I was cold-calling clubs across Western Canada in an overly ambitious effort to book a tour far before we were ready, or even had a record out. Back then, clubs along the touring circuit were just starting to welcome original music. They usually demanded a two or three-night stand, with three sets a night, and no opening acts.

The tour was mostly a disaster. After the various club managers figured out the Smugglers were mostly still teenagers with barely one set of music, let alone three, we’d often be fired after the first night.

But not at Amigos.

We had heard a lot about the fabled rock ‘n’ roll oasis on the prairies from our bassist Beez, who was already a seasoned touring veteran with his Vancouver band Sarcastic Mannequins. He told us stories of how great Amigos was, how they supposedly fed the bands, gave them lots to drink, paid them and housed them in a notorious band room above the club.

The brightly lit bar with hanging plants, cafeteria-style tables and skylights wasn’t exactly the den of sin I was expecting. When we played our first night — which was just as bad as the rest of the tour — somehow Amigos didn’t fire us. Instead, we became friends with the owners and staff, and the Smugglers were booked to return time and time again. By the mid-1990s, we were selling out Amigos with a lineup down the street.

Amigos has made that kind of artistic investment into countless bands from across North America. Most remarkably, the club’s 30-year legacy of supporting musicians that perform original music has never deviated. By comparison, there sadly isn’t a single live music venue in Vancouver that can make the same claim. Even the mighty Commodore Ballroom went dark for a few years in the late 1990s.

And though their doors have never closed, there have been some struggles for Amigos, too. Ticket sales for live music are down across the country. Sometimes the club struggles to pay the rent. Minimalist hipster restaurants have finally arrived in Saskatoon, which threatens Amigos’ legendary home-style Mexican platters. But still they persevere: burritos, beers and bands.

Last weekend, the Smugglers made the return to Amigos to play on their stage alongside Calgary’s Chixdiggit and Saskatoon’s all-female prairie surf band the Garrys.

To our delight, friends and fans descended upon the Paris of the Prairies from across North America to pay tribute to Amigos for a loud, raging, sold-out rock ‘n’ roll dance party that went deep into the Saskatchewan night.

The walls of the club were lined with a poster exhibit showcasing Amigos’ three straight decades of live gigs, including dozens of B.C. bands: Bob’s Your Uncle to Black Mountain, DOA to Delhi 2 Dublin, Oh Susanna to the Odds, the Smugglers to Shad. We all owe a lot to this place.

It’s for those reasons that the Smugglers decided to celebrate our own 30th anniversary in the middle of the frozen prairie in November. The three men who have owned and operated Amigos over the course of this unprecedented 30-year run — Jim Clarke, Steve Benesh and Alex Clendening — deserve our respect. So does Brant Palko, who has booked the bands at Amigos for the past 20 years. These folks have dedicated their lives and livelihoods to being patrons of the independent arts, and that’s a rare and noble thing.

On behalf of every band and musician that has ever performed on your stage, we can’t thank you enough.