Vancouver lost a legendary small performance stage when The Cobalt on Main Street at Prior ceased bookings on April 30, 2018. The venue, whose building dates back to 1911, had become known across the city as a place for experimental, experiential, high-energy shows of all kinds.
While likely not closing forever, the bar shut its doors in advance of renovations ordered by the City of Vancouver; the closure was decided due to concern over when and with how much notice construction would begin. (The Cobalt building houses two other businesses, The Boxcar and Pizza Farina; the pizzeria has chosen to remain operational until asked to leave, while the tiny Boxcar, the vision of the same team behind The Cobalt, has also closed.) Complicating the situation is the existence of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) low-income residences above The Cobalt. These small rooms with shared kitchens and washrooms are found throughout the Downtown Eastside; often rundown and ignored, they have long raised important health and safety concerns for Vancouver.
The Sahota family owns The Cobalt’s building, in addition to other SRO hotels in the Downtown Eastside—including the Balmoral, which recently had to evict residents due to unsafe conditions. The Sahotas have not publicly commented on the City-required renovations on The Cobalt’s building, but because it is over 100 years old and in disrepair, it is expected they will be extensive. Built in 1911 as the Royal George Hotel, the structure came up during Vancouver’s boom times, when temporary lodgings were in demand for workers joining West Coast industries. Post-boom, it began to decline in upkeep and became an SRO in the 1940s.
The bar on the bottom floor eventually rose to prominence as a small venue that was eclectic, adventurous, and inclusive. Once the favoured home of punk rock and heavy metal shows, the stage also opened the doors to drag performances and musical events by and for Vancouver’s LGBTQ community. Man Up, a multi-gender drag show and dance party, had long hosted its monthly gigs at The Cobalt; drag shows outside the Davie Village are important, opening the door for Vancouver to become a more tolerant and open city across neighborhoods, and increase visibility of the local queer population.
“It was electric to perform on that stage,” says Rae Takei, a drag artist who frequents Man Up, both as a performer and an audience member (and who won The Cobalt’s annual city-wide drag competition Mistermiss Cobalt in 2015). “Performing there was different, the vibe was very punk; there was an elevated stage with the audience in close proximity, and the shows were followed by a dance party. It really energized the audience to participate.” The Cobalt was the first place that Takei found an entry into Vancouver’s LGBTQ community. “I would love to see more events and spaces be protected,” they say via phone (Takei uses non-binary pronouns).
Jarod Moschenross, former bassist for local punk bands Daggermouth, Reserve 34, and Runt, is quick to point out that The Cobalt’s neighbourhood used to be home to four punk-friendly venues, and now with this latest closure, it is home to zero. “Punk rock is a young man’s sport, and we need to have at least one all-ages venue. But the way that licensing works in Vancouver, with the amount of hoops you have to jump through, makes it almost impossible,” he says. Moschenross remains optimistic but frustrated about live music in the city: “Vancouver has 100 per cent lost its way with live music performance, but punk will find a way, it always does.”
Of course, when things change, people must adapt. For Man Up, that means booking performances at the London Pub and East Side Studios now that The Cobalt has closed. Takei notes that the act is leading the charge of non-binary and gender-variant performances in the city. “Non-binary shows are coming to the fore,” they explain. “They are much more popular now than they were in the last four years.” Still, while there are other spaces in Vancouver to book, some things cannot be replaced. “I love The Cobalt,” says Takei. “There’s never going to be anything like it ever again.”
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