25 years ago: Nirvana's only Calgary show was at the Westward Club
Hotel Arts takes a look back at its musical heritage
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As Calgary gears up to host the 45th annual Juno Awards in April and the city’s Year of Music gets into full swing, a local hotel is remembering its own musical heritage.
Hotel Arts, located on 12 Avenue and 1 Street SW, is considered one of Calgary’s trendiest hotels, but 25 years ago it was known as the far less chic Westward Inn.
Attached to the back of the building was a popular live venue called The Westward Club, which hosted touring and local bands throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“It was a great, high-energy place,” said Hotel Arts director of business development, Fraser Abbott, who attended several shows at the Westward, including an early gig by rocker Lenny Kravitz.
“It was the hub for the best and coolest up ‘n’ coming bands. A lot of my friends who were really into music were there all the time. I never ordered the draught beer though, because I didn’t want to get hepatitis.”
Kravitz wasn’t the only big name to pass through The Westward Club pre-stardom. The venue also hosted such acts as The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, The Flaming Lips and Red Hot Chili Peppers just as they were on the rise.
One of the Westward’s most legendary gigs, however, happened 25 years ago this week when a trio from Seattle played its first (and only) Calgary show.
On March 4, 1991, Nirvana was still two months away from recording what would become its groundbreaking major label debut, Nevermind, but the band was riding high on the college radio buzz generated by its 1989 Sub Pop Records release, Bleach, and its energetic live shows.
It was a cold Monday night, a fact that Su Smith, who booked the band into the room, remembers well.
“The Westward wasn’t open Mondays and I don’t think I ever had a show on a Monday, so I must have trusted people who said they were going to be good,” she said.
“A few people went upstairs to Nirvana’s hotel room after. People told me they were super friendly and some say Kurt Cobain was a bit withdrawn. I don’t remember much about my conversations with Kurt, except he told me he missed his girlfriend. The only reason I remember that is because I had never heard that in all my years from a musician. It was touching.”
The exact number of people at the show – which also featured local openers Skin Barn and Snowman – remains a bit of a mystery. The room legally held about 300 people and some people say only 50 showed up, while others maintain it was close to sold out.
Smith figures somewhere around 150 or so people braved the weather to see frontman Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl tear the place apart.
“Many people were on the dance floor mesmerized, which would make the rest of the club seem empty,” Smith explains.
““I think the door may have been at 253,” says Wes Hegg, who worked as a doorman at the time. “I remember people had fun and Kurt Cobain briefly crowd surfed.”
Calgary Folk Music Festival artistic director Kerry Clarke was a Westward regular and remembers getting roped in to sell merchandise for Nirvana at Smith’s request.
“I remember it being a really good rock show,” she says.
“One of the better bands you’d see at the time. Kurt Cobain gave me a white lighter to thank me for doing merch and drew a felt spiral on it. I remember finding it in a drawer several years later, but I don’t think I have it anymore. People always say to me, ‘If you ever find it, I’ll buy it from you.’ I could probably buy a bunch of white lighters and draw spirals on them and sell them to different suckers.”
By the end of 1991, Nirvana’s single Smells Like Teen Spirit had taken rock radio by storm, blurring the line between alternative and mainstream music. In January, 1992, the band had ousted Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard album chart.
Cobain committed suicide two years later.
“I probably was surprised when they hit it big as it was shortly after that Westward show,” says Smith. “It was really fast. Too fast, I think.”
Hotel Arts, which opened in 2005, is trying to continue the Westward legacy by hosting a live music series in Raw Bar every Thursday.
“We’ve had some great local talent such as Amy Thiessen, who curates it,” says Abbott.
“We’ve also had Danny Vacon play a few times and Jory Kinjo. They’re great acts. It’s not nearly as loud as the shows at The Westward Club used to be though.”
VIDEO: 1990 show at the Westward Club of Calgary band the Highrollers.