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THE HIGHEST ORDER at the Silver Dollar, Saturday, February 25. Rating: NNNN
Earlier this month, the Highest Order put up a Facebook event for their Farewell To The Silver Dollar show and accidentally broke the news that the long-running bar would be closing. It was just the latest in a series of venue closures in Toronto, but it brought the simmering panic in the scene to a boil. If such an iconic, long-running venue was being edged out, too, how could any small, emerging or DIY venue stand a chance?
Ward 20 councillor Joe Cressy later clarified that the Silver Dollar, closing May 1, had attained heritage status and, as part of a deal with the developers of the student residence high-rise replacing the Hotel Waverly near College and Spadina, it will legally have to reopen in some capacity. The date and character of that new Silver Dollar are uncertain, as is the status of the occasionally infamous local hero who’s given it so much of its vitality and edge over the last decade: booker/promoter Dan Burke.
Walking past Burke at the door of the Dollar on Saturday night, as I have so many times before, through the elbow-to-elbow crowd to the back bar and ordering a Labatt 50 (only to be corrected with a Molson Stock, for approximately the 123rd time), that sense of loss became more and more pointed. “The heritage status thing doesn’t matter,” said Highest Order lead singer Simone Schmidt near the end of the second set. “It’s about the people who work here, who live around here. That’s who forms the culture.”
Few bands are more at home on the gritty blues-turned-rock-venue’s stage than the Highest Order, a versatile and virtuosic, principally independent group breathing political and psychedelic life into classic country forms, and whose Still Holding was our top local album of 2016. Since the breakup of garage legends Deadly Snakes, they’re the closest thing the club has to a house band. And though this was only the beginning of the Dollar’s goodbye season (Burke speaks breathlessly about the lineup he’s building for the final week), their show felt like a Last Waltz.
Also a fundraiser for End Immigration Detention Network and a taping for an upcoming live album, the show featured members of U.S. Girls, B-17, Michelle McAdorey, Blood Ceremony, Milk Lines and Vallens, all of whom have played career-highlight gigs of their own on the stage. Schmidt recalled being an underage teenager bluffing her way in on Wednesday nights to see the once-a-week bluegrass supergroup Crazy Strings (some of whose musicians are now her collaborators). With Paul Mortimer shredding on lead guitar and Simone TB re-proving her bona fides as country music’s heaviest drummer, the Highest Order morphed between genres at will.
But despite the good vibes, there was an undercurrent of urgency, especially because Bloor venue Holy Oak and Honest Ed’s were saying farewells of their own that same weekend. If Toronto keeps losing spaces to rising rents and condo developments, where is the community going to gather? Where are new acts going to play debut shows? Where’s a band like PUP going to develop? Where are we going to go for a guaranteed (and barely remembered) good time at 3 am during NXNE and CMW? Hamilton?
With Toronto losing another part of its identity every week, all the art project celebrations, chef’d up, fully gentrified “takes” on the city’s institutions feel hollow. If the Silver Dollar comes back as a craft beer bar or a Planet Hollywood “tribute” to classic roots music, will it still be the Silver Dollar, taking chances on bands no one’s heard before? Will it still refuse to turn concertgoers away if they can’t afford tickets? Will the downstairs after-hours Comfort Zone have sofas you’d actually risk sitting on?
While the music community unites to ask where Music City is in all of this, Cressy’s promises of heritage status feel tone-deaf. Now’s the time for those in the arts, and our representatives who’ve pledged to protect them, to step up and decide what “heritage” actually means.