The KEE to Bala: cottage country’s most rockin’ venue

From Duke to Snoop to Zeus, the Kee to Bala, 80 feet wide and 70-odd years deep, has evolved with the times and the tunes

In the early afternoon haze inside the legendary Kee to Bala concert pavilion, the Sam Roberts Band is going through its sound check. The haze itself is a puzzle; it’s bright outside, a sunny Saturday on Labour Day weekend, with no potentially intrusive mist in sight, and smoking has been banned inside the Kee for more than a decade. The haze is like a residual piece of history, the smoke of cigarettes past—which pretty much describes the weirdly nostalgic twist the hall imparts to every item in it, even when those items aren’t actually old. A beer dispensing apparatus on the balcony level, for instance, is labelled “Muskoka Brewery, established 1996,” but looks about the same vintage as a ’55 Chevy.

As strange as the haze is, the Kee’s interior is even odder. Eighty feet wide and 180 feet long, with an intricate wooden-trussed ceiling, the dance hall and concert venue on the shore of Lake Muskoka looks like a boathouse designed to house the Queen Mary. The stage, a good seven feet off the bare wooden floor, is built into the long lakeside wall, making the hall for the audience wider than it is deep. Flanking the stage on both sides is what Sam Roberts himself has described as a “veritable mountain of speakers,” the set-up of which the club refuses to tinker with, out of an apparently near-religious fear of spoiling the Kee’s unique acoustics. At the moment, mind you, the acoustics just sound uniquely muddy. The Sam Roberts Band’s music is characteristically straight-ahead, extremely catchy rock and roll with singable refrains, but it’s difficult to make out lyrics or even melody lines with the sound bouncing everywhere. Emptiness could be the culprit; there are no chairs on the main floor. The only seating is on the balcony that surrounds the lower level on three sides, sporting plain wooden tables and benches reminiscent of Oktoberfest. The eastern wall is home to a kind of smaller house within a hall, a raised platform topped by a peaked, red-tiled roof. In the Kee’s earlier dance-hall days, when the featured performers weren’t called Sam Roberts or Rush or Rough Trade, but Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, this was the stage. Today it’s “Bar Number One.”

The sound check dwindles away, and while one band member continues to noodle on a saxophone, Roberts leaves the stage and jogs up to the balcony level to sit down and talk. A bona fide star of the Canadian music scene (which means everyone in Canada knows him, but not quite everyone outside of the country does), Roberts, in his flip-flops and capri-length shorts, blue-eyed and lightly bearded, looks like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and a young Russian intellectual. He and his band have been coming to the Kee for 10 summers running, but he is clearly still excited about playing here and maybe still a bit in awe.

“There is absolutely no other place like this place anywhere,” he says. “We’re from Montreal, so when we were first asked to come here, I didn’t know the first thing about it. We have our own cottage culture in Quebec—the Laurentians, the Eastern Townships—but the Muskoka lakes were a mystery to us. Plus the name, the ‘Kee to Bala,’ which I immediately thought was the strangest name for a venue I’d ever heard. Nobody has explained yet to us why it’s called that, by the way; I’m still waiting to hear.

“So we show up the first morning,” he goes on, “and I see this big matchstick barn. We walk in, and the stage is about twice my height, which I’d also never seen before. We’ve had the odd stage diver at various shows, but my first thought was I wouldn’t encourage that here, because someone leaping off this stage would get about fifteen feet of air. The second thing I noticed, through the windows, was the lake.”

The band was blown away by both the setting and the subsequent show that first night, and was hoping to get asked back. They were, playing every summer after, first one-night stands; then, when it was apparent they were drawing close to the 900-person capacity, management booked them for a second night. A local cottager and Kee aficionado, Stephen Manchee, whose family owns a complex of cottages on Point Manchee, in the curve of the bay directly down the lake from the Kee, and who has rented a cottage to various bands since the early ’90s (Blue Rodeo, Our Lady Peace, and Spirit of the West included), put them up and made them roast beef dinners. From Point Manchee, they could see the Kee and hear their opening band’s set across the water; when the set got close to the end, Manchee would ferry them over in his boat to the Kee’s dock. The group had all this to absorb, plus the sense of history they felt in the air of the hall itself.

“The first thing any band does when you come to a venue,” says Roberts now, “is look at the marquee and the posters, to see who’s appearing after you, and who appeared before. So we saw Louis Armstrong and Matthew Good, Blue Rodeo, David Wilcox. We saw Snoop Dogg, even. There’s the Fillmore in San Francisco, Frankies in Toledo, Ohio, the Spectrum in Montreal, the Commodore in Vancouver, Massey Hall in Toronto. And there’s the Kee, sitting on top of the Canadian Shield, a few steps from some of the oldest rocks on the planet.”

But the acoustics. It’s embarrassing to have to tell him, but the sound check was, well, impenetrable.

“That’s the sound check,” he says, looking remarkably unconcerned. “As soon as the people come in, something magic happens. It’s literally a chemical reaction. You’ll see tonight.”

It’s not surprising that Sam Roberts doesn’t know how the Kee to Bala got its name—almost no one does. The original name of the place was Dunn’s Pavilion. The Dunn was Gerry Dunn, a pharmacist from Toronto who, in 1929, bought the first building on the site, which combined a drugstore with an open-air dance floor in the rear. By the end of the 1930s, dance attendance at the old pavilion had surged to the point where Dunn decided to put up a new hall, which he designed himself, sans architect, to be built out over the water. Because of the wartime steel shortage, the roof’s trusses and beams were built entirely from wood, which Dunn and a small crew installed themselves.

The finished product was, at the time, one of the widest all-wooden ceilings ever erected in Canada. Dunn’s unique design helped attract the crème de la crème of jazz and big bands to Bala over the next 20 years, an astonishing list that includes, in addition to Armstrong and Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Guy Lombardo, Woody Herman, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Touring at the time was the prime source of income for these musicians; their Canadian itinerary usually started with dates at the Palais Royale and possibly the Royal York in Toronto, went up to Dunn’s Pavilion in Muskoka, then on to stops in Ottawa and Montreal. According to Steve Manchee, cottagers canoed over to the pavilion in shorts and then changed into their formal wear on the dock. Capacity inside the club in those days approached a thousand people, often with up to a thousand more listening outside on the grounds and in their boats. “Louis, Duke Ellington,” says Manchee, “they all used to love coming up to the Pavilion back then; it had cachet as a hip and cool kind of place.”

That world-class cachet was ended by rock and roll, and liquor (at least the lack of it). Unable to convince the mayor of Bala at the time to grant him an alcohol licence like those obtained by nearby competing pubs—to this point, patrons at the Pavilion had simply “brownbagged” it—Dunn sold the club in 1963. A succession of subsequent owners lost money on the enterprise, which eventually bounced from the bank to a man named Ray Cockburn, who had seen the fortune to be made with the new music. Rock and its derivatives became the constant at the Pavilion, which by now was known as the Kee to Bala. The remainder of the ’60s and the decade that followed were the venue’s second flowering of joyous music-cum-dancing, a time that established the Kee as a laboratory for the evolution of a new kind of domestic music industry. Well-known American acts such as the Ramones and Chubby Checker (a multiple visitor) still appeared at the Kee, but now joining them was a wave of Canadian musicians who had also made an impact south of the border: among them Rush, Mandala, Motherlode, Coney Hatch, and Lighthouse. In the early ’80s, the new (and very high) stage was built, and the list of musicians grew even more eclectic and more homegrown—Kim Mitchell, Doug and the Slugs, Colin James, Blue Rodeo, April Wine, Glass Tiger, Jeff Healey. Meanwhile, the building itself was starting to feel its age. Manchee recalls a Spirit of the West concert from the period, when one of the cribs under the Kee broke loose, and “the kids were trampolining six feet up in the air and the whole floor was bouncing. It was phenomenal. They had to shut down the concert and secure the crib right then and there.”

The most recent golden era at the Kee started in the mid-’90s, when yet another change in management coincided with the maturation of the Canadian public’s music psyche. Up to this point, for a Canadian band to gain credibility as big-time in its native land, it first had to be considered big-time in the US, or at least in Europe. But now a new species was born: “famous” Canadian bands who became famous strictly (or largely) in Canada. With record revenues shrinking in a Napster universe, these bands did this, ironically, the same way the big bands had in the ’40s: by touring. The wheel had come full circle.

The man who presided over the new reality at the Kee was Stephen Wyllie (the proprietor of a rock club in Toronto called the Study Hall) who became first the managing partner of the club, then its majority owner. “I had gone to a Y camp at Port Severn for thirteen years, and I remembered the Kee, so when I was asked I said I’d love to get involved. In Port Severn, there used to be three clubs that all had live music. The Kee happened to be the only club of its type left in the area.” Wyllie brought in new headliners—the Barenaked Ladies, Hootie and the Blowfish—but more intriguingly, once a year he brought back a big band, for “the 45-plus demographic.”

“We would switch to the original stage, where the main bar is now, with tables with cloths and candles and the original dancing area,” he says. “We’d get five hundred people, dressed to the nines. It really looked like something.” Wyllie was also the first person, in his own estimation, to ever have the snow shovelled off the club roof; he did this in preparation for the New Year’s Eve concerts he threw at the club for the last three years of the 20th century. The first one took place on the night of a blizzard with a temperature of -32°C. Wyllie had installed heating, and the colliding cold and warm fronts caused an actual rainfall inside the building. By the next year, though, the logistics had been worked out; Blue Rodeo played the turn of the millennium, and the concert was broadcast via satellite all over the world.

And then Wyllie sold the place as well, and the world turned again. The Kee reverted to its status as—in the fond words of one current band manager—“a dirty old rock club.” But a dirty old rock club with a difference. In 2009, Snoop Dogg ventured north to the Kee for two consecutive sold-out shows, disappointing only Steve Manchee, who’d been hoping the rap artist would stay at one of his cottages. But Snoop flew up to Bracebridge in a private plane and gave the concert before flying back to Toronto with his entourage to stay in a hotel, then flew back up the next day to give the second concert. How much money he ended up making on the deal is apparently anyone’s guess.

The next person who will have to work at attracting high-profile talent is the Kee’s latest owner, Mike Homewood, a 37-year-old club owner from Toronto who bought the club last July with his business partner, Mike Strong, who has a cottage in the Bala area. Homewood knew about the Kee from the 13 summers that he spent at a Jesuit-run summer camp nearby, but when Strong told him it was for sale, he was skeptical; he hadn’t thought about the place in years and wasn’t sure how busy it would be. Homewood assumed that the same trend he’d observed at clubs in Toronto’s east end—the demographic getting older in the neighbourhood and choosing to stay home as opposed to hitting the local bar—would be true of the Kee as well. But Strong convinced him to come up for the May 24th weekend in order to see Blue Rodeo.

“The demographic at the concert was mainly in its fifties, but they were there. It was a great show, a great vibe. I’d forgotten about the vacation factor—no matter how old you are, if you’re on vacation you’re looking for things to do. Clubs in Toronto separate different audiences, and eliminate some completely. The Kee includes every demographic and brings them all together. Plus, most of them are in flip-flops.”

Is he planning on making any changes at the club?

“The Kee to Bala is the Kee to Bala. It’s iconic. We might expand the music variety somewhat, try jazz again and country as well. But the beauty of the Kee is its built-in program. I do have one dream person to try to book, though,” he admits, sounding a decade younger than he already is. “Neil Young.”

There is a club in North Ontario.

The crowd starts filing into the Kee the Saturday night of the Sam Roberts concert a half hour before the opening band, Zeus, is scheduled to hit the stage. From the street side, the club, with its big grassy lawn, has the feeling of an expanded, well-lit, homey cottage. The ticket buyers, mostly in their twenties and thirties, play the part of a very large family—800 or so cousins who are about to watch one of their own perform. Several tour buses and stretch Hummer limos are already parked on the adjacent Bala streets, evidence that some serious drinking will take place. At the same time, an OPP cruiser trolls the road between the Kee and the Bala Bay Inn, the cops checking through their opened windows for young people furtively engaged in the illegal pastime of drinking beer outside the club. Why would they? There’s plenty of beer available inside. Then the reason dawns: Outside beer is the cottage-country equivalent of “pre-drinking”; it’s cheap.

Inside the club, the temperature is growing tropical, and the upstairs balcony is already packed, people queuing to get outside onto the patio deck, where the air is cooler and where they can smoke. The main floor in front of the stage, by contrast, is still relatively empty. Not an auspicious sign for the acoustics. When Zeus comes out to a nice little surge of acclaim from the crowd, the misgivings seem justified. An up-and-coming band in its own right, with a reputation for playing clever songs, Zeus seems immediately out of its element in the venue; the band is perfectly ironic and hipster-friendly—both things the Kee is not. Once, in the days of zoot suits and muted trumpets, the resident vibe might have been hip, but today it’s about energy and celebration. The sweet onward and upward drive of rock and roll, maybe, before it turned angry and arch. So it’s in vain that Zeus’s lead guitarist whips his head of lank blond hair back and forth like the hardest-working cool guy in the business; the joke is an inside one, and the crowd is waiting for the main act.

A buzz goes up, and suddenly, it seems, the main floor is thronging with people, a true crowd for the first time. Sam and the boys have been spotted coming in by boat to the Kee dock. Five minutes later, the buzz becomes a roar, and the pit area is packed. At precisely 11 p.m., the Sam Roberts Band walks onto the stage and hits its opening chord.

It is as the leader himself said it would be. The bodies absorb the reverb, oscillating in the pit, bobbing in place and holding their hands up like a giant grade one class, and the band’s sound is loud and pure. Roberts seems less like a Russian intellectual now than a mini-Boss, a scaled-down Bruce Springsteen in the wilderness. His voice is not as raspy as Springsteen’s, his moves a bit trickier, but the effect is the same. He is clearly on the people’s side, and they are clearly on his. From the opening number the crowd sings along. By the third or fourth song, the band is cutting out intentionally at times so the fans can sing by themselves. It’s like a rock and roll hootenanny, and a completely Canadian one; the sense of ownership prevails. At the fringes of the crowd, people are dancing, mostly not in couples, but in odd-numbered clusters, their dance moves less suggestive than goofy.

It was Ray Cockburn, the man who brought rock and roll to Dunn’s Pavilion as the 1960s wound down, who labelled it the Kee to Bala. “A short name, easily remembered, was what I wanted,” he said later, “and when someone suggested that the pavilion was the ‘key’ to Bala and the surrounding Muskoka area, I jumped at the idea and changed the spelling to K-E-E.” One mystery solved, another (the spelling) posed. Which seems fitting. For one night at any rate, the best show on earth is in cottage country, in the house that Cockburn renamed. And at least one 60-year-old in the crowd, the guy with a tape recorder and a notebook, will be staying till it’s over.

Writer Jay Teitel attended his first concert almost 50 years ago. The performer was Bob Dylan, playing at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

This story was originally published as “Play it Again, Sam” in the June 2012 issue of Cottage Life.

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