Joe Hill Coffee House: Talent incubator, performing arts farm team and a multi-generational good time

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
June 8th, 2011

 Rossland’s performing arts scene is bursting at the seams with an incredibly diverse talent base: jugglers, percussionist poets, aria singers, jazz cats, and more.  At the heart of that scene, acting as an incubator, is the Joe Hill Coffee House. Later this month Joe Hill will be wrapping up its season with its 26th show in the last three years. Fittingly, the upcoming show will be a return to its roots.


At its core, Joe Hill is all about promoting performance. Quite literally anyone, of any age, doing anything is welcome to step up to the intimate, on-the-floor stage in the Miners’ Hall and strut their stuff before a supportive audience.


“It’s a real thrill for a performer to get on stage in front of people,” explained Michael Gifford, the event’s organizer. “It’s challenging but very rewarding. It gives performers a goal, too, that it is within their means to come to the coffee house and perform there. You don’t have to have your name in lights. Anybody can get up there and do it.


Gifford, a talented musician in his own right resurrected the event three years ago to not just add a new spark to developing the performing arts scene in the region but also to meet other artists, musicians, collaborate and provide a stage for up and comers, hobbyists and professionals alike to practice their craft in front of a live audience.


“Quite a few people I’ve met have got a real keen interest in performing now that the coffee house has given them the opportunity to do so and they’ve gone on to play bigger and more gigs around the area and beyond. The purpose is to get people out and make it viable for a person who is not a professional performer to get on stage and practice performing.”


In addition to providing the stage, venue and audience Gifford also takes on a role of sorts acting as a performing arts scene builder, promoter and developer. Apart from the Coffeehouse itself Gifford regularly sends out newsletters and e-mail notices to performers who have participated in the events informing them of events and opportunities for them to play in additional venues. At its core, Gifford, his team of volunteers and the Joe Hill Coffee House itself acts much like the farm team for performing 


“I’ve met a whole bunch of people through this. When I retired I found the time to do this and since then I have met so many performers around here. Had there been no Joe Hill I probably wouldn’t have met any of them. Even the people doing sound have gotten up and performed because they see this and say. ‘I think I can do that’. It’s been pretty inspiring. The real great thing about Joe Hill is how it creates this desire to make music, or poetry or any performing art.”


In addition to providing the stage, venue and audience, Gifford also acts as a performing arts scene builder, promoter and developer. Apart from the Coffeehouse itself, Gifford regularly sends out newsletters and e-mail notices to performers who have participated in the events, informing them of opportunities for them to play in additional venues.


“There is a lot of music happening in the Rossland area,” explained Gifford. “Joe Hill can’t take sole credit for it, but I know it’s a big part of it. When I feel tired and burned out, I feel like if I quit running Joe Hill, what would there be and there wouldn’t be what there is now and it would leave a huge vacuum in the Rossland arts scene. When we complete a show we walk away thinking, ‘wow, that was great. When is the next one?’ .There is a real energy in promoting the arts that is quite thrilling.”


Gifford was inspired to get involved in the resurrection of Joe Hill by a similar event he attended regularly in Quesnel while growing up in the 1970s.


“That event was a really cool place–a gathering place and a place to perform and practice in front of people,” recalled Gifford. “The more you do it the better you get and it was great outlet for us. It was one of the things that made survival in a small town possible to have a place to go and perform. In that place at that time there wasn’t much else going on. It’s not quite like that here. There are lots of things going on in Rossland but it’s a good way for the regular person to get up there perform and get involved in the arts scene.”


 Joe Hill, in its second coming, has also developed into a multi-generational family affair. This season’s closing show on Sunday, June 19th will be hosted by Terry and Janet Marshall.  The emceeing couple were performers at the very first Joe Hill in 1985 which used to take place in the basement of the Miners’ Hall in what is now Ilo’s Daycare. Picking up where their folks left off, Terry and Janet’s children who now live outside of the area are going to be in town and performing on stage as “The Nelsons.”


Not to be out done in the family music arena, John Cullen, a fine guitar player who also played at the original Joe Hill, will be performing at the next event along with his son Andrew who has developed into an excellent guitar player in his own right. Going by the name Dos Gringos, the father/son duo will be playing some hot Spanish guitar licks for the crowd.


Filling out the bill will be Titus Kanbey, Don Birch, and Lawrence Shumey, performing old time pop/rock hits; Paul Bowles with his unique percussion and poetry combo; Russell Haskins, bringing his powerful original tunes; Kootenay Dance Works; Mara Sand and Grant Freeman singing the blues; and Kara Deane and Janet Marshall singing their favorites.

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