The Sounds of Music Outside GTA

The vibrant live-music scene extends beyond Toronto to Southern Ontario clubs and festivals definitely worth a visit

It’s well-known that Toronto rocks as Canada’s live music capital, but the sounds of amazing music are heard from points all over Southern Ontario in clubs and annual festivals – some of them an easy day trip from the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and others better enjoyed in an overnight trip.

Michele Gare is live music fan extraordinaire who recently moved from Toronto to the nearby city of Hamilton. She points out that many local musicians have done the same, because of Toronto’s soaring real estate and rents costs.

By so doing, they’ve contributed to Hamilton’s already well-established live music scene. The artists have also been a part of the former blue-collar, steeltown’s emergence as a vibrant cultural and culinary centre. “Hamilton has exploded when it comes to music and restaurants,” she says. “A lot of the hot new restaurants downtown are walking distance from some of the best clubs.”

“One live music venue is the Casbah Lounge. It’s been around for nearly two decades. They have great acts, great sound, and fantastic staff.” And she points out that a woman going there on her own will feel safe and made welcome.

Both touring bands and local talent play in a range of music styles that have given this venue its longevity and continued popularity.

If you like something “more on the rock side,” then try This Ain’t Hollywood. Not only does the club have a good variety of live acts, it hosts exhibits by local and international visual artists.

While Mills Hardware “doesn’t have live music seven days a week, they do have some great acts coming through and it’s a really good facility.” Alt-rock, vocalist-songwriters, “Noh wave”, blues, funk and many other types of music are on offer.

Hamilton is about 70 km from Toronto and can be reached by car or Go Transit in about an hour, depending on traffic.

“In the Niagara region, west of the city, there’s a summer concert series put on by Jackson-Triggs winery, featuring well-known acts. The fabulous sound in this beautiful outdoor amphitheatre can’t be beat,” says Michele.

Since Jackson-Triggs is a winemaker, visitors are invited to enjoy “the perfect marriage of award-winning wines, gourmet cuisine and brilliant Canadian talent [coming] together in the vineyard, ‘under the stars.’”

Located on the Niagara Peninsula, the Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre is about a 1.5-hour drive west of Toronto.

Another beautiful outdoor experience, a couple of hours north of Toronto, is Music on the Barge (Gull Lake Rotary Park), in Gravenhurst. This “small, fun” series of weekly summer concerts has been held for 50 years on Gull Lake, and was once even attended by Queen Elizabeth. Musical genres range country and bluegrass to the big band era, to rock and roll from the 1950s and 1960s. 

About two hours north of Toronto by car, Gravenhurst can also be reached by bus.

Further afield, Michele also recommends the long-running Ottawa BluesFest (LeBreton Flats Park, downtown Ottawa), which will run July 4 to 14 in 2019. “It’s not strictly blues anymore and this festival is now known for its wide range of music. Local and international artists abound so there’s something for everyone” she says.

The landmark Ottawa festival – “one of the top-ten music festivals in the world, according to Billboard Magazine” – hosted acts such as Colin James, Bryan Adams and Shawn Mendes last year.

It takes between four to five hours to travel to Ottawa by car. You can also go by plane, train or bus.

As much as Michele enjoys large festivals and concerts, her greatest love continues to be the intimate immediacy of live music played in small clubs.

“A lot of the musicians playing here aren’t getting rich for their efforts,” she says. “They come to these smaller venues because they love playing with each other. They are having so much fun and you’re part of it too. It’s a great personal experience and one I love contributing to by supporting it week after week.”


Michele Gare, Freelance Marketing, Social Media and Event Manager, Hamilton