A staple of Ottawa’s live music scene, The Rainbow Bistro, has taken on new life after almost closing in 2021.
Known to most as “The Rainbow,” this intimate performance space has hosted Canadian musicians ranging from the Tragically Hip to Blue Rodeo.
But the well-known ByWard Market performance space almost closed permanently under the economic pressures of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020-21. Then, just as things began to look bleak, a group of Ottawa business leaders came to the rescue.
Calling themselves the “Rainbow Amplifiers,” the group raised $50,000 to keep the venue open. Kevin Ford, one of the Rainbow Amplifiers and CEO of Calian Group, told CBC that he fondly remembers bringing his sons to The Rainbow and did not want it to shut down.
Now in full renaissance, The Rainbow has been diversifying the acts its showcases.
The venue first built its reputation as the destination for live blues. Stacie Sivyer, manager and talent director at the club, said that its music has organically diversified over time to reflect changing trends.
Danny Sivyer, The Rainbow’s owner, said that the space has hosted many non-blues acts since opening in 1984. “We have reinvented ourselves over the last almost 40 years,” Stacie Sivyer said.
The venue still offers an array of blues shows, she said, but broader programming helps attract and retain a wide range of customers.
Cyrus Robertson Orkish, leading man of the band Valvehead, said he had heard that The Rainbow’s programming had expanded lately.
Robertson Orkish moved to Ottawa in 2021 and was unable to visit The Rainbow until after it was saved by the Rainbow Amplifiers. In his time performing and attending shows at The Rainbow since then, Roberston Orkish said he has a sense that the variety of musical offerings is viewed as a positive.
It is “becoming a real popular spot within the relatively youthful indie and alt scene,” he said in an email.
Stacie Sivyer said that since 2021, one genre that has had a growing presence at The Rainbow is indie pop-rock, which has proven alluring to younger music lovers.
“You can tell that there is definitely a beautiful, blossoming community of musicians,” Sivyer said. “They are in their mid 20s, maybe early 30s and they all come to each other’s shows and support each other.”
Beyond blues and indie pop-rock, The Rainbow hosts performers from genres such as reggae, hip hop, jazz and country.
“We really are ‘the rainbow’ of diverse types of music” Sivyer said.
Bringing in all kinds of music performers and audiences will help keep the venue afloat, said Roxanne Lécuyer, who has performed at The Rainbow for about 10 years.
Lécuyer said she was glad The Rainbow did not close, but she says she believes members of Ottawa’s local music scene need to engage with the venue to keep it open. She said that any music lover will be able to find a show that appeals to them because the performances are so varied.
“By providing a variety of different type of artists, you’re going to attract different audiences. But it is also important that the audience comes in to support while the venue is actually there,” Lécuyer said. “If people don’t go out to enjoy live music and to support artists, then — no matter how much marketing — there is always a higher probability that a venue will close.”
Stacie Sivyer said the venue’s second life has taught her many lessons.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Sivyer said. “We probably needed help before COVID-19. We were operating on a shoestring budget. … When we did ask for help, the community stepped up and helped. Trust the community, trust your customers and trust the people who come back over and over again.”