Those on the DIY side of the Vancouver music scene were not thrilled when news broke in early January that the former Railway Club would be reopening under a new name by a partnership that includes Chad Cole and Jeff Donnelly of the Donnelly Group.
Most of the criticism was that a beloved local live-music institution was going to be taken over by someone best known for a chain of bars (Bimini, Lamplighter, Library Square Public House) not known for hosting original bands. Adding to the outrage was the revelation that the shuttered-for-a-year room at 579 West Dunsmuir wasn’t going to be called the Railway Club in its upcoming incarnation.
In an interview with the Straight, Donnelly says that the reaction was noted. And in some ways that played a part in the decision to give the room its new name: the Railway Stage & Beer Café.
“We were really debating back and forth whether we wanted to keep the name the Railway,” Donnelly says. “We wanted to because of the history, but we didn’t want to because of the potential backlash. We got the backlash anyways before we decided whether we were going to keep the name Railway or not. And that kind of influenced us to where we were like ‘Yeah, we gotta stay with the name Railway, but let’s kind of make it our own.’ Let’s re-create the thing, but in keeping with the history and the heritage that was there. We always knew that we were going to do live in there—we just didn’t know to what extent.”
Even the most belligerent Vancouver indie die-hard will be hard-pressed to complain about who Donnelly and Cole have brought on-board to run the live-music side of things. The Railway Stage & Beer Café will be working with Thomas Anselmi, who started out as the frontman for such legendary Vancouver acts as Slow and Copyright, and later launched two of Vancouver’s most progressive cultural spaces, the reimagined Waldorf Hotel and the Fox Cabaret.
“We had to bring in the right guy, because live music quite frankly is not my forte,” Donnelly says. “Over the years we’ve had tons of live nights, and we appreciate the live nights, but, like I said, we need experts to do it.”
In a press release the Railway Stage and Beer Café wrote that Anselmi will “develop the programming vision for the Railway Stage, including the curatorial direction, decor, stage design, lighting, and to keep the all-important feel which makes the room special.” Anselmi is quoted as saying “The Railway is one of the most important historic live music stages in the city, and this is an opportunity to bring new life to a key venue in Vancouver.”
Initially, the concern was that Anselmi wouldn’t be interested.
“We were hoping that he would want to do it,” Donnelly says. “In the press release we wrote that we chose Tom, but I think to a certain extent that he chose us. We were really excited because he really loves the project. We reached out to him and he took ownership of it, which was great because we really needed leadership in that department.”
While details are still be worked out, the plan is to have the the Railway Stage & Beer Café do live entertainment multiple nights a week. Highly touted local comedian Dino Archie will host a comedy night, and a Saturday live session overseen by Joe Rotundo—part of the old Railway Club’s programming—will also return to the room.
“We’ll have at least one or two nights a week where we’ll be doing live local original acts,” he said. “We might have two or three in a night. They might not be the hugest draw, but they might be up-and-coming local guys. We’d also like to do some more established Vancouver bands that can sell tickets. We’re not going to be taking cover charge ourselves—everything will go towards the bands.”
There’s also the possibility of the Railway being made available as a go-to venue for touring acts. Donnelly says that the club’s soundsystem and sightlines are being upgraded, the hope being that will make the room one of the bucket-list places that musicians feel they have to play on their way up.
Famously, the old Railway hosted everyone from Sarah McLachlan and Blue Rodeo to the Tragically Hip and k.d. lang. As excited as he is about the live potential of the the Railway Stage & Beer Café, Donnelly is just as thrilled about the fact that the room will be branding itself as a beer mecca with upwards of 32 rotating offerings on tap.
“I think two-thirds or maybe even three-quarters are all going to be local guys,” he said. “There are a few coming from up and down the West Coast that our guys really like as well. It’s going to be an ever-evolving, really cool draft beer list.”
Donnelly says he can understand why some people were upset that he was taking over the former Railway.
Laughing, he says, “I think people think that the Donnelly Group is a bunch of executives that sit in a boardroom—like old guys writing cheques maybe from Toronto.”
Instead, he suggests he’s just a regular guy running an independent business whose love for the room stems from the fact that it was one of his go-to bars even when many of the city stopped going there after Steve Silman purchased it in 2008.
The room was successfully run for two and half decades by siblings Steve and Janet Forsyth, who transformed it into one of Canada’s most fabled venues when their family took it over in 1980. The Railway fell into such disfavour that Silman attempted to sell the business at the end of 2015, shutting in it the following March when there were no takers.
“What’s funny is that I went to the Railway all the time,” Donnelly says with a laugh, “so I think that I was the most upset person in the city about the place closing down. Really I went there because no one else did—you know what I mean? My office is right up the street, so we could walk right up there, sit in the back and not be bothered while we had a few pints. It was perfect.”
His goal, then, it to not only restore a room that he loved to its former glory on all fronts, but also make it a go-to spot for an entire new generation of Vancouverites.
“Our train of thought is that we want to do a really neat craft beer cafe—we’ve been trying to do that downtown,” ,” Donnelly says. “I just loved the room. It was a railway union members’ club in the ’30. It’s a beautiful old room and it’s got a lot more history than just the recent live-music part of it.”