041211 Salif Keita, Ottawa, ON

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For over a hundred years (and under several names) the Dominion Chalmers United Church has encompassed the corner of Cooper and O’Connor Streets in downtown Ottawa.  The stone structure sports an impressive steeple and the same copper-green roof that tops most of Ottawa’s iconic buildings.  

Inside, rows and rows of pews arch away from a wide pulpit that is backed by a stunning pipe organ that extends all the way up to the lofty ceiling, itself adorned with a conical arch of stained glass and angelic portraits.  The main level must seat at least seven hundred people while the three-sided balcony can easily add four hundred more, which is ironic considering that nowadays the church generally hosts less than twenty parishioners a week.  

I read a story in the paper reporting the woes of the church.  Their drastically dwindling customer base (many of which are now in their last lap around life, so to speak) has forced the clergy to put the old church on the market.  With no tithes to speak of lately their main source of revenue has come from renting out the grand space to the Chamber Music Festival, the Ottawa jazz festival and other organizations for live music, and while they keep the room pretty busy these events aren’t generating enough revenue to keep the lights on.  

I don’t know if the place has sold yet or not*, but when it does I hope to hell…er, I hope to God the church doesn’t get torn down and I especially hope it maintains it’s status as being one of the best places in town to see a sit-down type of concert.  One thing: the railing along the edge of the balcony has got to go.  It kills what would otherwise be a spectacular view from the front three rows of the four-row bleachers up there and it serves no purpose whatsoever.  Anyone with the wherewithal to make it up the stairs to the balcony will have it in them to not fall over the edge, we promise.

Other than that little thorn, the Domchalm is a great venue that has hosted some fine, fine concerts, of which I’ve seen many: Stewart Copeland, John McLaughlin, Jerry Granelli, Oliver Mtukudzi, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to name just a few.  In keeping with this tradition of excellent performances inside the holy venue, on April 12th, 2011 I was there for a concert featuring Malian afro-pop singer Salif Keita.  I don’t remember much in particular about the show but I’ve been a fan of the music of Mali since long before I visited the vastly musical country in…was it 2008?  Anyway, it was hands-down the greatest trip of my life and I heard so much great live music when I was there – the country is just bleeding talent – so I’m sure I enjoyed this show immensely.  

As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show at the Domchalm that didn’t impress me.  And for a grumpy old concert curmudgeon like me that’s saying something.

*Shortly after this writing the church was sold to my alma mater Carleton University, specifically for their music department, who will surely make excellent use of the space.

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