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The Capital Complex: Fredericton’s National Treasure

Inside the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta, a gallery highlights some of Canada’s most legendary music venues. I was there earlier this summer, absent-mindedly scanning the walls, expecting the expected. The gallery had Massey Hall, from Toronto; how could it not, what with good ol’ Gordie Lightfoot having played there 814 million times? The Commodore Ballroom, from Vancouver: check. A venue from Montreal: vérifie!

I continued glancing, bored with the obvious inclusions, until a familiar name caught my attention: FREDERICTON, NEW BRUNSWICK.

I gave my eyes a rub. Surely I was seeing things, a homesickness-induced hallucination. There couldn’t be somewhere from Fredericton in a national gallery!

I shook my head, squinted, stared closer and more carefully, yet there it was: FREDERICTON, NEW BRUNSWICK, the sign read, under a poster for our city’s very own Capital Complex.

“Three different bars, three different aesthetics, three different vibes”

I wanted to know more about this venue, and why it merited such prestigious recognition; so, when I got back to Fredericton, I headed downtown to investigate.

The Capital Complex is found in the Tannery, an enclosed plaza off King Street, nestled in the heart of downtown Fredericton. Several other bars, eateries and businesses are scattered throughout, but if you stand in the middle of the Tannery and survey your surroundings, The Capital Complex—which lines the plaza’s back edge, parallel to Queen Street—inevitably stands out. It’s two-storied, and slightly sprawling, with several sets of stairs—some of which, from afar, almost seem to lead nowhere, so that the building starts to look like it was designed by M.C. Escher. Take a few steps closer and it becomes clear that this sprawling nature is due to the fact that The Capital Complex actually consists of three separate spaces, distinct yet interconnected, all united under one name.

“We wanted a place where you could go, and either you have your favourite spot, or you have the ability to roam through three different worlds and take in a bit of everything,” Zach Atkinson, the Complex’s general manager, explained to me. Atkinson, who has been with The Capital Complex for over ten years, initially became involved with the venue by putting up posters, then working the doors; eventually, with no official manager but many assuming it was him because of how often he hung around, Atkinson took on the GM role, reflecting the sense of community that is interwoven with the space.  

Photo: Sarah Howden

When the venue first opened in 1998, it only consisted of the bottom level. Known today as The Capital Bar, this room is long, narrow and shoebox-shaped; brick-lined and dimly-lit, it somewhat reminds me of the CBGB, New York’s infamous punk rock club, a connection which suits The Capital’s primary function as a live music venue. (At least, it reminds me of photos I’ve seen of the CBGB—I am neither old enough, nor cool enough, to have ever been there myself.) Running shows several nights a week—especially on weekends—The Capital Bar offers up its stage to artists of all genres, shapes and sizes, sometimes even featuring more-established performers like The Arkells or Frank Turner. Crucially, though, the venue often provides a stage for local artists, which Atkinson believes “keeps the local music scene positive and alive,” something that has helped the Capital remain one of the longest-running music venues around, its business staying strong even while other similar venues have come and gone.

Photo: Sarah Howden

Over time, the Complex expanded to include the two upstairs rooms as well. As Atkinson stated, the owner wanted to “complete the vision” by offering “three different bars, three different aesthetics, three different vibes.” Directly above the Capital Bar sits The Phoenix, a lounge-style venue with signature cocktails and shooters and unique porch swing-like seating. This room plays host to a varied assortment of events: DJs often take over on weekends, turning The Phoenix into a nightclub-esque dance hall, with weeknight activities including Wednesday’s Bottomless Bingo, hosted by Freeda Whales, and Thursday’s long-standing trivia night—where I dare you to challenge my team, THIS Is What You Do With An English Degree!!!, but strongly encourage you to do so at your own risk…       

Photo: Sarah Howden

Wander across the connecting patio—both upper and lower levels have kick-ass decks, great for warmer weather socializing—and over into the third Complex space, you’ll find yourself in Wilser’s Room. Featuring long, candlelit tables and a range of local craft beers on tap, Wilser’s Room can sometimes be the quietest of the three Complex offerings, making it an ideal place to grab a drink and chat with friends. However, Wilser’s also often plays host to its own varied assortment of events, including weekly open mics, reggae nights, comedy shows, poetry readings and, sometimes, like its downstairs sibling, live music. (I once saw a band from out west play an unexpected and delightfully loud cover of Link Wray’s “Rumble;” look carefully at the Wilser’s back wall, and you might still see some of my brain splatterings.) Together, the three add up to form The Capital Complex.

Photo: Sarah Howden

“So…what is The Capital Complex not?”

I asked Atkinson this question after hearing descriptions of its multiple identities. His answer was simple.

“What we’re not,” he began, “Is ‘one’ thing. Some people like going to a place where they know, if they walk in on a Tuesday, or they walk in on a Saturday, it’s the same kinda thing: same setting, same crowd, same whatever. We’re not that.” As he admitted, Atkinson is primarily “a music guy,” but he knows that “the place is so much more to so many people”—be it its atmosphere, its clientele, or its breadth of options.

“When you come here, you may not have the same experience twice,” Atkinson stated. “And for some people, that’s exciting.”

The Capital Complex’s legacy

Towards the end of our chat, I stumped Atkinson with a question I’d been curious about since becoming aware of The Capital Complex’s presence in the National Music Centre.

“Let’s say, tomorrow, aliens came down from space,” I began (hear me out). “And they decided, for whatever reason, to blow up The Capital Complex. Or, let’s say, Irving came in, made an offer that could not be refused, bought the whole building and tore it to the ground. What would be the legacy of The Capital Complex?”

Atkinson made one of those hmmph sounds, tell-tale sign of someone considering something they have not really thought about before, then shrugged.

“I don’t know if that’s a question for me,” he answered. “I’m too far in it.” Then, though—his eyes lit up. He sat up a bit. “Actually, I will say this,” he said, suddenly remembering something. “I do know that I have been told by certain people over the years, ‘I wouldn’t live here if this place didn’t exist. If we didn’t have someplace like this, I would’ve moved to a different city, and done other things.’ And that’s the truth. That’s coming from people I’ve gotten to know over the years.”

Seems worthy of national recognition to me.

For more information and upcoming events, visit Thecapitalcomplex.com, and stay tuned for ongoing Capital coverage here in The Bruns Arts and at our website, Thebruns.ca.   

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