Closure of ByWard Market music venue Mercury Lounge a ‘tough blow’

The last chords have rung out at the Mercury Lounge, the Ottawa bar and music venue that’s been a ByWard Market staple for more than 20 years.

The indie venue was small and standing-room only — but it had a larger-than-life reputation for being a cornerstone in the careers of several prominent bands.

But it was never able to fully recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, said John Criswick, who ran it as a not-for-profit and announced its closure late last week.

“It is a super complex business to operate,” Criswick said Sunday, adding it was not just a bar but a “social enterprise” that gave the community a place to gather.

“Someone needs to take up the reins, not necessarily there. But the city definitely needs [something like it].”

‘It always had a vibe’

Over the past two decades, the ByWard Market Square venue played host to live bands, poetry events, plays, multiplayer Halo nights, and even a wedding.

In his Facebook post, Criswick said Mercury Lounge had “fundamentally” closed after the first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, with the news now being made official.

Poet and singer-songwriter Mehdi Cayenne said its closure left him “at a loss for words.”

Cayenne, who played multiple shows there, said it was where the Capital Slam poetry series took shape — one of the longest-running spoken word competitions in Canada, and one that birthed several national champion slam poets.

“It was a very unique venue within a unique location that looked unique,” Cayenne said. “It always had a vibe.”

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Dominique Labelle, co-chair of the ByWard Market BIA, says losing the Mercury Lounge was a “tough blow.”

The space holds a lot of positive memories for many Ottawans, Labelle said.

“There’s a place for a business like that in Ottawa, and I hope somebody out there has dreams of reviving it or reviving that kind of music venue,” she said.

The venue’s shutdown also underscores just how badly the music industry needs help from all levels of government as it recovers from COVID-19, said Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association.

“We can’t stand the loss of more live music venues,” Benjamin said. “They are critical cornnerstones of culture in every city and town across Canada.”

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