25 years on the FM dial

By Ryan Pike

Twenty-five years ago, the world was a much different place. There was no internet, the Calgary Flames were Stanley Cup contenders and CJSW was a radio club that only broadcast to campus listeners. But history was made January 22, 1985, when CJSW officially joined FM radio’s ranks and expanded to the entire city. This weekend, the popular radio station invites its magnificent musical friends to celebrate 25 years on the airwaves with a massive concert event on Sat., Jan. 23.

“CJSW is turning 25 and may I note it doesn’t look a day over 14,” says CJSW station manager Chad Saunders. “We’ve decided to kick off the whole year of celebration with a huge shaker here in the Mac Hall building — not to be confused with the Mac Hall destination. It’s the whole building, so we’ve asked bands from the past, the really-far-ago past, and most recently the hot new bands. Initially it was 25 bands, 25 bucks, but [that is] some false advertising, because now there’s more than 25 bands.”

The result of the station’s efforts is a majestic buffet of musical diversity. Spanning five different venues through MacEwan Student Centre — the Cassio and Escalus rooms in the conference centre, the Den, the Black Lounge and MacEwan Ballroom — the event boasts at least 28 different acts from the past three decades of local music.

Additionally, Saunders mentions that for the first time in recent memory, the entire building will be open to liquor consumption.

“When you need a drink, you can get it anywhere in the building,” explains Saunders. “You can leave the venue with the drink in hand and go all through the whole building, up and down. No problem. Some folks out there I know get their mom to pack a can of beer in their lunch sometimes. Now you can do it legally.”

The talent lined up by CJSW’s organizing committee is a veritable who’s-who of Calgary music. The roster includes old favourites like The Mants, Shecky Forme and Field Day, along with more contemporary acts like Chad VanGaalen, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir and Dragon Fli Empire. While Saunders admits that narrowing the massive list of Calgary musicians down to something workable was a great undertaking, they had no trouble finding enough bands to fill the bill.

“We [had] a big organizing committee help to put it all together and a lot of people on that organizing committee really didn’t get turned down very often and when we got turned down, it was pretty legit,” notes Saunders. “To the credit of all of these bands that did sign up, they were almost in right off the bat. It was a matter of making sure the schedule matched and they were available.”

Roughly half the groups are bands from yesteryear, including nearly a dozen that reformed their old acts just for the occasion. Among those reforming are Tinderbox, one of Kris Demeanor’s first bands. Demeanor notes that the show is the first time the band has played together in 10 years, a product of his backing band being too busy with their own previous groups.

“It turns out that the entire Crack Band was busy anyway because they were all playing in the bands that they played in,” says Demeanor. “I wouldn’t have had a band anyway, so I suggested why don’t we get Tinderbox back together?”

Demeanor’s sister, Monika Wenzel — also of Tinderbox — expresses great appreciation for CJSW’s role in developing the local arts scene. She notes that the station’s appeal stretches well beyond the campus community.

“I think it’s a real testament to campus radio,” notes Wenzel. “It’s been fundamentally supportive to really good music, not just in Calgary but everywhere, as a campus radio station. CJSW’s got such an amazing reputation and people don’t realize what a role they’ve played in promoting excellent music throughout our city and getting people started beyond our city as well.”

One group that echoes Wenzel’s sentiments is the Summerlad. Band member Dean Martin says the station’s appeal is not only its ability to provide exposure to emerging bands, but also its stark departure from many of commercial radio’s conventions.

“It’s the alternative to all of that,” says Martin. “I think a lot of people really pay attention to that. They’re kind of tired of all the endless crappy commercial radio and CJSW doesn’t have that at all. It’s such a great relief on your ears to hear something that’s not played five times a day in a cycle.”

The Plaid Tongued Devils, together since 1990, may in fact be the longest-running band appearing at the show. While frontman Ty Semeka declined to search for proof, he was excited at the opportunity to see bands from across Calgary’s musical history this weekend.

“It’s gonna be like a high school reunion,” says Semeka. “Back in the day, you could go down to the Ship and Anchor on a Monday night and there’d be three or four bands hanging out. I’m sure bands are still hanging out, possibly at different clubs, maybe Broken City or something like that. It’ll be like a Monday night at the Ship, about 15 or 16 years ago.”

Saunders is well aware of the role that CJSW played in helping get local bands established. However, he notes that the bands the station plays establish its role just as much.

“The bands are playing for us because we were good to them and we played their tracks and they were an important part of our programming for so many years,” says Saunders. “But the other part is like we’ve got a lot to thank these bands for creating this scene in Calgary and making it worthwhile to go out to venues of yesteryear.”

Ultimately, Saunders feels that the 25th anniversary celebrations are as much about giving back to the community as about commemorating the station’s success. Case in point: Saunders says that any profits from the event will be donated to charity, while the first several audience members will be rewarded for their attendance with swag from the CJSW archives. It’s just a small way that a radio station that has given so much to the community for a quarter-century continues to cement its place in Calgary’s collective heart.

“Personally, I thank all the bands that agreed to do this stuff because we wouldn’t have become the go-to station for local music over the last 25 years without their support,” says Saunders. “The affection is mutual and I hope to slow dance with everyone out on the dance floor before midnight because that’d be my way to say ‘Thanks and let’s dance.’”

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