Make your own history at Ottawa’s beloved Laff

Toronto Star, Aug 4, 2017: OTTAWA—“Play whatever moves ya, man!” the grey-haired guy at a front table shouts out to Ben, a slight young man who has frozen for a second on the tiny stage. Ben regroups, strums his guitar and breaks into Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” nailing every single one of the high notes.

A woman in a pink dress sings along, beaming and swaying on her bar stool. A few minutes earlier, she was on stage announcing, “I have a public-speaking phobia” before opening a binder and reading her poem about a first date that she has tucked into a plastic sleeve.

The “World Famous Open Mic” at the Chateau Lafayette in Ottawa is well underway this Tuesday night. The bar’s big front windows are open onto York St. in the ByWard Market, where the Laff has been making its own history since before Canada was a country.

The Laff threw open its doors in 1849 and has been welcoming a procession of characters ever since — from prostitutes to prime ministers. Neither appear to be present on this night, but there are musicians young and old, good and bad, waiting to take their turn at the mic. They greet each other with back slaps, handshakes and a few hugs.

A couple of young women at the bar order another round near the “Ladies and Escort” sign that marks the back of the bar and back in time to the ’30s when the LCBO required men and women to do their drinking in separate rooms. These days, locals gather at the bar once a decade or so to reminisce, once a year to celebrate a birthday and, for the diehard, once a week.

“There is sort of a core group. There are dedicated aficionados here,” says John Carroll, the opening act, emcee, soundman and cheerleader/coach of the Tuesday open mic. “Make a space for people to come and things happen. That’s kind of the way I approach it.” Between acts, Carroll asks trivia questions and the winners are thrilled to win prizes such as a single-serving container of chocolate pudding.

On Wednesday nights, Carroll has the stage to himself, a gig he’s had since 2004. As he starts his set of folk and blues, a senior wearing a white dress and pink scarf sits at a front table. As she settles in, the bartender brings over a quart of Canadian, a pint glass and a salt shaker. She wipes it all down with a napkin before pouring her beer over a dash of salt and using both hands to pick up her pint. “That’s Yvette,” Carroll tells me. “She’s been drinking here since the ’70s.” Next to her, some old buddies are celebrating a reunion and out front part of a softball team is warming up pre-game.

Saturday afternoons bring out a different crowd. Every week, Lucky Ron performs the same songs and his fans throw out the same heckles. “You’re in the middle of a country flash mob. It’s much like a Rocky Horror Picture Show kinda deal, you get a lot of call backs,” explains bartender Jourdon Girard, who has worked here since 2001. “I start my shift at 3 and it’s empty, and it’s full five minutes later.”

Regulars include Handsome Johnny in his leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, Dave in his long hair, beard and coat, a few 30-somethings in Lucky Ron Show T-shirts and a good number of middle-aged folks. On this Saturday a few newbies have wandered in. Three university students are playing Yahtzee next to the stage. “Oh, is this a thing?” one asks. “I’ve never been here before.” An older group sits, unsmiling, in the corner. “Never seen them before,” Lucky Ron tells me, unconcerned, before starting his 4 p.m. set at 5:30.

“I’ve got the same show for you, nothing new or different,” he tells the crowd as he starts to play. Dave gives him a double thumbs up, the students roll the dice and the people in the corner drink their quarts of Labatt 50. As he finishes the third song, “Ghost Riders,” someone’s mom and dad start yelling “Number four!” the lineup is out the door and Lucky Ron pretends he can’t hear the chants, just like he’s done every Saturday for decades.

Eventually he breaks into the almighty fourth, “Battle of New Orleans.” The regulars whoop and holler, the students forget their board game and the people at the corner table grin, banging their empty quarts of beer in time to Lucky Ron singing “On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico . . . ”

They may be late to this party, but they’re making up for lost time at the Laff.

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