Bootblacks at Handlebar

On November 11, I went to my first show in 18 months.

A month after the fact, it still feels surreal and I’m still having a hard time articulating what it was like. As the pandemic dragged on, it felt like live music might never come back. I watched as concerts were announced and then cancelled or postponed again and again.

Shows with capacity restrictions and seating-only rules had been happening for a while, but I wasn’t tempted to attend them. I wanted live music back fully and completely, or not at all. When capacity restrictions were lifted, Bootblacks rescheduled their previously cancelled Toronto show. I crossed my fingers, bought a ticket and waited.

I held my breath in the days leading up to the show. The day before, the band announced that they had crossed the border and were in Montreal. On the day of the show, I breathed a little easier when each hour passed with no bad news. Piece by piece, the mirage morphed into reality.

It started when I picked out my first club-worthy outfit in months, did my make-up and hair. When I threw on my leather jacket and Docs and headed out into the night. Getting off the streetcar near Kensington Market, I saw a goth couple on the sidewalk ahead of me, and I smiled knowing that we were going to the same place. Getting closer to the venue, I saw more black-clad people gathered in front of Handlebar. My people. I pulled my N95 mask on, joined the queue and seconds later I was walking into the venue.

It was familiar and yet so strange, walking into a small, dark dive bar full of people in leather and velvet and lace. It was heady and overwhelming. It was like coming home.

I walked all the way up to the front, needing to make sure this was real, that the band were actually there. They were standing at the merch table. Their instruments were on the stage. My heart and soul, that had so wanted to rejoice but had been too afraid, finally began to sing. I still felt a bit uncertain. How does this work again? It’s been so long. I grabbed a beer from Handlebar’s excellent draft list and promptly ran into some people I knew, many of them also seeing their first show since the pandemic started. This feels happy/strange for you too? It’s not just me?

Set time was 10 PM and as the hour drew closer, people gathered around the stage, nervous anticipation palpable. The lights dimmed, Bootblacks took the stage, and I was suddenly awash in live music again, the red and blue stage lights dancing across my face. How did it feel? I was both in the moment and hovering above it, part of me moving joyously to the music as though I’d never left. Another part of me was standing back and watching, making sure that this was real and not a dream.

Bootblacks’ infectious and mesmerizing post-punk sound filled the bar, with Panther often climbing off the small stage to pace the floor in front of the audience. I soaked it all up joyously with every fibre of my being. All around me, people were dancing, their joy echoing my own. When the show ended, I floated out into the night air and walked for a few blocks, needing to be alone with the mad tangle of feelings that was dancing inside me.

It happened. I was there. It was real. Thankful doesn’t even begin to cover it.

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