The Big 150

Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, Lightfoot — Le Hibou, “absolutely vital” to Ottawa’s local music scene

It was March 1968, and Jimi Hendrix had just played two sold-out shows in the old, 2,500-seat Capitol Theatre at Bank and Queen streets. Knowing that Joni Mitchell was performing at Café Le Hibou on Sussex Drive, Hendrix, his reel-to-reel tape recorder in hand, made a beeline for the coffee house. Recalls music promoter Harvey Glatt, then a partner in Le Hibou, “I looked up, and there was Jimi sitting at the side of the stage with headphones on, recording Joni.”

Ask any now-greying fan of folk, blues, and rock who lived in Ottawa at the time, and you’ll likely get a story about Le Hibou (Glatt’s story, supported by a copy of Hendrix’s diary entry, ends with Jimi kissing Joni goodbye the morning after the two had partied with others at the Motel de Ville in Vanier).

Night Owl Hangout — The Modern Rock Quartet play at Le Hibou, circa 1970. Photography: Dave Sproul photo collection, City of Ottawa archives, /mg397-7000050
Night Owl Hangout — The Modern Rock Quartet play at Le Hibou, circa 1970. Photography: Dave Sproul photo collection, City of Ottawa archives, /mg397-7000050

Le Hibou started life on Rideau Street in 1960, shifted to Bank Street a year later, and moved to 521 Sussex Dr. in 1965, where it operated until closing in 1975. During its lifetime, it hosted a who’s who of nascent and veteran performers: Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Howlin’ Wolf, and Gordon Lightfoot.

There was also a stream of now-forgotten musicians — The Poly-Chromatic Experience among them — along with poetry readings by the likes of local boy Bill Hawkins (also a musician) and the notorious Irving Layton, theatre and dance performances, and candle-stuffed Chianti bottles on the red-checked tablecloths. Denis Faulkner, who co-founded the coffee house while a student at the University of Ottawa, has a website dedicated to performers and all other things Le Hibou.

Bruce Cockburn played the room multiple times on his way to becoming a widely admired musician.

A poster from Bruce Cockburn’s concert at Le Hibou
A poster from Bruce Cockburn’s concert at Le Hibou

The coffee house with its high stamped-tin ceiling, was “absolutely vital” to the local music scene of the time, says Ottawa-born Cockburn. “It was a place to hear all these great musicians. I saw [jazz guitar great] Lenny Breau. At one point, he launched into a Bach piece he’d transposed for guitar, and I thought, ‘Holy shit, I’ve got some work to do!’ ”

Ken Rockburn says that during interviews for his 2015 book, We Are as the Times Are: The Story of Café Le Hibou, a common narrative that emerged was the amiable blending of local performers with “semi-big names that were coming through … what a trip it was to be thrown into that mix with all these other musicians, and how everyone learned from everyone else.”

Enough of a trip, in fact, that even Pierre Elliott Trudeau stopped by in June 1968 to see The Times Square Two, a performance duo featuring Montreal humourist Michel Choquette. Newly sworn in as prime minister, Trudeau arrived too late to catch the show, but he did sign a poster for Choquette before leaving.

Nothing lasts forever, of course. In 1975, the National Capital Commission, which owned the building that housed Le Hibou, jacked the monthly rent from $450 to $2,000. The times they were a-changin’.

Ottawa troubadour Sneezy Waters, a frequent performer at the coffee house, played closing week. “It was very morose,” he recalls. “We played our ass off, but in the back of your head, you knew this was it. Everybody was very sad.”