When it comes to live music in Kelowna, there are very few places like Doc Willoughby’s Downtown Pub.
Known locally as ‘Docs,’ the popular pub on Bernard Avenue has spent the past two decades serving local beer, modestly priced food and perhaps most important has become the go-to spot for musical acts.
Dave Willoughby, the owner and former manager of Docs, opened the establishment 20 years ago with the vision of creating a communal space for people to hang out and listen to music, as if they were in the comfort of their own home.
Named after Dave’s grandfather, Doc Willoughby, who established a medical practice in the Central Interior back in 1920, the pub has become a staple for the music scene in Kelowna.
“He kind of represented a lot of the things that we felt were important to a strong sense of community and family. I kind of wanted Docs to be like my living room, a true neighbourhood public house, which has the look and feel of somebody’s living room,” said Dave Willoughby.
In an effort to achieve the aesthetic, he worked with former co-owner Deb Berard, who happened to also be a talented interior designer, to piece together his vision.
The two visited over 40 pubs throughout the Pacific Northwest to garner ideas for what would become the vision for Docs.
Berard made Willoughby’s vision a reality but unfortunately passed away from cancer soon after the pub opened.
Then in November 1999, Docs began hosting a number of music acts.
With the intimate atmosphere and a solid sound system, the pub quickly became a popular venue to catch a show.
“Right from the get-go we had live entertainment on the weekends,” Willoughby recalled.
“Bands love to play at Docs because there’s so much wood, it’s a really warm cozy atmosphere and we have a really good sound system in there with a professional sound technician.”
Since then, Docs has hosted an array of international bands such as CJ Ramone, of The Ramones, while also giving local bands the exposure to go on to greater things.
Some of those artists include the likes of Vancouver’s The New Odds, Langley’s Gob and Vernon’s Daniel Powter, who have all respectively gone on to have prosperous music careers.
One band in particular that began honing their craft on the Docs’ stage is Kelowna’s The Wild!.
Nearly seven years ago the band got their start at Docs and quickly developed a local following.
More recently, after returning from a large scale European tour, The Wild! performed two sold-out shows at Docs on back-to-back nights, coming full circle to where it all began.
“It was quite crazy, some of the shows we played over in Europe were for over 15,000 people,” said Dylan Kirouac, lead vocalist of The Wild!.
“Instead of coming home to Canada after that tour and doing the usual big venues, we wanted to do something completely different and go back and play every bar that we started out in.
“Docs was where we played our very first show as a band. It was really interesting to feel all that love and support from home.
“Docs was very instrumental in our early years, giving us a spot to be who we are and that led us to bigger and better things.”
While Kirouac and The Wild! have made a name for themselves in the rock scene, he is concerned about the lack of venues for artists to play in Kelowna, particularly after several venues closed their doors in recent years, such as Milkcrate Records and the Habitat.
Colin Carrier, Docs’ current manager, said he has been booking bands for the last 11 years and takes personal responsibility in keeping Kelowna a relevant city for touring musicians.
To do that, Carrier books everything from rock to punk, to rap, to DJs and even the occasional country artist.
Carrier said he believes in representing every genre of music at Docs. Even when he is approached by a band but does not have an available time slot for them to play, he still makes the effort to ensure they can share their music in Kelowna elsewhere.
“We have a cool Kelowna music community going on, where even if I can’t accommodate a band I will reach out to Dunnenzies or Fernando’s and they will usually take them on,” said Carrier.
“Kelowna is on the touring circuit and someone needs to accommodate these bands so they can continue making music and inspire others to do the same.”
Looking forward to the next 20 years, Docs is hoping to make some aesthetic changes to open the place up and increase capacity.
Both Willoughby and Carrier have considered the idea of moving the kitchen upstairs and moving the stage to a high-rise location.
Docs will also be changing musically to reflecting changing tastes in music by booking acts that reflect Kelowna’s music interests.
While there may be a few changes on the horizon, Carrier said seeing people enjoy the venue is what keeps his passion alive.
“People come up and thank me all the time and that’s the best feeling. Seeing the stairwell full and the dance floor packed with people makes me super stoked.
“Just knowing that I’m a part of that is awesome.”