Review: Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene (Soulpepper)

Picture of Brooke Blackburn and Sate in Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville SceneRiverboat Coffee House is a love letter to Yorkville’s artistic history

After a former run, Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene has re-opened at Soulpepper Theatre. As part of their concert series programming, it’s a song and dance down memory lane into the iconic era of folk music that blossomed in Toronto’s Yorkville district in the 1960s and 1970s. Featuring performances of songs by legendary folk singers, this show is a love letter to an influential era of artistry in Toronto.

The show focuses on the life and times of the institution that is Riverboat Coffee House. It opened in the basement of 134 Yorkville Avenue in October 1964. It established itself as a small but mighty music venue, with seating capacity for 117. Over the 15 years it was open for business, the Riverboat featured countless iconic performances by artists including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Gordon Lightfoot, Odetta, Phil Ochs, Simon and Garfunkel, and a seemingly endless list of other prominent artists of the time.

This show was structured like a concert, with a narrative history of the Riverboat woven between songs. Written and directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, the show did an excellent job of speaking to the history of the Riverboat and, by extension, the broader Yorkville scene that existed at the time. Cox-O’Connell, along with composer and arranger Mike Ross shared anecdotes from interviews they conducted with the Riverboat’s former owner, Bernie Fiedler, which added a layer of intimacy to the narrative.

The show included performances of songs by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bob Dylan, among others. Highlights of the night included Emily Schultz’s ethereal and mesmerizing renditions of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” and “Woodstock”. Alana Bridgewater was doubly powerful, delivering staggering performances of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Solider” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (as performed by Odetta).

Brooke Blackburn gave rich, soulful performances of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee’s “John Henry”, featuring incredible guitar playing, as well. SATE was a powerhouse on stage, bringing spirited energy and incredible vocals to her performances. Other performers included both Cox-O’Connell and Ross, as well as Fraser Melvin, who covered Bruce Cockburn delightfully, and Raha Javanfar, who gave a sublime, playful performance of Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag”.

Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene is a charming tribute to a bygone era of urgent folk music that found its footing in Toronto. This show has managed to capture the feelings of inspiration and active listening that once sprung from this scene, and are offering them up to new audiences, all these years later.


  • Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until November 16, 2019.
  • Performances run Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30 pm with matinees on Wednesdays and weekends at 1:30 pm.
  • Tickets range from $35 – $95, with discounted tickets available for students.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by phone by calling 416 866 8666, or in person at the box office.
  • Run Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Photo of Brooke Blackburn and SATE by Daniel Malavasi