From the Crap, Totally Forgot to Cover This Last Week, Thanksgiving and All, You Understand Dept.:
During our several visits to Toad’s, the unavoidable New Haven nightspot, something about the place struck us as, well, trashy. So we were more than a little shocked by a piece in the Times last week that portrayed the place as some kind of legendary, classy bar, as opposed to the wretched, rail-soaked Rohynpnol assembly line we grudgingly like. Cognitive dissonance like this, we’ve never known (excerpts alternate with lines written by Yale readers):
[Toad’s] was already nationally known, thanks to the Rolling Stones, who opened their Steel Wheels tour with a surprise show there in 1989 …
Wait, Toad’s? Where owners are paying a $90,000 fine for serving minors?
A year later, Bob Dylan played his longest show (four hours) there, on the same stage where Billy Joel recorded ”Los Angelenos” for his record, ”Songs in the Attic,” in 1980 …
Wait, Toad’s? Where “Wednesday Penny Night” leads to Thursday Morning Yale-New Haven [Hospital] on a near-weekly basis?
Even the hallway to the basement bathrooms reads like a rock ‘n’ roll encyclopedia — Blondie, R.E.M., Marilyn Manson, 311, Public Enemy and Bonnie Raitt are just a few of the names mounted behind plexiglass …
No seriously, Toad’s? Where the Q-Pac Fuck Truck drops off bare-assed girls shivering for rum and the men’s ice hockey team?
… past appearances there by Johnny Cash and U2 had impressed him …
At Toad’s Toad’s? Which generously sponsors DKE’s annual Bacchalian underage outdoor Sunday morning drinking competition, the Tang Cup?
Trust us, we could go on. (See full story after the jump.)
CONNECTICUT AT ITS BEST; For a Hopping Club, The Beat Goes Onward
By PATRICK VEREL
Published: November 19, 2006
THE walls of Toad’s Place don’t need to be coaxed to tell their stories. Not far from the picture of Bruce Springsteen hangs a framed record, ”Toad’s Place,” made by Jeff Lorber in 1979. On the edge of the V.I.P. balcony, posters of the Talking Heads vie for attention with those of the Rolling Stones. Even the hallway to the basement bathrooms reads like a rock ‘n’ roll encyclopedia — Blondie, R.E.M., Marilyn Manson, 311, Public Enemy and Bonnie Raitt are just a few of the names mounted behind plexiglass.
History is alive at Toad’s Place, a 7,000-square-foot club on York Street, and it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. In fact, the 32-year-old New Haven club has become a small chain, with two new places opening next year, in Trenton and in Richmond, Va. For Brian Phelps, the owner, expansion is an especially sweet chapter for an institution he has been with practically from Day 1.
In 1995, after 10 years of running Toad’s Place with his boss, Mike Spoerndle, who founded the club, Mr. Phelps, by then a partner, persuaded Mr. Spoerndle to let him take over. The place was already nationally known, thanks to the Rolling Stones, who opened their Steel Wheels tour with a surprise show there in 1989. A year later, Bob Dylan played his longest show (four hours) there, on the same stage where Billy Joel recorded ”Los Angelenos” for his record, ”Songs in the Attic,” in 1980.
But in the mid-90s, the landmark was hurting. An attempt to run a branch in Waterbury failed after three years. The original restaurant-turned-rock club was increasingly relying on recorded music for parties instead of live music.
Things didn’t get much better, even after Mr. Phelps, a New Haven native, gained complete control. ”That was tough back then,” he said of the late ’90s. ”We were having more dance parties. Then they opened the Crown Street entertainment district, and our parties took a real hit. So we had to find profitable bands instead.”
Mr. Phelps spruced up the club, which holds 750 people in the main room, and refocused on live music and booking diversified bands. ”We try to do music that hits on all genres,” he said. ”For the students, we have the dance party, and we have shows for both the 21-and-over crowd and under-21. We had Vanilla Fudge here, and I don’t think there was anyone under 60 in the audience. Then there was New Found Glory. I’d say that audience was 14 to 16.”
This month’s schedule features a typical mix of old and new. The Southern California ska band Reel Big Fish plays on Nov. 19, followed by Deep Banana Blackout, the Bridgeport-based funk-jam band, on Nov. 22. Agnostic Front, the pioneering 22-year-old New York City hard-core punk band, makes an appearance on Nov. 27, and Melissa Ferrick, the Boston-based singer and songwriter, will play on Nov. 30.
The club’s layout has been transformed, too. The main room still feels like a small hangar, with fading posters of everyone from Joe Satriani to Randy Newman to Big Audio Dynamite lining the walls. It is joined by Lilly’s Pad, a bar that replaced an upstairs storage space two years ago, and the Rainforest Room, another bar, which replaced a video game room.
Dave King, whose Irish punk band Flogging Molly recently played Toad’s Place for the first time, said that past appearances there by Johnny Cash and U2 had impressed him, but just as important was the club’s layout. ”What struck me is how long and yet wide the place is,” he said. ”It makes the audience look like it goes 180 degrees all around. In some places, you can see the whole breadth of the place, but with Toad’s, you have to look from left to right.”
Nick Sproviero, a Stamford resident whose band, the Jaws, has played Toad’s Place seven times, has performed in many great Connecticut clubs, from Daniel Street in Milford to the Quarter Pocket in Orange. He gives Toad’s the highest marks. ”They make an effort to make the sound as good as they can; some places in New York just sort of throw you on and you’re on your own,” he said. ”You’d be foolish not to let the history give you a little pop. That’s what makes a place so special.”
John Burke, a 20-year-old student from Milford who attended the Flogging Molly show, said the only distractions were the metal barricades required by the state to separate adults from younger patrons. ”It seems like, depending on the demographic of the band, they’ll make the metal gate closer or farther away from the bar, and the people who are underage don’t get a lot of room,” he said. ”But I like that you’re able to get really close to the band.”
On the other side of the barricade, Vaughn Winkler, 43, a Mansfield resident, agreed that what worked for Toad’s Place was the intimacy. ”There’s that whole having the mosh pit, with people jumping around; that’s just an energy release,” he said.
Many other places that had intimate settings and booked touring acts — the Marquis in Norwalk, the Arcadia Ballroom in New Haven, the Capitol Theater in Port Chester –have closed over the years. Even CBGB, the New York City club where punk rock was born, shut down last month.
Toad’s itself will be seriously tested next year when it closes for three months on May 6. As part of a deal worked out this month with the Connecticut Liquor Commission, the club admitted to 45 counts of sales to a minor and is also paying a $90,000 fine. Mr. Phelps said the culprit was a company, now closed, hired to run a dance party that failed to check minors’ ID’s.
”It’s going to be a hit, no question about it,” he said, ”I’m just going to have to use my resources to pay my mortgage and some of the other fixed costs.”
Other, ongoing problems for Toad’s Place come from the competition: Webster Theater in Hartford and the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos, in southeastern Connecticut. They have made Toad’s expansion, which uses a model similar to a franchise, more important.
”The casinos can pay a lot more than we can, but I think we’re going to have a lot more leverage when we have more places,” Mr. Phelps said. ”The guy who does the booking for us also books Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence and Axis in Boston. So we’ll be able to book bands in five places.”
The principal owner of Toad’s Place in Richmond is Dr. Charles Joyner, a cardiac electrophysiologist who worked as a D.J. at the original Toad’s Place when he was a Yale undergraduate in the mid-1980s. He said that Richmond needed a midsize site and that the time was right to open a club and restaurant that can accommodate 1,600 people. The restaurant, along the Kanawha Canal, is scheduled to open in January; the club will follow in the spring.
”We had other ideas for names for the club — names that are cute, names that connect us to the waterfront,” he said. ”I stuck with Toad’s Place because what we needed, as the first party to take a shot at this, was a legacy. We needed the people of Richmond to know there was a long story to be told when they heard the name, and whether they knew about it, the industry knows it.”
For Mr. Phelps, the past is definitely the key to the future. He is quick to whip out a photo album of himself with a collection of ’80s pop stars or look up statistics about past shows, like how many people the Pretenders played to on March 26, 1980 (714) and how much the tickets cost ($2 and $3). In that sense, the club has a lot in common with its Ivy League neighbors. The offensive line of Yale’s football team, in fact, called themselves the Yale Toads, and their pictures can be found on the wall, just behind the club’s main bar.
Even the tuxedo-clad, top-hatted mascot, whose ancestors’ legs were once on the menu when the club was a French restaurant, is finding life much better as a rock ‘n’ roll icon.
As Mr. Phelps put it, ”What’s more hoppin’ than a toad?”