The lights are dimmed. Silhouettes feasting on the soft electric glow of the street lamps outside wait in fervent anticipation of a single note. They don’t ask for much, just a simple sign from their Yamaha keyboard-playing piano man.
“One, Two. One, Two, Three, Four. You oughta know by now!”
Pulses of yellow and orange and red appear, and the crowd erupts into song. On this New Haven night, the roughly 300 people in the audience have escaped the sticky August air, seeking refuge in the grungy, welcoming arms of Toad’s Place, New Haven’s 32-year-old bar and nightclub on York Street. Tonight’s headliners are The Strangers, the latest tribute (not “cover,” as the lead singer is ready to point out) band to carry on Billy Joel’s legacy.
Toad’s has a certain bizarre charm tonight. The audience ranges from 21-year-olds (IDs were check at the door by machine — a recently implemented Toad’s staple) to silver foxes. A particular dance is ubiquitous among the entirely white audience: knees bent, ass out, torso bowed, arms bouncing and ready to click an offbeat snap. But as “Billy” cries his most tender of words — “Honesty is hardly ever heard / And mostly what I need from you” — couples sidle up to one another and sway to the melody.
Yalies don’t often associate sidling and swaying with Toad’s, which has hosted the infamous Saturday Night Dance Party since the mid-’80s — the most common descriptors for the event are “sloppy,” “sweaty” or just plain “drunk.” And despite the club’s 90-day forced suspension this summer following a 2005 alcohol raid, the recently reopened club has retained all that makes Toad’s Toad’s: sidling, sloppiness, and drunkenness alike.
“The only reason it can exist with as much success as it does is because music has no single market,” said Jon Abrams, the Wayfarered, ungoateed Billy Joel of The Strangers. “It must change and transform to please a population, and reaching as many people as possible, as Toad’s does, is the smartest decision a club owner can make.”
With at least two Dance Parties and a handful of concerts each week, whose genres rage from reggae to jazz to country, Toad’s’ identity splits three ways into the most holy of music trinities. The father: a grungy venue sated with the swarm of local acts and tribute bands that keep its schedule full. The son: a sloppy Saturday night dance spot for Connecticut college coeds. And the Holy Ghost: one of the most iconic venues on the national music scene.
Like a junk food universe
Brian Phelps has seen it all. General Manager when Toad’s opened its now-dilapidated wooden doors in 1975, Phelps became sole owner soon after (a title which he has kept to this day) and has since done everything he can to make Toad’s a “total entertainment” venue.
Though music was the cornerstone of the club’s creation, most Yale students don’t experience the music side of Toad’s, says Jim Torello, one of the club’s formidable bouncers. That is, unless said music is forcefully throbbing from a DJ’s turntable.
“It’s dirty, it’s loud, it’s dark, and the dollar drafts make Miller High Life look like an import,” Sam Beutler ’07 said in an e-mail. “But you don’t sacrifice the best thing about Yale, and that is the people.”
At all Dance Parties, Toad’s is filled to capacity with the sweatiest, most scantily outfitted bunch this side of Miami (except no one is either tan or toned). Dance Party bartenders have 10 voices simultaneously vying for their attention: athletes stand their ground at the bar, and non-athletes take one large breath before plunging into the mass of muscle to seize a watered-down drink. The khaki-clad bunch at The Strangers concert does not belong here.
“McDonald’s began just selling hamburgers and sodas,” Phelps says, “but they’ve expanded to a junk food universe.”
And the next step in Phelps’ entertainment universe is continuing to expand beyond the confines of Elm City. In July, Toad’s opened a Richmond outpost, which adds a restaurant and boat dock to the already multifaceted concept and is co-owned by Charles Joyner ’88. Plans for a Trenton, N.J., location are also in the works.
‘Layers upon layers of irony’
New Haven’s Schubert Theater holds an important place in theatrical lore, historically serving as a soft opening venue before a Broadway debut. The cities’ proximity made transportation easy without creating worries of audience overlap. And Alan Light ’88, music journalist and critic for Rolling Stone, Vibe and Spin, says that Toad’s — whether intentionally or not — plays a similar role.
“For certain concerts, Toad’s provides an artist with the opportunity to try something new without having to go all out,” Light said.
Like many college-town venues, Toad’s has hosted handfuls of bands when they were just starting out. U2 and Phish played this New Haven spot multiple times to unimpressive crowds. The Talking Heads, R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers all took the stage before they became “it” bands of their respective generations. Even now, the club presents many artists on the rise: The Fiery Furnaces, Joanna Newsom and Kings of Leon.
On the night of The Strangers’ concert, the club is empty enough that photographs of many past performers are visible on the walls. But amidst all the bands who have performed to crowds not yet aware of the performances’ significance, two artists stand out: the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, no doubt the inspirations of most everyone else who has played here.
The Rolling Stones kicked off their 1989 Steel Wheels tour at this local dive, forgoing the stadium-sized venues that comprised the rest of the tour. In fact, the venue itself is smaller than the Stones’ stage on that tour. Phelps and the rest of his staff tried to keep the concert a secret, but word leaked out and thousands of people flooded the streets; police barricades were needed to maintain order. Never one to preclude the public from being entertained, Phelps left open all the doors of the club for the oglers outside.
“It was like we were at a grand feast, a huge banquet,” Phelps says, opting for yet another food metaphor. “As people left the concert, everyone outside wanted to touch anyone who was in the room. They were hungry, just looking for crumbs.”
A year later, Light — then a fact checker for Rolling Stone — maneuvered his way into the building (and snuck in his photographer) when all press were banned from the venue. The “crazy-psychotic” fan watched in awe as Dylan played the longest set of his career, though reports of the actual length differ: Light remembers it being about four hours; Phelps clocked it at just under seven.
Though Toad’s was just down the street from Light’s Pierson dorm, he had never been to a Dance Party until Senior Week, just before he graduated. In an effort to take advantage of the “cool” parts of Toad’s, he sometimes attended the concerts, but Toad’s “most often was not cool,” he said.
“It’s just layers upon layer of irony that it holds such a pivotal place in my career,” Light said.
But many self-pronounced Toad’s freaks have never been to a concert there, and don’t even notice the upcoming artists posters that line York Street.
“Isn’t Bruce Springsteen playing there soon?” asked Kathleen Borschow ’10, a frequent patron who falls firmly in the Dance Party camp.
(For the record: no, he’s not.)
For Light, the
reason for the discrepancy is simple: To survive, a club needs to reach the people.
“The Yale population is largely a transitional one,” he said. “But the city is where you build your constituency.”
The day the Dance, Dance Revolution died
Borschow has been going to clubs since she was 15 years old. A native of Puerto Rico, she was used to going out and dancing with friends before heading north. Puerto Rico’s seldom-observed 18-year-old drinking age made clubbing easy and common, she said. Borschow has yet to attend a concert at Toad’s, but come almost every Wednesday and Saturday, you can find her getting down on the dance floor.
“I love Toad’s because it’s the one place around campus I can go to dance,” she said.
The environment is not for everyone. Finnoh Bangura ’08, a member of the Yale rap group 108 Tongues, has mostly been to Toad’s for his own concerts or to watch others perform. He supports the club for bringing in an eclectic group of artists, but he has trouble understanding the allure of the Dance Parties.
“It’s sort of a Yale cultural thing,” Bangura said. “But it’s really grimy. Maybe grimy chic?”
At the Strangers concert, there was a freak train on the dance floor, but at a Dance Party, pelvic gyrations are elevated to the level of focused obsession — the Strangers crowd is more sober, though not necessarily less inebriated, than the usual Saturday night set.
It may be no surprise then that the most recent alcohol bust at Toad’s Place occurred during a Saturday Dance Party. On November 5, 2005, police officers raided the nightclub and asked students to show identification proving they were of legal drinking age.
“I had heard that there was an agent in the area, but it was only when I saw the squad car roll up that I knew what we were in for,” Phelps said.
The raid resulted in a 90-day suspension this summer that lasted from May 6 through August 8. Phelps said Toad’s bartenders will now only serve alcohol to those with wristbands, given only after an ID inspection.
For Sean Fitzgerald, The Strangers’ drummer and background vocalist, it’s unfortunate that Toad’s received bad press for something that occurred during a Saturday Dance Party, especially when the nightclub stands for so much more. The closing of New York’s CBGB last October is one of the surest signs yet that the classic rock ’n’ roll venue is becoming increasingly obsolete, and Fitzgerald acknowledges that the neighborhood joint is “going the way of the dinosaur”; clubs like Toad’s are becoming too difficult to maintain, too hard to substantiate.
When asked if he would prefer Toad’s be known for a specific thing, only one element within his total entertainment package, Phelps replied that in order to maintain his club’s legendary status, the nights that start with “Movin’ Out,” the nights that end in hookups, and the nights that go down in the rock bible are all essential.
“Otherwise we’d be just another bar on Crown Street,” he said. “They’re here today and gone tomorrow … How many other bars in the country have been around for 33 years and have gotten all these great acts? Not one. Not only that — we did it in New Haven.”