Music at the Heart of New Haven, the Fringes of YaleLeave a Comment
On an evening in February of 2012, Chris Cappello ’17 had his very first gig.
He was 15 years old, billed as the second performer in a four-act lineup. The show was scheduled to start at 9 p.m., but, wanting to give himself enough time to “load in,” he showed up to the venue at six.
The “venue” was a college student’s two-room apartment on Chapel Street, and his “equipment” was just an acoustic guitar, which he stashed in a bedroom that doubled for the night as a performance space. He and his friends decided to leave for a while, and when he came back, people had started to arrive. José Oyola, the college-age resident of the apartment, greeted them. The pair had met two years before at a concert in an antique shop.
Forgetting the singer-songwriter’s age, Oyola offered him a beer, which he accepted. He needed it, he says, to calm his nerves before playing his “teenage-boy-feelings songs”: heartbroken and very simple, because of his still-crude guitar playing skill.
“In retrospect, it was very clear that this was not really the atmosphere for that kind of music,” he says of the crowd of twenty-somethings, who were drinking beer and hanging out at a friend’s apartment. “But I’m glad it was allowed to happen.”
Raised in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood, Cappello is now a sophomore at Yale, where he works as programming director for the University’s undergraduate radio station and edits their zine. But he keeps up friendships with the fellow Connecticut natives with whom he performed for three years as a solo artist, and with whom he toured as part of the band Loner Chic. He has released two albums and his next full-length release will come out this spring.
But “it” has not been allowed to happen to everybody: his success sets him apart. Few Yale students have found such visibility and variety in their effort to perform their music.
Musicians David Toppelberg ’18 and Tommy Bazarian ’15 are two cases in point.
Toppelberg, a freshman, is new to Yale, but an experienced performer, having played drums since the fifth grade. During his first semester, he joined the band Young Republicans and played two shows — one at Yale, one at Harvard. But Toppelberg expresses frustration with the attention he says is paid almost exclusively to classical and a cappella music, which, in his opinion, do not capture the range of musical diversity. He wonders whether Yale has failed in encouraging a broader cross-section of musical art and activity.
“There are few student bands that are well known across campus,” Toppelberg said. “There are few, if any, small jazz trios or rock groups performing regularly.”
Bazarian, who led the band The Teaspoons and now does solo work, also feels that some types of music are marginalized. His band almost always practiced at his house, occasionally using the Morse-Stiles recording studio when their drummer needed to use a full drum set.
But while they were not desperate for better practice space, Bazarian does see one major need: more venues for undergraduate bands to play in, apart from college theaters.
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Will Bazarian get his wish? Perhaps. Last week, the reopening of a historic music venue was announced — one that borders on Yale’s campus and looks to put New Haven on the touring map. Formerly the Palace, the rebranded, renovated College Street Music Hall will open this spring. However, its capacity to give Yale musicians their much-needed space is no sure thing.
The building’s new life is the fruit of a decade-long negotiation between the New Haven Center for Performing Arts, the nonprofit that has owned the building since its closing in 2002, and Keith Mahler, the biggest independent concert promoter in Connecticut and the financial backer of the project.
Mahler says he was approached with the project in 2005, but was tight-lipped about the 10-year delay in opening the hall. “Good things sometimes take a long time to gel,” is all he said. But a deal was reached in the fall of 2014, and now, his company Premier Concerts is taking on responsibility for the venue’s operation. The most exciting bit of news for many Elm City residents is the new face at Mahler’s offices: Mark Nussbaum of Manic Productions, a New Haven booking and promotions business whose self-described mission is to “bring the finest underground music talent to Connecticut.”
“This is going to be the music room in town,” Mahler said. “Number one in New Haven, number two in the state.”
College Street will emphasize indie, folk, classic rock, country, Americana and bluegrass music. Mahler expects the hall’s target demographic to be the 17–45-year-old set, with occasional classic rock performances extending the age range upward.
For now, the building is getting surface renovations: it needs paint, floor treatments, bathroom tiles, fixtures, and sound and light systems.
Nussbaum and Mahler are clear on the point that the new venue will not crowd out beloved New Haven institutions. They say they will continue to book their regular shows, and that College Street will attract acts that formerly would have skipped over New Haven.
“We’re still going to do everything we’ve always done,” Nussbaum says.
For Nussbaum’s firm, that means booking touring bands for venues like Cafe 9 or Bar, and pairing them with like-minded local acts. If sales are strong, he arranges for them to play larger venues, such as The Space. He describes College Street, with its flexible capacity, as another, higher platform for developing acts.
“This is the next level,” Nussbaum said. “There’s a lot of room for growth.”
After it closed, the music hall’s floor seating was removed: when it opens, the standing area’s capacity will be close to 1,000, and balcony seating will expand possible crowd numbers to 2,000. The facility’s production manager is working to fulfill staffing requirements before the anticipated early May opening.
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Cappello worries there aren’t enough visible bridges between the worlds of New Haven and Yale.
“In terms of actually getting involved in the creative process, it often just doesn’t get off the ground,” Cappello said. “And I would put some of the blame for that on Yale for not providing the kinds of facilities that they could be providing.”
Cappello suggests “actual practice rooms,” with drums and amplifiers, as a feasible addition to campus. He described his own band’s struggle to get access to the Silliman recording studio, because it was the only site on their area of campus with a drum kit. They ended up relying on a friend who worked in the studio, but now that the friend is gone, their options are limited.
Many members of the radio station are in bands, according to Cappello, but are stymied by the lack of places to practice, and their projects fail to result in serious work, despite their best efforts.
“If I didn’t have a friend who lived nearby, who had a house that I could practice at, I just wouldn’t be in a band,” Cappello said. “There’s no way that I could be doing that.”
Beyond questions of infrastructure, though, Cappello sees a deeper divide.
“It’s weird having this dichotomous experience,” Cappello said. “When I’m in New Haven, I view it totally differently depending on who I’m with, or what time of year it is.”
In response to the town-gown split, Cappello tries to stage events that bring both halves together. As he sees it, Yale and New Haven people are not of a different mentality. Instead, they do not have the chance to interact productively.
Last semester, Cappello organized a show at an off-campus house with his band, as well as a local band called Ten Thousand Blades. Out of about 100 people, 40 percent were New Haven residents and the rest were Yale students. No one could tell the difference, except for him, and he was happy with the mix.
The merging of Manic Productions with Premier Concerts signals an important success for Nussbaum, the Guilford native who, over 13 years, has turned a passion for music into a rebirth of New Haven as a touring stop for indie artists.
Before the spread of social media, Nussbaum relied on fliers. He and friends spent years constantly attending local shows and distributing fliers advertising their upcoming bookings. (Having spent hundreds of nights at Toad’s, he has in some ways lived out every Yalie’s dream.)
After one high-profile booking of Dinosaur Jr. — at the time, the biggest show he had ever done — sold out in advance, he recalls having a realization.
“Once you can start making money and booking acts you genuinely enjoy, consistently, then that’s kind of the turning point,” Nussbaum said. He spent the entire day unloading equipment and helping to prepare for the show.
“After that point,” Nussbaum says, “I could see it as being a career.”
Both Mahler and Nussbaum have been promoting rock shows since adolescence — Nussbaum since 16, and Mahler since 15 and a half, when he helped inaugurate another Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn. In the decade that followed, he promoted artists such as The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, and Bruce Springsteen. Even after a career in real estate and finance, he makes time for music.
Manic has worked with WYBC to co-present events, and WYBC has sponsored Manic events. But Yalies hoping that College Street will provide new chances for Yale bands to shine, may soon discover reasons to temper their optimism.
Gideon Broshy ’17, who plays in the band Black is the Color, was skeptical of College Street’s potential impact.
“There probably won’t be much direct interaction between Yale students and the acts coming to play there,” Broshy said. “I don’t see it influencing Yale’s ‘music scene’ much.”
“It doesn’t necessarily make sense for a promoter who, at this point, is as big as Manic Productions to take a risk on a student band,” Cappello says. “Manic Productions’ prerogative ultimately is to make their shows successful.”
While local bands can attract crowds, he guesses Manic Productions will continue to target local residents, most of whom have cars and are better able to come out to shows.
But students won’t need cars to visit College Street. Adjacent to Old Campus, the venture will make the top echelon of touring acts available to Yale, even if their music dreams stay unfulfilled.
Correction: an earlier version of this article, which appeared in print, incorrectly stated that Mark Nussbaum is a Hamden native. He is from Guilford. The article has also been revised to reflect the projected standing capacity of the College Street Music Hall.