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Toad’s Place Is Still Hopping

Legendary music venue, Toad’s Place, is still hopping with new acts and old memories.

If everyone who said they were at Toad’s for The Stones in ’89 were actually there, the ticket count would be well over 100 thousand. – Anonymous Connecticut Resident

Across the street from one of the most prestigious universities in the world – namely, Yale – is an unassuming nightclub wedged next door to a Fro-Yo shop. It’s Toad’s Place, and it has been New Haven’s epicenter of live music since it started hosting live acts in 1978.

The roster of bands that have pounded its stage are straight from the pages of the Rock and Roll Bible: The Rolling Stones, U2, Bon Jovi, Type O Negative, Jane’s Addiction and Bob Dylan, to name just a few.

People have Toad’s pegged as a sanctified rock and roll venue whose heyday is past. Owner Brian Phelps begs to differ. He’s been there from the start, and wants everyone to know that Toad’s embraces its past but has its full attention on the future.

Many stories are told about the genesis of Toad’s Place, particularly about Michael Spoerndle’s years at the helm. Here’s a quick history lesson: In 1974 Spoerndle, Mike Corpus and Charles Metzger rented the building with plans to make it a French Restaurant. Spoerndle bought his partners out two years later, and instead started booking blues acts like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. Word spread about the hot little blues club. In 1976 Brian Phelps came aboard as co-owner.

After making contacts with other Connecticut concert promoters (whom Phelps refers to jokingly as “a pseudo mafia”) they were able to get larger acts to come and perform. The name that held the most weight back then was a man named Jim Koplik, who booked the likes of Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, REO Speedwagon and other top draws. Koplik bridged the gap for Toad’s and brought these larger names to the smaller, more intimate stage. Phelps was granted total control in 1995 after Spoerndle flamed out.

Phelps is a storyteller, which he does with a mixture of humor and reverence. These include Meatloaf taking a tumble off the stage and having the scars to prove it; toasting Patti Smith after her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; having the Black Eyed Peas give Toad’s a shout out while playing the Hartford Civic Center; and Bob Dylan playing a five-hour set that included multiple takes of the same song.

Phelps also keeps two large photo albums, meticulously curated with images of everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Mick Fleetwood. Occasionally, while flipping through the photo album pages, Brian’s mood changes to reflective, as some of the faces are no longer with us. Like when he flips to a photo of Michael Spoerndle, who passed away in 2011.

Without the fans, there would be no Toad’s. Talk with a few die-hard patrons and they will launch into animated stories of their own. They often sound like this:

“I was driving with some friends to see Sonic Youth at Toad’s (I think in the winter of ‘07) and we got caught behind this station wagon moving at the speed of dirt. Had a ‘baby on board’ sticker and was driving way below the speed limit. We were caught behind it for a LONG time and got very frustrated. Ended up passing it from a turning lane, flipped off the driver as I sped by, and my friend (who was somewhat drunk) threw a plastic coke bottle at them, which I wasn’t thrilled about. We parked, went somewhere to get dinner and, upon arriving at Toad’s about an hour later, saw the same station wagon parked directly out front. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon [the husband and wife leaders of Sonic Youth] were seated inside. Thankfully they did not recognize us.”

There are also stories involving Toad’s Ivy League neighbor. At one time, Yale tried to buy the building but was unsuccessful. The two now work more or less in tandem, as Toad’s offers a nearby place for students to come and blow off steam during the rigors of college life. The Saturday Night Dance Party is a thriving promotion, and remains one of Toad’s biggest draws. While the names on the Wall of Fame are giants of the past, college students today can stop by and dance to Mobb Deep and Wiz Kahlifa.

That sense of music’s old guard meeting the new is baked into the place. The way Brian Phelps speaks about the Talking Heads and Blondie is the same way he speaks about Iggy Azalea and Drake. “People always ask me, ‘How come you don’t have any big shows here anymore’ and I tell them, ‘Have you looked at our lineup lately’?”

In speaking with those who have been touched in some way by Toad’s Place, it’s easy to understand the staying power of this intimate venue. While its roots are planted firmly in the 70s and 80s, it is still a vibrant part of the local music scene, highlighting the eclectic and energetic shows still happening regularly in New Haven.

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