City’s Hall

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L ining up under a bright marquee. Descending through a dark space. Emerging into a tall, airy, 2,000-capacity room with big, full sound and powerful stage lights good for blowing your mind.

After many years of going without, you can forgive New Haveners for forgetting how good it feels to see a rock show in that kind of environment. And you can thank the people behind the College Street Music Hall, operating in the heart of downtown New Haven as of last Friday night, for giving that feeling back to us.

Those people are too numerous to list here, but the headliners include a pair of cross-generational doppelgängers-in-spirit who, though they’ve worked together in the past, have literally come together over the Hall: Keith Mahler, co-founder of Premier Concerts, known for placing well-established acts at regional music venues; and Mark Nussbaum, founder of Manic Productions, a New Haven-centric booking company with clear indie/underdog sensibilities.

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The two companies have now merged operations, Nussbaum says, though their respective flags still fly independently much of the time. The CSMH schedule, for instance, gives Manic top billing for this weekend’s Polaris / Mates of State / Mighty Purple show—a quintessential Manic lineup—and a Reel Big Fish / Less Than Jake ska-fest in June. Meantime, Premier is listed as the lead on Doobie Brothers, Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band and Whitesnake performances in May, June and July, respectively.

The musical distances between all of those performers hint at the artistic breadth showrunners have in mind for the venue, which has 800 permanent seats on a wide, arcing balcony and can fit 1,200 more on an open main floor. Sometimes that floor will have temporary seating set up, accommodating roughly 800, and sometimes the balcony will be closed off using a “black pipe and drape system,” Nussbaum says—a graceful way of hosting floor-only shows for more up-and-coming artists.

Grace of the under-pressure sort was present on opening night when, following a hackles-raising final dash to ready the theater in time, there were a handful of character-building moments. Taped-up sheets of paper with scrawled seating sections stood in for more permanent-feeling signage to come. The concrete flooring on the second level remained unfinished, with work scheduled for the following days. A drippy leak from a second-level bathroom forced a cluster of seated patrons on the main floor to stand instead.

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As someone who’d rather stand than sit for a rock show, that wouldn’t have bothered me so much. And at CSMH, it didn’t present the expected catch-22, either. Being forced to vacate your seat might leave you stranded with nowhere else to go, especially during a heavily attended show like Friday’s. But that night, at least, the vibe at CSMH was freewheeling, and freeing. You could linger in the central aisle. You could check out the view from the balcony for a while, wherever your ticket had you seated. You could be a photographer, kneeling at someone’s feet to get a front-row shot of the band, and nobody would sass you for it.

“The shows I’ve seen there have been pretty loose,” says Mark Mulcahy, the Polaris frontman who also helmed Miracle Legion, anchoring New Haven’s alt-rock scene from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s. It’s funny he should say that, since he’s talking about the previous iteration of the venue: the old Palace Theater, which had permanent seating even on the main floor, and which closed for good more than a decade ago.

Mulcahy remembers going there to see The Band, where he ended up stage-side; Björk, with whom Miracle Legion toured when she was in The Sugarcubes; and James Brown, whose famous sax-wielding sidekick, Maceo Parker, prowled up and down the aisle past Mulcahy’s seat. He also remembers performing there with Miracle Legion, which had “somehow” gotten a gig opening up for Echo and the Bunnymen. Compared to playing small rooms where the back wall wasn’t far away, “Playing at [the Palace] was just crazy. An amazing adrenaline overload”—a sensation he’ll get to feel again this weekend.

As will the audience, no doubt. This past Friday, the crowd energy was something special, in large part thanks to the talent and its source material. With help from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, The Machine, an excellent Pink Floyd tribute band, performed trippy seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon, tossing in some extra crowd-pleasers—like “Hey You,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Another Brick in the Wall”—for the encore. It was an inspired choice for the venue’s debut, showing off impressive sonic and visual capacities.

But the other piece of the crowd’s disposition had to do with the palpable momentousness of the occasion. They were witnessing a phoenix rising from ashes—a monument to the arts, no less, and a major new draw for a city that deserves it.

College Street Music Hall
238 College St, New Haven (map)
(203) 573-1600
Next show: Polaris, Mates of State and Mighty Purple – Sat 5/9 @ 8pm – $20
www.collegestreetmusichall.com

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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