Back in the Groove

A fter being frozen out all winter, live music is springing up around the city.

The music returns to Cafe Nine this Friday with the bar’s first show since last fall, when a couple of outdoor concerts on the roof brought fans out to the sidewalk and the parking lot below. Reopening the indoor scene, appropriately enough, is Buzz Gordo, a.k.a. Gary Mezzi, who was Cafe Nine owner Paul Mayer’s business partner when they took over the popular downtown music venue back in 2003. While Mayer is excited to welcome patrons back for live music, he also admits to being “a little apprehensive and anxious about it.” Signs are good: the weather is warming enough for outdoor dining, and booking agents are starting to put together band tours for later in the year. But Mayer also hopes people will keep following pandemic protocols.

All of the familiar restrictions will be in place at Cafe Nine. “We normally pack ’em in mostly standing, but we have to have everyone seated,” Mayer says. Indoor capacity will be 35 with a few additional outdoor tables, all first come-first served. Parties at the bar will be separated from each other and from staff with dividers. Food—still required by law for establishments serving drinks—will be ordered from Firehouse 12 around the corner. “It’s all very new to us,” Mayer says. “We all have to be innovative, I guess, to get going again.”

Among those innovations is a mix of old and new. Cafe Nine’s old Saturday jazz jam sessions will, for now, become performances by individual musicians like guitarists Michael Coppola and Gary Grippo. The Sunday Buzz matinee series, in partnership with Cygnus Radio, will be back with performances from soloists and small groups. Friday shows will start early—at 5 p.m.—and end at 7 p.m. In fact, for now, everything will be more “low-key” than you might expect of Cafe Nine, Mayer says. Shows in the first couple of months will be free, partly as an incentive to get people out again and partly to honor the fact that the economy isn’t exactly booming. “Some of the people in the community don’t have a lot of money to spend, and we want to welcome them back as well,” Mayer says.

Just up Whitney Avenue in Hamden at Best Video Film and Cultural Center, parking lot concerts that were a hit last fall will also return, starting April 15 with singer-songwriter Shawn Taylor followed by a packed lineup of shows every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through June, with more in the works. Last fall, “musicians were just overjoyed to have a place to play in a safe situation,” says Hank Hoffman, BVFCC’s executive director. Audiences loved the experience, too, bringing their lawn chairs or standing at a safe distance with a beer or a cup of coffee. A brand new deck, built last summer courtesy of a successful Great Give campaign, accommodates not only performers but also a few cafe tables where people can sit to listen. The unplugged shows will have start times between 4:30 and 5:30 in order to be respectful of nearby neighbors.

While both Best Video and Cafe Nine are longtime fixtures in the community, the brand new Westville Music Bowl, formerly the Connecticut Tennis Center, was sidelined by the pandemic as well. After a 10-month delay, the change in state regulations has opened the gates, and “Voilà. We’re on sale, and things are selling nicely,” says Keith Mahler of Premier Concerts/Manic Presents, the primary promoters for shows at the Bowl, where Gov’t Mule will inaugurate the stage on April 30. The band, which writes and plays what Rolling Stone once described as “solid rock songs in the power-blues, heroic-vocal tradition of Free and Led Zeppelin,” has already sold out its first two appearances, and a third, with special guest Ann Wilson of Heart, was recently added.

Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes played seven shows with Premier/Manic last summer at South Farms in Morris, Connecticut. “He loved the experience, so when we started to reach out, we reached out to the Gov’t Mule camp to discuss the Westville Music Bowl project,” Mahler says. “It was just kismet. They wanted to open the Bowl, and here we are.”

Premier/Manic successfully ran the South Farms series with “not a sniffle,” Mahler says. “The protocols that we had worked out were perfect,” he adds, expressing confidence that the same will be true in Westville. Tickets are being sold only in groups of two and four, with at least a six-foot distance between each party.

From big bowl to little parking lot, what matters to everyone is the ability to make and enjoy music together again. “There’s a need people have to get out and experience this,” Hoffman says. “I’m looking forward to it, and I think it’s great to see other places… starting to get back to doing what’s so valuable to the music community.”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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