The Machine at College Street Music Hall

City‘s Hall

Lining 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 cross-generational pair 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-centered booking company with indie/underdog sensibilities.

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The two companies have now merged operations, Nussbaum says, though their respective flags still fly 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.

The distance between all of those performers hints at the artistic breadth showrunners have in mind for the venue, which can fit up to 1,200 people on the flexible main floor and 800 more on a wide, arcing balcony filled with permanent seating. 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 was needed 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 professional 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 that night, at least, the vibe at CSMH was freewheeling enough that you weren’t quite tethered to your assigned seat. 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. He’s talking about the previous iteration of the venue: the old Palace Theatre, 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 was just crazy. An amazing adrenaline overload”—a sensation he’ll get to feel again this weekend when Polaris headlines.

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 extra crowd-pleasers—“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 capabilities.

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

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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