Live from New Haven

Live from New Haven

When people get their phones out and record The State House’s final shows this week, they’ll be joining a rich tradition of audiovisually preserving the city’s lost music venues.

It’s quaint to think about today, but after the widespread adoption of home video technology—and before Star Trek-level camera phones appeared in our pockets—there was a cottage industry of professional, multi-camera “Live From…” concert films. And before the internet could serve them up to us in a blink, there was an unsanctioned market for “bootlegs”—shaky lo-fi concert videos shot by amateurs who’d somehow smuggled their bulky camcorders into the club or arena.

Of all New Haven’s closed venues, it seems only the New Haven Coliseum and the Palace Theatre, both shuttered in 2002, hosted acts and audiences large enough to justify pro video productions. The most famous, I suspect, is Van Halen: Live Without a Net, filmed at the Coliseum during a seven-month, 111-concert tour in 1986. The question of why the band chose to shoot in New Haven may be answered in the film’s first 30 seconds, when a hand crosses out “Haven” from the title card and writes in, “Halen.” The point is reiterated after the first song, when Van Halen’s newly minted singer, Sammy Hagar, declares, “We gonna rename this town. This is now New Halen. New Halen!” A few years earlier, in 1982, a Pat Benatar show at the Coliseum got a similarly elaborate but less successful treatment, with Benatar appearing unsure how to play to the fledgling format and her band hamming way too hard.

A 1988 video titled Ozzy’s Bootleg Birthday Bash shows how much theatricality even the relatively corporate Coliseum could tolerate. Before the concert, with the lights down and “Carmina Burana” playing, hundreds in the audience raised a toast of open flames, some appearing as large as medieval torches. “Let the madness begin!” Ozzy Osbourne screamed before the first song, but to 2023 sensibilities, it already had. A 1987-dated video outside the Coliseum shows how mad things could get after the show, in that case a Kiss concert.

Surviving the Palace Theatre are 1990s bootlegs featuring the likes of Tori Amos and Brian May, plus one pro shoot from 1985: An Evening with Paul Anka. The concert starts with Anka in smoky silhouette, singing a short verse over an upbeat melody before stepping out into the audience to greet his fans. Men in suits shake his hand; women in dresses kiss his cheeks and lips; Anka keeps singing and doesn’t miss a note.

A set of bootlegs from four years later show a completely different scene at Brick ’N’ Wood, a bygone club in the former building of the even more bygone New Haven Clock Company. Perhaps best remembered for gritty punk shows and glitzy R&B nights, the place also hosted metal shows including a sludgy 1989 set by Fatal Image (opened with an odd “La Bamba” fake-out), though I prefer the rip-roaring thrash, shot five months earlier, of New Haven’s own Safyre and Bristol’s C.F.I.

Back the other way, on Whalley Avenue, multi-cam productions memorialize the Agora Ballroom. There’s neurotic, jaunty new wave from Bridgeport band The Actuals in 1981; jam band stuff from Max Creek in 1983 (though one commenter insists it must be “1986ish”); and a 1982 performance by Bridgeport punk/hard rock band Black Hole co-presented by the local zine oasis d’neon.

Farther up Whalley, all the way into Westville, was the Cape Codder, an earnest, intimate space with Christmas lights or tinsel and a stage too tight for a whole video crew anyway. Footage dated to 1990—though a commenter who was apparently in the band estimates it was 1988—shows the great local act Blind Justice helping innovate the “rap ’n’ roll” that would come to be associated with the Red Hot Chili Peppers; the reggae inflections that would distinguish Sublime; and the stage energy of latter-day local party band Pencilgrass. Blind Justice would later, in 1990, share a bill at the Cape Codder with the soon-to-explode Spin Doctors.

Almost as much fun is a 1991-dated video featuring Skip The Gutter, whose lineup included multiple lead singers, an electric organ and a violin. The description posted with it helps set the stage: “It was 1991 and all the hipsters were hanging at the cape codder. The gulf war was raging. We were drinking schiltz [sic] beers in New Haven. A very eclectic New Haven band called Skip The Gutter [f]reakmented the coffee house scene… Videographer Sean Corvino.”

Corvino, a local musician and video man who held a number of the cameras during this trip down memory lane, is also credited with filming a house show by local hardcore bands Malachi Krunch and Seizure at underground venue 273 Norton. It’s the only video I can find of the place, a distinction it shares with this artful but soundless video shot at the Oxford Ale House, dated 1980 and featuring new-wavin’ New Haven band The Poodle Boys.

I haven’t found even a single video of a show at the legendary punk venue Ron’s Place, but tape of Tune Inn, which closed in 2002, still brings the hard stuff. 1994-dated footage of the influential hardcore act Earth Crisis is shot facing out from behind the band, while two other videos, of shows by Supertouch in ’95 and Madball in ’96, show overflowing fans planting themselves right on stage. Undated film of the local metal band Spasm captures their last show at Tune Inn or anywhere else, padded with some pre-show B-roll out in the crowd and backstage.

B-roll proves it can be A-roll when it comes to two shuttered venues: The Grotto—located, the internet indicates, on what was apparently then “the tough side of Crown Street,” address 130—and, diametrically opposed in branding, The Moon—located, if I’ve followed the right breadcrumbs, at 399 Whalley. You can watch one of the biggest local bands ever, Miracle Legion, play The Grotto in 1986. You can also experience the venue’s last show in 1988, distilled into an eight-minute video splicing short guest commentaries between clips of the music. “So it’s the last night,” one joker says. “Guess who’s the first guy who gets asked to leave: Me!” Another guy, not a joker at all, says, “For me the place died a long time ago. … Basically, things haven’t been this crowded or this fun in a good couple years.” He wishes all the others in attendance that night had supported The Grotto and its live music culture before they were on their deathbed, such that they could have avoided their deathbed.

No such lesson emerged during a half-hour of candid footage from September 11, 1992, split on Youtube into three parts, documenting The Moon’s final night, which offered a dance party, not a show. An article published six months earlier in the Hartford Courant suggests in hindsight that the closure may have stemmed from a decision to stop hosting live music, which caused a split with the club’s star booker, Fernando Pinto (who books local shows to this day). The article credits Pinto with bringing great up-and-coming bands, including some we now know would hit it big—Live, Smashing Pumpkins, Yo La Tengo—to The Moon. But the biggest of all, who played the venue just days before blowing up and almost a year before it would close, was Nirvana. Kurt Cobain’s voice rasping, Dave Grohl’s hair flying, Krist Novoselic being awkward as ever, the band played a show we’re lucky, like all the others, somebody videotaped.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image features an audience member recording Orquesta el Macabeo in 2018 during one of the The State House’s first shows.

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