By Adam Waxman
It was a secret. It became a legend. That night back in ’77, the biggest band in the world played the coolest club. Billed as “The Cockroaches,” the stage announcer could barely contain himself when he shouted out to the audience, “Please welcome to the El Mocambo, to Toronto and to Canada, The Rolling Stones!” They proceeded to Rip This Joint…All Down the Line.
45 years later, Live at the El Mocambo has been released to the delight of Stones fans and rock ‘n’ roll buffs everywhere. In the meantime, this icon of live concert venues has now reopened after undergoing a massive makeover, redefining live performance for performers and audiences, too.
It’s doors first opened in 1948, and it was a popular spot for swing bands throughout the 50’s. Its zenith came with the rock and glamour of the 70’s and 80’s. Bands like the Stones, Blondie, U2, Duran Duran, and solo acts like Buddy Rich, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Elvis Costello worked out their acts on this must-stop-stage as tours passed through Toronto. That was unusual for a club of this size—to hold such importance for such acts—but there was just something about it: an intimacy; that magic that can happen between an artist and an audience. Up-and-coming acts and superstars alike, they all found it here.
By 2014, the Elmo was in need of some TLC. Michael Wekerle, renowned Toronto financier and philanthropist, announced that he would be the one to buy it and restore it—but not just restore it—with a vow to wow us, Wekerle set out to bring the Elmo forward to meet the cutting edge demands of today: expanded performance stages, improved sight lines, world class PA and lighting, broadcast facilities with three isolated performance areas, state-of-the-art audio and video equipment and control rooms, and the ability to capture, record and live-stream high resolution content to a global audience.
Wekerle knows how important this is for Toronto. “This is a Toronto institution,” he tells me. “I want to help revive it.” His vision to “keep live alive” is brilliant. The space holds 450 upstairs, 300 downstairs, “And from the economics of a general size club, what’s important is that you can utilize all the other production here. To also function during the day, whether it be for studio production that has to do with music or arts or TV, it has to be a production facility.”
“This is a production studio. Utilizing that for this next era of the El Mocambo will be key. It will be a unique kind of secret session, concert and environment where you have that real kind of indie feeling on the first floor. On the second floor will be more of an exclusive club kind of atmosphere. So that’s the longer-term plan, and right now we have to make sure that we have the talent, longevity and partnerships to move forward.”
Laundry Design Works was tasked with designing the new interior and exterior. A brand-new guest experience throughout the club incorporates its rich history with high tech attributes for sound and comfort. The HVAC has been increased for maximum amount of airflow to ensure healthier conditions along with twenty-eight hand sanitizer stations among many other sanitation procedures.
And the catering! Who better to design the menu than renowned Chef Mark McEwan? A selection of Start Me Up appetizers and Sticky Fingers desserts bookend food stations and dinner menus that include the El Mocambo Sirloin Burger, Lamb Nachos, Wild Boar Bacon & Monterey Jack Grilled Cheese and a Braised Oxtail Ravioli.
What is essential now is support from the community, because as we all know, it’s been a long three years. “The key to establishing the opening is really predicated upon making sure that we have continual shows,” Ever forward-thinking, Wekerle shares that, “A different vibe to the streaming side is, within the next decade, where we are going to be with technology. There are a lot of mediums. TikTok has proved to be an incredible medium for expression, and interest in podcasts. So, we’re going to reinvent ourselves like everyone does. But we’ve always had an optimistic view.”
Our concert-going has changed. It’s no longer simply about listening to a band play. We want it to be a VIP experience, up-close and personal with the band, and with sound quality as pristine as air quality. We want to feel it. The bands, too, want the best stage to record live. On one special night at the El Mocambo we discover this is where it’s all at. So, like the sign says, “I’m at the f*cking Elmo.”