It’s finally happening: A beloved Toronto music venue, the El Mocambo, is coming back to life, palm tree lights and all.
Delayed by COVID-19 and the cruel hands of fate, the El Mo will livestream its first concert on September 10, a performance from Big Wreck on the venue’s second-floor stage. Tickets are available here.
But reopening a club during a pandemic is one thing. A tricky and scary and stressful thing, to be sure. Taking the keys, investing an estimated $30 million at least, on a bid that started with just the legendary neon sign and ended up including the whole building, is something else entirely.
At first, new owner Michael Wekerle just wanted to protect the iconic neon palm tree sign. For $3.8 million, he bought the whole thing.
A legendary venue
The El Mo, as the cool kids call it, inhabits a space originally occupied by a music venue that also helped hide escaped slaves. The current building, built in 1910, started as a dry goods store and barbershop, with restaurants added in the first few decades of life. One Toronto’s liquor laws changed, in 1946, to allow the sale of adult beverages in taverns and restaurants, then-owners Joseph Brown and John Lang applied for one of Toronto’s first liquor licenses. In 1948, with the neon palm tree sign inspired by a San Francisco nightclub, the club opened, with a dining hall on the first floor and a dance floor upstairs featuring Latin music. Live bands were welcomed a few months later, in July 1948, when city regulations were modified again.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Cockroaches!
Probably the biggest and best known story about the El Mo’s famed history features the Rolling Stones, who played two secret shows in March 1977 only to devoted fans who won their way in. The show was billed as an April Wine gig to throw off any suspecting fans.
The club’s booker at the time, Dave “Blue” Bluestein, added The Cockroaches to the April Wine bill to further deceive the public. Despite some people questioning what sounded like a Stones cover band rehearsing at the El Mo in the middle of the day, in the middle of Toronto, the show went off without a hitch and without any leaks. The band themselves helped pick some of the winners, based on submissions to a CHUM FM contest that asked listeners what they would do to see the band play live. A dozen TTC buses picked the winners up at the station on Yonge Street; during the trip they were informed they’d be seeing the Stones.
It’s also confirmed that Margaret Trudeau, then-estranged wife of the prime minister and mother of Canada’s current leader, was hanging out with the band at the time — along with at least 100 others.
The performance was immortalized on the band’s “Love You Live” album.
Other bands, including Tom Waits, U2, Blondie, The Ramones, Joan Jett and Devo played the El Mo during their early years.
The El Mo goes dark
Mike Baird and Tom Kristenbrun owned the El Mo for decades, from 1972 until they sold it in 1986 prior to closing twice, in May and December, in 1989. For a number of years, the venue was home to Elvis Mondays, where newer and emerging bands, including Danko Jones, the Deadly Snakes, The Sadies and Peaches, played a 25-minute set to eager fans.
In September 2001, Abbas Jahangari bought the building, promising a dance studio upstairs and a spiritual centre and women’s shelter in other parts of the building. It didn’t last long, with music coming back the following year. Jahangiri sold the building in 2012, but the new partners were only able to add a new stage and restore the iconic neon light before they, too, sold it.
A $30 million restoration, give or take a mil
Wekerle bought the El Mo in 2015 and has poured millions into renovating and reimagining the space, which has been closed since 2014.
“What I tried to do is take it back to its original form,” Wekerle told Bloomberg in March 2020. “Make it cooler, make it better, make it more efficient, give it longevity.”
Part of that vision involves working with a live streaming company to broadcast shows around the world from the second-floor stage. This turned out to be a really smart move in the pre-COVID world. The renovation saw 4 kilometers of cables for light, sound, video and the internet being installed behind the venue’s walls, along with state-of-the-art recording and broadcast capabilities. Inside, the Stones are everywhere, along with other artists from the El Mo’s storied history, with names on staircases, photos on walls throughout and other nods to the legends who have played there.
The El Mo is now home to El Mocambo Studios and El Mocambo Records, which launched during Canadian Music Week in 2017.
When the El Mo hits the lights and Big Wreck comes out to play the first show in half a decade on September 10, it will begin the next chapter in a storied history, hopefully one with many more chapters left to be written and enjoyed.
Rumour has it, the Stones have been invited back to play whenever they’d like; no word on whether they’ve responded.