As new owners Sam Grosso and Marco Petrucci take over the El Mocambo this week, we check in with the woman who’s kept the historic venue buzzing for the past decade: veteran booker Yvonne Matsell.
Though its official history stretches back to the 1940s, much of the El Mocambo’s legend centres around the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the two-level Spadina Avenue venue routinely hosted future luminaries (U2, Elvis Costello, the Ramones, and Stevie Ray Vaughan to name a few) and rock stars on the slum (most notably, The Rolling Stones, who devoted side three of their 1977 live album Love You Live to a set of blues standards recorded at the club). That’s the history that Sam Grosso and Marco Petrucci are hoping to resurrect as they take ownership of the club—at a reported $3 million price tag—this week, with ambitious plans to relight its long-neglected neon-palm sign, revamp the upstairs performance space, upgrade building infrastructure, introduce dining service, and reorient programming around the sort of rock ‘n’ roll/roots/blues mix heard at Grosso’s popular Parkdale venue, The Cadillac Lounge.
But one element that will remain in place is veteran booker Yvonne Matsell, who’s held down the fort for over a decade, under sometimes trying circumstances. Her tenure began shortly after the El Mo’s previous owner, Abbas Jahangiri, took control of the club in 2001 amid a whirr of controversy and acrimony. Jahangiri had purchased the El Mo in the midst of a renaissance: Starting in the late ’90s, maverick local concert promoter Dan Burke effectively transformed the then-run-down venue into a locus for the city’s burgeoning indie- and garage rock scenes (providing an early stage to acts ranging from The Sadies to Peaches), while mod-man Davy Love and the late queer-punk figurehead Will Munro attracted capacity crowds to their respective Blow Up and Vazaleen parties. Jahangiri, however, had other designs: He shut down the El Mo for a year of renovations, ousting Burke and his satellite scenes in the process. (Literally: Burke’s last night at the El Mo—on Nov. 4, 2001—ended with him being handcuffed and escorted out by police.) Jahangiri’s El Mo would reopen in 2002 as a multi-purpose venue that included a redecorated ground-floor room and a short-lived upstairs dance studio that eventually became a non-descript events space. (Alas, his vision of turning the El Mo’s basement—home to some of the grodiest bathrooms in the city—into a women’s shelter, and the building’s third-floor offices into a spiritual-outreach centre, went unrealized. But in 2003, he would found a volunteer organization, Serving Charity, with the mission of feeding Toronto’s homeless with food prepped in the El Mo’s downstairs kitchen.)
After losing her previous booking gig at the much-missed College Street venue Ted’s Wrecking Yard when it shuttered in late 2001, Matsell—on recommendation from former boss Ted Footman—was brought on by Jahangiri to oversee the new El Mo’s first-floor concert programming. And even though Matsell had acquired many years of experience booking ’90s-era hotbeds like Ted’s, Reverb, and The Ultrasound, she had to once again prove herself in the face of many dejected El Mo exiles who were hoping the new venture would fail.
“There was so much negativity surrounding the El Mo back then,” Matsell recounts. “A lot of musicians were focussing their hatred on Abbas. However, I’ve always had a good relationship with a majority of musicians, and they were ignoring the fact that I was going to be the one booking them.”
Adding to the challenge was the fact that, post-renovation, the El Mo’s downstairs room had expanded from a cramped room that held 100 or so people to a cavernous space that accommodates over double that. But while it lost the intimate, punk-clubhouse vibe it had established during Burke’s tenure, Matsell has kept the El Mo firmly on the Toronto concert calendar for the past 10 years, as the venue has hosted everyone from emergent local electro-rockers Holy Fuck to roots royalty like Martha Wainwright to indie buzz bands like Girls.
“Abbas had different objectives to the ones I had, which was primarily supporting the music scene,” Matsell admits. “But kudos to him for keeping the doors open—a lot of people didn’t think it was possible.”
However, beginning last summer, Matsell could sense Jahangiri’s enthusiasm for running the El Mo was starting to wane, prompting him to eventually sell the building.
“In the beginning, Abbas seemed invigorated about being in a musical field he had never been in,” Matsell says. “But it just started to wear off because he was more inclined to go towards his first calling: his missionary work. He has a kitchen downstairs [in the El Mo] to prepare meals, and he was going out at night feeding homeless people. He did that every night with volunteers after the club was finished at 2 a.m.”
Like Matsell, the El Mo’s new owners come from music backgrounds—prior to the Caddy, Grosso operated Kensington Market mainstay Grafitti’s, while Petrucci owns the 99 Sudbury event space. And while Matsell’s tastes run more eclectic than Grosso’s stated preference for classic, guitar-oriented music, she sees room for a symbiotic relationship to take hold.
“It’s exciting to have new fresh blood,” she says. “Sam’s a huge roots music fan, and I love roots music as well, but you can’t maintain any music club these days without being varied in your booking choices. I’ve always supported new music, because eventually that’s going to be the music to carry Canada through the new times. But it’s entirely up to Sam about where he wants to go—I’m there just to faciliate and bring in quality music.”
Matsell confirms that the remaining scheduled events on the El Mo calendar will stay on the books, as Grosso and Petrucci “get a feel” for the space. But while Matsell is excited that work will soon begin on restoring the club’s upstairs room to its pre-2001 layout, there’s a particular improvement she’s especially looking forward to.
“It’s been a struggle to exist without air conditioning,” she says with a laugh. “It’s hard to dangle the carrot to get people to come out to show if they know they’re going to be sweating up a storm! Just knowing that things are going to be done to the building that we’ve needed right from the beginning is a big relief.”