El Mocambo-7

With over 60 live music venues (and another 150 spaces that book live gigs), there’s never a shortage of music to enjoy in Toronto. The city’s strength lies in its diversity. I was intrigued to learn how the scene evolved, and got a taste of the old and new on a recent visit here. Come join me on a little exploration as I unearth a little of what makes Toronto the music centre that it is.

DJ Shannon-Assoon Brothers
[L to R: Albert Assoon, Michael Assoon, DJ Shannon, David Assoon at The Mix 669, Toronto]

Toronto owes a great debt to the Assoon Brothers (Albert, Michael, Anthony and David) for launching some of the city’s most iconic venues, beginning with the after-hours nightclub Twilight Zone in the early 80’s.

Having emigrated from Trinidad to Brooklyn, the brothers experienced the New York club scene and with a deep passion for music and bringing people together, decided to transform Toronto’s cultural scene into a diverse and inclusive place where people from all walks of life, regardless of race, sexual orientation or income level could enjoy music in all it forms. The four saw an opportunity to create a cultural hub for music lovers.

Within their venues, patrons could listen to New Wave, House, Disco, Hip Hop and Techno, with a rotating cast of DJs and performers. The Twilight Zone even hosted fashion shows, to get both local and world-renowned designers onto the city’s radar. Through their efforts, Toronto became a live entertainment centre for locals and visitors alike.

Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys, still in their nascent stage, performed at the venue, long before becoming monster stars. At the time, the majority of the neighbourhood was filled with unused factories (the city’s former garment district).

The club formed such an integral part of the scene that filmmaker Colm Hogan created a petition several years ago to name the laneway by the original club’s location Twilight Zone Way, now a reality.

Mix 669 Toronto
[The Mix 669]

If it were not for the Twilight Zone, it’s likely that Toronto’s Entertainment District wouldn’t exist today. I got to check out The Mix 669, one of their newer ventures, for a video dance party featuring Retro Mix Toronto (DJ Thomas Hall) on the decks. The Mix started as a result of the pandemic coming out of The Remix Resto Lounge on Dundas Street West. The Mix 669 also serves Caribbean food (Assoon Sr. was an international head chef on board the SS America, and would create fusion dishes influenced by his African, Chinese and Spanish roots).

Whiskey Saigon Toronto

Several clubs took to the scene following the Twilight Zone’s success, including the Boom Boom Room, Fat City, Volcano Room, Dance Cave, Bovine and Whiskey Saigon.

While in town, you’ll want to check out some of the city’s numerous venues, which benefit from a generous property tax program for qualifying spaces, in order to keep Toronto’s venues sustainable for the long run.

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The legendary Horseshoe Tavern has seen the likes of the Foo Fighters, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Stompin’ Tom Connors fill the tiny venue’s space since 1947.

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What began as a bar for local bike gangs later turned to kitchen parties when original owner Jack Starr built a stage for local acts to perform. Soon the Horseshoe became a full-time live venue and hosted major country and western acts including Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings.

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Inside the doors, spot all the great memorabilia on the walls, and you’ll begin to appreciate how iconic this venue is.

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Getting the chance to see Vancouver’s own ACTORS perform at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto was quite the treat last week. The post-punk band launched their career in 2012 with Post Traumatic Love. Six years down the road, the foursome (Jason Corbett, vocals; Shannon Hemmett, synth; Kendall Wooding, bass; Adam Fink, drums) signed with Toronto’s Artoffact Records and released It Will Come to You.

ACTORS

Following their debut, they spent 18 months touring the US, Canada and Europe. Netflix later picked up Slaves & Crystal for thee series The Order while We Don’t Have to Dance was featured in Nancy Drew. Last year, Acts of Worship was released. Corbett writes, produces, mixes and masters all ACTORS music at his own Vancouver studio, Jacknife Sound and names David Bowie as a primary influence.

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Another gem is the recently-renovated El Mocambo over on Spadina near College Street. The venue was closed from 2012 to 2016 and planned for a April 1, 2020 opening, however the pandemic delayed the opening until Canada Day 2020 (virtually) and in-person on October 30 of the same year.

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The El Mocambo originally began as a dining and dancing establishment back in 1948 by aspiring restaurateur Joe Brown, who envisioned a piece of California in Toronto by way of a giant palm tree and a 22-foot neon El Mocambo sign.

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Though the venue has changed hands over the decades, it’s become known as a beacon for both music lovers and musicians around the world. The El Mocambo has launched many careers since its inception, even hosting The Rolling Stones in 1977 for their one and only El Mo show.

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Owner Michael Wekerle originally came to just buy the sign in 2014 after it seemed the El Mocambo was closing for good. He knew he had to at least save that iconic sign.

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After contacting the building owners, he was informed that he could have the sign for free if he bought the whole property. He purchased the property for $4 million and got the sign for “free”. The 73-year-old building needed extensive renovations and by the end, he had invested $31.5 million into the renovations.

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The two performance areas feature broadcast quality sound, state-of-the-art audio, video, lighting and production. Bands can feed their shows to the control room upstairs for both-live to-air and live-to-audience experiences, as well as stream 4k high definition content.

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Even the original El Mocambo black and white photos on the wall contain TECHTUM panels for acoustic treatment and enhancement.

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Another plus of the renovation is the fact that both venues are fully soundproofed from one another. The El Mocambo has also licensed their own proprietary streaming software to connect with fans globally.

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The technological capabilities, paired with the unique intimate fan experience is truly unlike anything out there, especially in Toronto. 

A big thank you to friend and long-term resident DJ Shannon, who’s witnessed the action firsthand in many of the venues listed above, working as both bartender and DJ for close to three decades.

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