The top 5 Toronto concert venues in need of a makeover
The worst concert venues in Toronto would be an unproductive (and mean) list to put together, but I'm a firm believer in squeaky wheels getting the grease. Complaining is a worthy pastime if done well, and Toronto's live music scene can only be as vibrant as the spaces that house it. It's one thing for a venue to have minor problems: Massey Hall, while pretty satisfactory, needs to rethink the seats in their upper sections, The Great Hall needs to buy an air conditioner, and some venues need to work on their acoustic issues. It's okay, we could all stand to improve. Yet it's another thing to feel like a venue — cough, say a venue located on a pier, cough — doesn't give a fuck about its patrons.
Here are five concert venues in Toronto that could definitely step up their game.
Formerly The Docks and located on Polson Pier, far southeast from downtown, the 3000+ person capacity Sound Academy is a sore spot in Toronto's music scene. Why did they name it "Sound" Academy? Was it to drive us insane? In 2008 new owners sound-proofed the venue to ease the tempers of neighbours, but the tempers of Toronto music fans apparently don't matter. Let's put aside the complaints the that coat check is "ridiculous" and the crowds are "douchey." The real issues are terrible sightlines, hollow, tinny sound (you may as well stay home and listen to laptop speakers) and TTC despair leading to desperate searches for cabs. My last Sound Academy experience was walking out of Crystal Castles after only four songs, and I won't be back. Ever. Please let me be strong this time.
Our readers voted The Phoenix into our best live music venues list for good reason — the sound, while not great, could be worse, and this east end venue has boasted a bazillion shows from Skrillex to DEVO to Cat Power. It's one of the last steps before an arena sized venue, way better than Sound Academy, and it's easy to see a favourite band there and have a good time (CocoRosie were magical a couple of weeks ago.) That said, things have taken a turn from cool grungy to embarrassing, and the decor is reminiscent of a single uncle's sad basement rec room, including the acoustics he thinks are "sweet" but are actually "meh." While I don't mind lining up through the hallways amid coat check confusion because that's great people watching, The Phoenix could use an audio / visual facelift. Or at least a good dusting.
It feels wrong to pick on Smiling Buddha. The dive bar is stuck on a boring, under trafficked strip of College, the owners are open minded and kind and, most importantly, they'll let anybody play there, meaning a lot of fledgling bands get an opportunity to play on stage, once Wayne can locate the gear to hook everything up. The art on the walls is... interesting, and the general decor has a quirky charm to it. The crowd depends on what's booked, but it's Toronto's sadder, less cool version of Bushwick's Goodbye Blue Monday. Which, with its relaxed, eclectic unpretentiousness, walls of old radios, and barstools crowded with bearded or crown braided nerdy music lovers most nights of the week, is the kind of venue I'd like to see Smiling Buddha aspire to. Maybe someday.
The Opera House
Like the Phoenix, a lot of music fans have treasured memories of seeing favourite bands pass through this Riverside venue such as Shad, Fintroll, and Destroyer, and aren't generally turned off by the fact its got that rustic, falling-apart charm. As a bonus, ticket prices are reasonable and the sightlines mean you can actually see the stage (um, hello low expectations.) So it makes sense that TOH is on our reader's list of top Toronto venues. However, it seems to depend on the genre or band, or maybe who's working the board, or maybe how inebriated you are, but the sound can range from decent to unremarkable to frustrating, unbalanced, and muddy. Opera House would be a way better live music spot if they figured this out. They could fix the interior up a bit in general too, but so long as no one falls through the floor I'm cool.
Hugh's Room has a problem. Our readers voted it in as one of Toronto's best live music venues likely because they're booking folk and roots acts that the city's other venues are overlooking — and good on Hugh's for that — but there is serious management improvement that could go on here. Ticket prices are expensive, and then you can't reserve a seat unless you order food in addition to the door price. The food is terrible, especially for ~$15 per entrée. Yet roots fans more or less have to go to this cozy Roncesvalles spot to see cool cats like Old Man Luedecke. It's like a folk music monopoly, which seems seriously un-folk-y. What are you doing, Hugh's?
The El Mo is a tough call because they're actually in the midst of renos. Or they were, for a while. I talked to current co-owner Sam Grosso earlier this month and he admitted to experiencing some City Hall snags. The unique palm tree sign is back in action and it looks like there's still hope for rock's legendary Spadina venue, but what the El Mo might need most right now is love, a.k.a. money. They're really hurting for bands to play there and thirsty people to drink there. If you want to see this venue back in tip top shape, make it a regular watering hole in the state it's in now.
What Toronto concert venue do you think is most in need of a makeover? Let us know in the comments.
Photo of Sound Academy by Brian Morton