The El Mocambo rises again

Last-minute purchase by Dragons’ Den star saves historic venue


Just over a month ago, it looked like the El Mocambo was about to shut its doors as a music venue forever. But at the last minute, a miracle no one expected happened: an ambitious buyer who wanted to keep the beleaguered bar running stepped up.

Surrounded by reporters at a chaotic press conference Thursday night, flamboyant entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den star Michael Wekerle looked in his element as he announced his purchase of the legendary club. Talking a mile a minute with a can of beer in his hand, Wekerle came across as exactly the kind of guy who’d buy the club he used to hang out at as a kid.

“It’s taken me 50 years to play this place,” Wekerle joked, clearly excited about taking to the stage himself later that evening.

Hopefully he’s got bigger plans than to turn it into a place where he and his buddies can play Rolling Stones covers. Nostalgia surely inspired him to drop $3.78 million to purchase the club, but floating the idea of reuniting Max Webster to play opening night demonstrates he’s got a steep learning curve ahead of him, even if he has owned a dozen or so bars previously.

Nevertheless, when it comes to reimagining what the El Mocambo will be, Wekerle’s reluctance to commit to a specific plan is a promising signal that he’s going to follow more than just his gut instincts.

“This is all very new right now, and I don’t want to make any decisions without the consultations of people that know this business a lot better than I do. One thing I do very well is that I hire people who are smarter than me,” he said.

At NOW, we consider ourselves expert in the Toronto music scene, so here’s some free advice for Mr. Wekerle on what it’s going to take to make the El Mocambo legendary again:

  1. Beware of rock ’n ’roll nostalgia. Yes, every article about the El Mo mentions the Rolling Stones, but that was a very long time ago, and classic rock is not going to pay the bills anymore. Keep the classic sign, keep the memorabilia, but consider making the second floor into a dance club space (originally the El Mo was a Latin ballroom anyway), and this time try to avoid alienating the hip-hop community like previous owner Sam Grosso did. You need the El Mocambo to be home to more than just one scene or sound.
  2. Reopen with a bang. I know it’s tempting to keep the place open during the transition, but you need to give Toronto an excuse to get excited about the space again. Your impulse to keep the decor barebones is good, but the space sorely needs some sprucing up. Just taking it back to the old days is not enough.
  3. Focus on the musical experience. Put as much money as you can into making both floors’ sound amazing. If the music sounds great, fans will be excited to hear their favourite acts there, and bands will be begging to play there. Fancy lights and interior design can come later.
  4. Connect with outside promoters. As well as an in-house booker, you’ll need to build relationships with the top music promoters in town to keep your calendar full of quality events. Beware of putting all your eggs in one basket, as keeping diverse crowds coming through the place is always smarter than counting on the same scene every weekend.
  5. Carve out some space for up-and-comers. Even though they might lose money, hosting local artist showcases and all-ages shows buy you a lot of goodwill from the musician community, and can help nurture important relationships with the stars of tomorrow.

Benjaminb@nowtoronto.com

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