On October 2, 2001, Toronto had the envious task of hosting a free show by the world's hottest new band. Just one week before the domestic release of their seminal debut album, Is This It, New York City's the Strokes performed a non-ticketed gig as part of the legendary Horseshoe Tavern's no-cover Nu Music Nite. At this point, the band could have easily sold out a venue like the 2500-capacity Kool Haus, but the show's promoters insisted on making this an event to remember. So they chose the sweaty, cramped confines of the 400-capacity Horseshoe.
"That was all Elliott [Lefko, then local promoter, now Vice-President of Goldenvoice]," recalls Dave Bookman, long-time presenter/booker of Nu Music Nite. "He just said, 'We're gonna bring them in and it'll be great.' You can have big bands that people are excited about, but there was nothing like the hysteria over that show. There was honest to God hysteria. Rock'n'roll is supposed to be exciting, and you hear about it from another time, but you could actually feel it. It was the right band for the right situation. At the end of the day we wanted to have fun with it."Unlike their brief and slightly stiff Toronto debut seven months earlier opening for Doves, the Strokes played a ramshackle, yet feverish set that included their then-controversial, post-9/11 tune "New York City Cops." Adding to fun was openers Moldy Peaches who brought their whimsical anti-folk to life. But as that was all happening, there were still hundreds of fans waiting outside, desperately hoping to get in.
"[That night] was one of the worst experiences I've had," says Bookman, now a host for radio station Indie 88. "That whole thing was really stressful, as you can imagine. They were so hot at the time, but also a handful. Nobody knew how stressful the day would be. We didn't know what would happen from one second to the next. I was supposed to have them on the air at 6PM and they never showed up. They just went and did their own thing. So that was a little upsetting. And I saw what was going on at the club with the line-up. I couldn't deal with it, so I went down to the Beverley Tavern and drank and let everyone else deal with it."
Chances are if you've spent any time in Toronto checking out live music, you've been to at least one Nu Music Nite, which happens every Tuesday at the Horseshoe Tavern (barring any conflicting scheduled event). Although moments like the night the Strokes invaded the city are rare, it has become a regular haunt for anyone hungry for free entertainment. Bookman came up with the idea as a way of assisting his friend and veteran club booker Yvonne Matsell, who was looking after both the Horseshoe and Ultrasound Showbar (now a salon and spa).
Using William New's Elvis Mondays night at local bar El Mocambo as a template, Bookie sought to present his own weekly showcase of up-and-coming local, national and international talent. "The idea was to present four bands, quick sets, everyone works together, where it was as much for the audience as it was for the bands," he says. "And it had to be absolutely free. If a band can't play for free they shouldn't be playing at all. Because it's all about the fans and your love for the music. We wanted to try to extend and enhance the community. Fans could meet bands, musicians could meet each other, bands from out of town could come in and check out the scene. What we were trying to do was build the Horseshoe for a new generation because the timing was right."
Nu Music Nite launched in 1993 with a gig by UIC and Adventure Playground. It took a while for the night to catch on. "The first year was kind of hit and miss, because I was still learning how to book a club," explains Bookie. "I would say by the end of the first year it started rocking. People started to find out about it, and it went from me asking bands to them calling and asking me about it." As it started to attract interest, Matsell left. The Horseshoe's then-owner Ken Sprackmen asked Bookie who should take over the bookings, and he recommended Jeff Cohen and Craig Laskey of Against the Grain, who now operate as Collective Concerts and co-own the Horseshoe and Lee's Palace. "The timing was right," Bookie says. "And once they came in we were able to integrate the idea into what the Horseshoe would become."
In the pre-internet 1990s, radio was arguably the most influential medium for discovering new music. As a DJ for 102.1 CFNY-FM, Bookie also had the airwaves to plug showcases during shows like Live In Toronto and The Indie Hour. "In 1993, I started doing a show called The Indie Hour, so I did the two of them together. I'd play the bands doing Nu Music Nite on the show. We started advertising the night on the station, so the two were totally intertwined. "Timing also had a lot to do with the night's success. As alternative rock reached a fever pitch and labels were literally signing any act that fit the bill, Bookie found reps knocking on his door.
"In the mid-'90s, it was the huge alt thing," he says. "There was this explosion and all of these labels trying to figure out what to do with all of these new bands they'd signed. Especially these bands that had a hit and don't play live particularly well. So this was the perfect showcase. Promoters were involved too. So that was key, once the whole music industry started realizing that this was something they could use to showcase their bands. And of course, that led to some of the bigger stuff that happened."
And big stuff happened.
"In '95, one of the best early nights came when I was interviewing Thom Yorke for [CNFY] the day The Bends came out. He was just in doing press by himself," Bookie remembers. "I said to him, 'Hey man, I've got this show I'm doing down at the Horseshoe. Do you wanna come play?' And he looked at his label rep, who said, 'It's up to you!' And Thom goes, 'Yeah, I've got my guitar. Let's go.' So we went down and he played six songs from The Bends acoustically that night. It was incredible."
Nu Music Nite hosted the first Toronto gigs by a number of successful international acts: the Old 97's, Ash, Spoon, Son Volt, Band of Horses, Matchbox 20, Whiskeytown (featuring Ryan Adams), Eels, Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Nada Surf and even nu-metal gods, Linkin Park. But even the Strokes' show pales in comparison to what happened on September 19, 1999.
"On the day Foo Fighters' There Is Nothing Left To Lose came out, everyone surprised me," Bookie recollects with a childlike excitement. "We had them at the station in the morning, but I didn't know they were playing Nu Music Nite that night. We had a band called Snakefarm, who were the same management, and were also playing that night. But the Foos had set it up that they would come down and just play that night. That one was really special because the year before they'd done the Edgefest Tour across Canada, and Dave Grohl really liked the Inbreds. So that's how we became friends. He's the nicest guy in the world. That whole Foo family was so special. It's not often you get a big band you like and they're really, really nice."
(Not every high profile act was as gracious as the Foos. "The worst night we had with a so-called big act was Meredith Brooks," Bookie remembers. "Right at the height of 'Bitch' we did a Tuesday night, and she had this massive entourage of managers and handlers. We had to close off the entire basement for her. She would not allow anyone to even use the bathroom downstairs. The only other time that happened at the 'Shoe was when the Rolling Stones played. Foo Fighters obviously overshadowed Snakefarm on the night, but that's not likely why no one remembers Snakefarm. In fact, for every Spoon or Linkin Park, there were countless hotly tipped international acts that found a modicum of attention, only to be forgotten six months later.
"From '95 to 2005, at the height of alternative music, there were a lot of Jimmie's Chicken Shacks," Bookie says with a laugh. "We were the soft landing for every Jimmie's Chicken Shack in the world. With the label and the hype, you would just watch the machine roll. The industry really tried to cash in and they really didn't know how to do it. God bless 'em for trying!"
What Nu Music Nite did better than anything though was provide a weekly forum for Canadian bands to be heard. Whether they were local or from out east passing through town, the night became a right of passage for Canadian talent. Sloan, Weakerthans, Killjoys, Treble Charger, Tricky Woo, Billy Talent, Thrush Hermit, Matt Mays, Big Wreck, Kathleen Edwards, as well as Noisey faves, Nickelback, all got their start playing the Horseshoe on a Tuesday. Launching the night just as the CanRock movement took shape was monumental in getting it off the ground.
"CanRock definitely made it a hell of a lot easier because there were a lot more bands, especially touring bands," he says. "They could come into town with a gig on another night and we'd invite them to also play the Tuesday. It really helped that we had these bands and people were interested in seeing them live. Also the city was alive. Bands were forming everywhere, but labels were also forming. Probably the proudest night we ever had was our 9th anniversary in 2002, where the line-up was Raising the Fawn, Billy Talent, Constantines, and Moneen. It was just the best night for Canadian music."
After 24 years, Nu Music Nite is still going, and still attracting name artists. Just last summer, power pop wunderkinds the Lemon Twigs appeared second on a four-band bill, just as they were signing to 4AD. Unfortunately, a bad case of tinnitus has kept Bookie from regularly attending. "I did for 20 years," he says. "I can't be around live music because of my ears, so I have to get reports. The last show I can remember was a couple years ago where we had a holiday party and Hollerado, PUP, Max from Arkells, and PKEW PKEW PKEW all played. That was another night where there was so much great Canadian music. It was hard to believe that was all happening."
So far in 2017, Toronto has lost a number of live music venues. This has become a major concern for the music community, which has taken steps to prevent any more from closing. Now in its 70th year, the Horseshoe is one of the city's most stable venues, meaning a weekly fixture like Nu Music Nite, where new artists can grace the same stage as legends like Willie Nelson, the Rolling Stones, the Tragically Hip and the Cramps is more vital than ever. Bookie doesn't see the long-running night ending any time soon. Too him it's "a little slice of Toronto's fabric and culture" that won't cost you a penny.
"The thing is every week there is a band playing. If you like 'em, great. If you don't, well don't worry about it because there's another one coming," he explains. "At the very least, you get to be in the best club in the world. There are a lot of great clubs in the world, but for me the Horseshoe is hallowed ground. This place has always just been about enhancing the community. Get a bunch of music lovers in a room because when you do good things happen."
Cam Lindsay has many stories to share about a very beer prone Julian Casablancas. Follow him on Twitter.