New Haven, Connecticut is the site of Yale University, so it’s got the kind of college-town diversity that can support an active music scene. It’s home to The Space, a welcoming coffeehouse in suburban Hamden, where up and coming young (sometimes high-school age) local and touring acts are nurtured, and the late, lamented Tune Inn, a punk hangout extraordinaire. There’s even one bona fide rock n’ roll landmark: Toad’s Place, a 500-plus capacity room that’s hosted, in its day, Bob Dylan and the moonlighting Rolling Stones.
But the hearts of the Beehive Queen (that’s me) and so many other Elm City music lovers belong to a tiny bar nestled on a windy corner over near the train station—the small but mighty Cafe Nine. Come to New Haven, and that’s where you’ll find the best folks, the best jukebox and, by far, the best music. Part of a historic downtown district called The Ninth Square (recently gentrified), “The Nine,” as it’s known, started out in the 80s as a bar called Blue Bartz under the ownership of an affable motorcycle-riding, R&B-steeped musicologist named Michael Reichbart, beloved for establishing events like the Nine’s famous Saturday afternoon Jazz Jam (still a tradition). Then the bar changed hands, and therein lies the key to its present greatness: now, it’s run by a working musician. Paul Mayer, bassist with The Swaggerts (formerly the Big Bad Johns—two of the greatest band names ever) took it over in 2003 and became sole owner in 2005.
When asked about his booking philosophy, Mayer put it succinctly: “We book what we like.” The Nine’s artist roster reads like a Who’s Who of hip: Glen Tilbrook, Old Crow Medicine Show, Los Straitjackets, Wanda Jackson, Wayne Hancock, Honeyboy Edwards, The Iguanas, Heavy Trash, John Doe, Bill Kirchen,The Blasters, Jim Lauderdale, Chuck Prophet, and up-and-comers like Ruthie Foster—and that’s just the tip of Café Nine booking iceberg. Spring, 2010 will see appearances by Murder By Death (“very rare small club show,” confided Mayer) and Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate. All this hip diversity has provided a revolving door of heavenly guest appearances for me over the years—I’ve jumped on stage for “Cynical Girl” with Marshall Crenshaw, “Got My Mojo Workin’” with Muddy Waters’ drummer Sam Lay, “Howlin’ For My Darling” with the great Hubert Sumlin, and “The Boy From New York City” with Wreckless Eric & my dear friend Amy Rigby. I asked Paul to name his favorite moment of 2010 thus far. “Easy,” he said. “We had T-Model Ford here a few weeks ago, and he was fantastic! He played for two and a half hours. I had to pry the guitar out of his hands at a quarter to two!” The glee in his voice was real, and in the same breath he declared, “We have to be passionate about it, or we can’t promote it.” Amen.