Club Soda: a (partial) oral history


Contemporary Club Soda

This Saturday, iconic Montreal music venue Club Soda is turning 30. Before blowing out the candles, we here at Cult MTL thought it might be nice to stroll down memory lane with club co-owner Rubin Fogel.

Fogel had already been established on the production side of shows for a decade (and produced a number of Soda shows) before becoming a part-owner of the venue in 1985. Also, as you may know, Club Soda used to be up on Parc, where Cabaret du Mile End is located today, before  moving into their current location on the Lower Main in 2000. Fogel owns Soda along with longtime partner Michel Sabourin, as well as Martin Després.

Here’s what Fogel had to say about the many acts (four figures by this point) that have passed through, the big move and assorted unforgettable moments.

On his favourite Soda show:

Robert Palmer in 1983 or ’84. That was before we got involved there. The music was infectious, the band was unbelievable, and he had two drummers with him. He’s just an incredible musician, and he was hot at that time, but strangely enough the show was supposed to be at a bigger venue. It was up near the jazz festival, but it just wasn’t selling, so we moved it to Club Soda. The place was cracking at the seams, so a show that wasn’t selling suddenly became the show to see. Everyone was dancing all night. It became the benchmark for shows ever since: we’d always say, “That was the best show since Robert Palmer. That was almost as good as Robert Palmer.” It was our point of comparison.

On bringing in unknown acts:

When Chris Isaak came in the first time, he was a complete unknown. That was a curious story: he was on tour with the Thompson Twins. What happened was the Thompson Twins were booked to play the floating stage at la Ronde, but they would only allow one act, one set, so the Thompson Twins played their hour-and-a-half, but Isaak had nowhere to play. I had never heard of him, but I knew his agent and I managed to get a copy of his earlier music, which sounded good. There was a journalist from Journal de Montréal who freaked out about the music, did an advance article, and we ended up filling the place.

The next day, the reviews, especially Journal, were mostly about Chris Isaak and just a small review on Thompson Twins. The following week they headed to Toronto and the midwest, and had one or two days off, so they made it back to Montreal and played a second show a week later. Sold that out, too.

On the “new” Club Soda’s long history:

The building is almost 100 years old. It was a theatre, it was a flea market, it was a hardware store at one point, it was a bordello, and it was a second-run movie theatre for a number of years, when the Main was in decline. There was a porno theatre next door, and this one was called the Crystal; you got three B-movies for a buck and a half. Then it was closed for a while. About seven or eight years before we came in, some people had taken the building over and opened a club called New Orleans. They built a stage, but on the short side, so on the left hand side when you walk in, with a little balcony. They were trying to do something geared towards tourists, dinner and show-type experience, but it didn’t work.

On what might have been:

Fuzzy Bar originally bought the building. They were going to build a downtown Fuzzy, but there was a moratorium on liquor permits, so they weren’t able to get one, so they were stuck with this building they were sort of starting to renovate, although they hadn’t done much yet. Because we’re more of a cultural establishment than a bar, we were able to get the liquor license.

On alternative locations for the “new” Club Soda:

Before we relocated, we were searching for about five years. One of them is where Excentris is. We had the first option, but [Excentris founder] Daniel Langlois had a right of refusal, so he exercised his option and built Excentris. The parking lot across from Excentris was a potential development; that was the first place we were working on. The location where the Cinémathèque québécoise is, on Maisonneuve and St-Denis, was an option. The last place we had plans drummed up for was the Hotel Godin and Greek Church on St-Laurent and Sherbrooke [now the Opus Hotel]. The property was owned by the Greek community. We had made an offer. The Greek council okayed it, but it went to a vote and they needed a two-thirds majority and they ultimately decided to keep the property. Fell through at the 11th hour.

On Lhasa de Sela at the old Club Soda:

We did a series of shows with her over the course of a couple of years. What we’d do was book single shows, as her first album was continuously growing to a larger cult, and we always sold out in advance. Then we’d book another show a month or two later. Before we knew it, we had booked six or eight shows. They weren’t even weekend shows. They were always on a Monday or Tuesday; never had to do it on the weekend. Seeing someone like Lhasa, as intense as she was, it was a special place to see her.

On Loudon Wainwright:

On stage at the same time was Loudon, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, their sister Jane, along with Martha and Rufus. You’d have to ask them, obviously, but I don’t know if that ever happened again. It was probably the first time that happened, at least. On Jeff Healey: Clive Davis saw Jeff Healey for the first time at Club Soda.

On bringing Oasis to Montreal for the first time in 1995:

That was a good one, that was at the old club. The place was packed; you could see that there was something happening there. It was a really rocking show.

On disaster shows:

No disasters, but we’ve been the victims of power failures, where the artist would either have to play acoustically in the dark, or audiences were entertained until Hydro got the power back on. That’s happened a couple of times. ■

Club Soda’s Party du 30e, with Poirier and DJ sets by Yann Perreau and Stefie Shock, at 1225 St-Laurent, happens Saturday, Dec. 8, 11 p.m, $5

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