The Toronto music community went into mourning over the weekend. No, it wasn’t over the death of an artist, but rather the apparent demise of Hugh’s Room, one of the city’s most-loved and significant live music venues.
Word that the club is insolvent spread like wildfire on Facebook Sunday. Rumours that the showcase music venue was in financial trouble had been heard for a while, and notification on Friday that shows over the weekend were cancelled sounded alarm bells. Owner Richard Carson followed with his own statement, saying "Hugh's Room has been struggling for many years... and we've always been able to get through the next weekend, but I got to the point on Friday where I thought, 'I don't know how I'm going to get through the next weekend.'"
ON FB on Sunday morning, local musician Jory Nash posted that “I am extremely saddened to report that I just found out this morning that Hugh's Room, the venue where I and so many of my musical friends have played over the last 16 years, is declaring bankruptcy. The owner is insolvent and has closed the doors forever. This news came out of the blue this weekend. I do not even know if the Hugh's Room staff know yet. This means my upcoming 15th anniversary Way We Feel concerts celebrating the music of Gordon Lightfoot are cancelled, as are all other upcoming shows at the venue. I do not have any more information but the owner is aware and supportive that I am posting this information.”
Hugh’s Room’s long-time publicist Jane Harbury confirmed the news to FYI, relaying a message from club owner Richard Carson, one now posted on the club's website. It reads: "To all our supporters – performers, audience, and staff – I am sincerely sorry to have to say that Hugh’s Room has reached a point of insolvency. More information will be available over the next few days as to how we can proceed from here, but at this time we are closing our doors until we can see what options are available to us."
Carson elaborated a little to The Toronto Star, stressing that "I have not filed for bankruptcy. I would like to figure out a way to continue. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible, so I just need a few days. Right now, I don’t feel it’s fair to go on in the dire current situation that we’re in.”
He told the paper the business has “been a struggle for years. It’s difficult and I’ve got two tough businesses — a restaurant and a music venue. Up until this last Friday, I’ve been able to sort through it and do what I can to continue on. But it really was on Friday where I called the line. I can’t continue until I can answer some questions.”
Promoters and artists who had booked or played the club were quick to express sadness over the closure, with many offering to assist in any way possible.
Promoter/graphic artist Michael Wrycraft posted this on FB: “RIP Toronto'sHugh's Room. It is over! Hugh's Room, the best damned "listening" room in the city, is done. This is a sad day for so many in the music community! I have presented over 70 shows there over the last 13 years. I would never have been able to produce so many high-quality shows there without their faith and total support. This feels like the death of a family member to me and is most likely the end of my concert curating, producing and presenting career. They were very generous and I owe them a fantastic debt.”
Music promoter Richard Flohil has also booked a large number of shows there over the years. His FB post reads, in part: “One of my favourite venues, Hugh's Room, has apparently declared bankruptcy. This is incredibly sad news for this so-called 'Music City' — this venue will be remembered in the same way the glory days of the ElMo and the Diamond and Ontario Place are remembered. Over the last 14 years I have presented dozens of shows there; the city needs a "listening room" where artists can present their music to an audience that listens.”
Hugh’s Room was started by Richard Carson in April 2001, in Toronto’s West End, in honour of his late brother Hugh, a major folk music fan. The table seating and a full menu gave the 200-capacity club something of a supper-club ambience, but the musical focus was predominantly on roots styles, though jazz was an increasing part of its recent menu.
It became a part of the regular touring schedule of many international groups and singer/songwriters, and a key venue to showcase acts from across Canada. Such veterans as Judy Collins, The Strawbs, Maria Muldaur, Tom Rush and Eric Andersen played Hugh’s Room, along with US roots-rock stars such as Dave Alvin, Billy Joe Shaver and The Flatlanders. Hugh’s Room also hosted performances by such domestic stars as Ron Sexsmith, Alan Doyle, Jane Siberry and Ian Tyson.
Upcoming bookings for 2017 had included Robbie Fulks, Tom Russell, The Good Brothers, Marc Jordan, and David Lindley.
News of the closing also increased concern over the future viability of such venues right across the country. On FB, Lori Yates posted “First the Railway Club in Vancouver, then the Carleton in Halifax, now Hugh's Room in Toronto have all closed! This doesn't bode well for roots artists...yikes! What's going on?”
The news of Hugh’s Room’s closure comes after a year in which Toronto lost far more music venues that it gained. A feature in local weekly NOW last month listed such clubs as Tattoo, The Hideout, Cherry Cola’s, The Tennessee and Not My Dog in the lost column, with just two notable newcomers, The Baby G and Velvet Underground, plus one rebrand (the former Sound Academy became Rebel).
-- Editor's note: In fact, the Carleton Bar & Grill in Halifax remains open with new owner Doug Reid, who currently owns Lot Six and Press Gang, operating the downtown venue; however, it is uncertain if the showroom will continue with regular music headliners after March.