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Concerts draw people to New London's restaurants, businesses

New London — Sean Nelson’s love for jazz was solidified when he was still in middle school and he bought his first John Coltrane CD.

That love ignited a dream he would someday start his own big band.

The dream traveled with him from his home state of Texas to Connecticut, where he moved 11 years ago to play in the U.S. Coast Guard Band. However, it wasn't until he connected with the folks working to open The Social Bar + Kitchen at 208 Bank St. in 2016 that the dream was realized.

The Social soon became home base for Nelson's New London Big Band, a 17-piece jazz orchestra formed in 2016. Except for a COVID-19 pandemic hiatus, the band's lively swing music has been drawing people to The Social ever since.

"You need a place that will sound good for that kind of music and for that amount of sound that comes out of the band, which is mostly acoustic sound," Nelson said.

Nelson is just one of many musicians who have found their careers flourishing through a schedule of live shows played in New London’s restaurants such as Hot Rod Café, the Bayou, City Dock and Octane. In addition, the city’s dining establishments benefit from a wide variety of live concerts — ranging from outdoor summer festivals and shows at City Pier, Waterfront Park and Hygienic Art Park to concerts by many big-name musicians and the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra at the Garde Arts Center. Music draws people downtown and more people downtown generally means brisker business for local restaurants.

For many years, one focal point and mainstay of this restaurant-musician relationship was Daddy Jack's, which opened in 2014 on Bank Street.

New London Mayor Michael Passero said he developed a deep friendship with Daddy Jack’s owner, Jack Chaplin, who died in 2021. Passero said many people were drawn to the restaurant to listen to music while enjoying a good meal.

"Jack was very connected to the music scene, the blues, and the jazz scene," Passero said. "He really took the restaurant scene and the music scene in New London and brought it to the next level; really sort of showed us how we should do it. My wife and I used to go there frequently, and there were so many other people that went there frequently, it sort of became like a little club in itself. So, you'd see your friends and you'd see Jack, and different bands would be playing there."

But New London’s diverse music community has much deeper roots. The city became a go-to spot for live music and a home for musicians in the 1980s after the Reducers made a mark on the community, inspiring up-and-coming musicians for decades to come. The Reducers formed in 1978 and for more than three decades packed local clubs such as El ‘N’ Gee Club on Golden Street, now the site of RD86, a restaurant that also hosts live music.

A starting point

Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, said the city’s restaurants provide a stepping stone for many local musicians who aspire to eventually play at larger venues.

"This is the pathway to becoming a leading musician,” she said. “You start at the small, little places that will let you play in the background."

Bury said the restaurants in New London offer the opportunity for local musicians to see what their followers like. "In general, musicians have to test their waters, and this is a good place to look at a larger crowd, see the looks on people's faces and find some followers who do like their music," she said.

In turn, Bury said, restaurant owners benefit from the diverse music scene because it brings in a crowd. "Restaurants love to keep musicians in their spaces," she said.

Rod Cornish is one such restaurateur. He opened Hot Rod Cafe at 114 Bank St. in 2005 and a year later brought on head chef Carlos Paucar. Soon after, Cornish said they started creating the café’s signature wings together.

In addition to food, customers come to Hot Rod for the music. Cornish said many local talents have played in his restaurant over the years, including Andre & Friends, DJ E@ZY, Karl Kelly, and RJ, the DJ who hosts karaoke for customers in Hot Rod and other local restaurants.

Although he suspended live shows during the pandemic, Cornish said he has been bringing music back slowly until he feels it is safe to go back to the "pre-pandemic way."

"We're kind of a sports bar, where all kinds of people come," he said. "We're kind of an eclectic crowd, and music has always been a part of what we've done."

Cornish said when Andre & Friends plays at the cafe, it is special. Andre Danford, who goes by "Dre" Charles, is there every year for the anniversary of the restaurant's opening and draws a diverse crowd. Diversity is important to Cornish, making the band a great fit for Hot Rod.

"His band is diverse, and his crowd is diverse, and Hot Rod's crowd is diverse as well," Cornish said.

Karl Kelly, famously known in New London for his part in the blues group Little Anthony & The Locomotives, even made a commercial for Hot Rod Cafe. Later in life, he was known for being in The Karl Kelly Band before he died in 2012. In the commercial, he sang an original tune “Going Down to Hot Rods.”

Cornish said DJ E@ZY also has been DJing at Hot Rods for 10 years and always brings a crowd.

"He can read a crowd," Cornish said, "and people just love him."

Feeding the dining scene

Cornish is familiar with how larger local concerts boost restaurant business. He serves on the board of The Garde Arts Center, the city’s main arts venue that is located on State Street about a half-mile from his restaurant. When shows are scheduled at The Garde or at Hygienic Art Park, a venue with an outdoor stage on Bank Street, restaurants downtown are packed.

"Our goal is to create such a robust continual stream of activity that restaurants and other businesses can survive," said Steve Sigel, the Garde’s executive director.

Sara Connolly, the director of Hygienic Art, said anytime there is an event going on at the park, customers are encouraged to also stop by local restaurants.

"Hot Rods, which is right across the street, anytime we have any kind of a large opening or a music event, I know that he gets a bump in sales," Connolly said.

Noah Feldman is a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist who started playing professionally in the city at a young age. When he was just 15, his father noticed Feldman’s talent and started helping him book shows at local bars and restaurants.

"I showed some interest in it when I was a kid, and my dad kind of latched onto it, and when I could play well enough, and play well enough where I could get a gig, he helped me book,” Feldman said. “So, I was 15 years old playing in bars, which I think is pretty unusual for the area. I don't think I ever booked a gig where anybody was unhappy, and it was cool to be out and entertaining people, and you know, I learned a lot of music that way taking requests, and I learned a lot about the industry."

Similar to Nelson’s experience with New London Big Band, Feldman also started playing gigs at The Social in a show called the Funktion.

"I have always had my eye on New London as a place that I wanted to be, and so we found The Social,” he said. "The Social has such a beautiful space, it's large, and the management has been super cool and supportive of music."

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