Life, like a lot of good music, is mostly improvisation. Richard Carson has been riffing on that theme almost constantly since he opened Hugh's Room, a concert club and restaurant in Toronto's west end.
Carson had no experience in the music or restaurant business when he set up shop last May on a spartan stretch of Dundas Street West, far from the downtown club scene. He had spent most of his adult life -- he's now 49 -- working with theatre companies and social service agencies in northwestern Ontario.
Hugh's Room is a dream that's coming true against steep odds. The out-of-the-way venue (initially dubbed Whose Room? by some) has become a small mecca for acoustic music fans, at a time when seasoned clubs such as the El Mocambo and Ted's Wrecking Yard are in limbo or going out of business.
The place works in part because it offers what few others do: a place to listen carefully and at close range to someone like Loudon Wainwright III, Odetta or Jane Siberry. At Hugh's, when the music starts, the clatter and the conversation stop.
"It's very much a listening room," said Carson. "I love those moments when the club does dead quiet."
Most clubs, of course, thrive on hubbub, because it keeps throats dry and the bar busy till the headliner comes on around midnight. The conventional wisdom is that that's the only to make a club pay.
At Hugh's Room, the main attraction is performing before 10 p.m. By 11:30, the evening is over. What Carson loses in bar sales, he tries to make up with his kitchen. For 20 bucks, you can get a prix-fixe meal drawn from the relatively ambitious short menu, then stay at your table for the show.
The scheme seems to suit Carson's boomerish clientele. Like him, they respond well to a little more comfort and a little less night oil.
"Somebody my age doesn't want to go into a lot of downtown clubs," he said. "I don't want to be packed in shoulder to shoulder. I want a comfortable space."
Hugh's Room is certainly that. It's a three-level space of interesting angles, in which the tables march right up to the edge of the pocket stage. The off-white walls and restaurant lighting distinguish the place from the black pit of most clubs. You could bring your mother here.
In a way, it's a family business. Carson got the idea with his brother Hugh, an ardent folkie who had worked on festivals and felt that Toronto needed a mid-sized place where quiet music could be heard. Other family members helped with the startup capital. But Hugh developed a virulent cancer, and died before the club opened.
"His name is on it because he's still here, he's still part of it," said Carson. "He's a working member."
The surviving brother bears no resemblance to the Hollywood stereotype of the hard-bitten club-owner. He's a soft-spoken, self-effacing guy whose last venture was a native children's aid society in Thunder Bay. He seems to regard Hugh's Room as just one more way to build a humane community.
"I want it to be a place where performers feel good about performing, where the audience feels good about listening and where staff feel good about working," he said.
So far, it seems to be working. A recent show by blues-guitar virtuoso Kelly Joe Phelps was comfortably packed with people who were clearly in a mood to listen when the star took the stage at 9:45 p.m. The staff downed tools and listened as well. There was no repetition of what happened at Phelps's last Toronto gig, at which he felt obliged to ask some audience members to shut up. When the cappuccino machine let out a low hiss near the start of the set, several patrons turned around to give it the eye.
By Carson's estimate, at least half of those people hadn't been to Hugh's Room before. About 60 per cent of his customers on any given night are first-timers, which reassures him that the place is becoming known to those who want to know about it.
"I knew that if I could get the word out, it wouldn't be a bad space," he said. "It's right on the subway line (south of Dundas West station), all the streetcar lines run right by and it's easy to park."
The road hasn't always been smooth. On the club's opening Saturday night last spring, Carson's chef informed him that the fridge had failed, spoiling most of the food. They lost all the meals booked for Jesse Winchester's show. Carson placated the hungry crowd by giving out free hors d'oeuvre.
The effects of that setback lasted more than a night, because he had wanted to start with a bang, and "I didn't have another Jesse Winchester coming in for a month." Most of the club's five nights per week are taken up with local performers of roots, jazz, folk and world music, such as Colin Linden, Maza Meze, Betty and the Bobs and Mae Moore, most of whom are booked by Holmes Hooke.
Carson still isn't making money yet, but feels he's on the right path. Hugh would probably agree.
Jane Siberry plays Hugh's Room in Toronto tonight through Thursday.