Mention Hoboken to anyone in the music business today, and the first name they bring up is Maxwell’s. And no one has had a stronger influence on the scene there than Todd Abramson, who’s been booking its shows for 23 years.
Raised in New Providence, NJ, Abramson’s love of music started early. His first favorite band? “Probably Three Dog Night, because of ‘Joy to the World,’” he says. Next came the Beatles, soon replaced by the Rolling Stones. He listened every week to Scott Muni on WNEW-FM’s “Things from England” and stepped over to British Glam: Slade, Sweet, and T-Rex.
In 1983, Abramson moved to Hoboken, drawn in no small part by Maxwell’s, which was opened by Steve Fallon in 1978. Many credit that debut with bringing Hoboken’s first wave of regentrifiers—musicians and other artists. “It’s hard to imagine now, but Maxwell’s served the first brunch in Hoboken,” says Abramson with a wry smile. He was working as a booker for a weekly series at Greenwich Village’s Folk City, which lost its lease and was moving to the East Village. Anticipating some down time, he approached Fallon, who was busy not only with Maxwell’s, but with his label, Coyote Records. Abramson asked if he could do a month booking bands. Fallon said yes. “And I just hung on,” Abramson says.
Despite having played such an important role in Hoboken’s music scene, Abramson appears unfazed. Sitting in Maxwell’s amid a forest of upturned chairs, as the floors are mopped around us, he seems to recall every band, every show in detail.
In an industry where bigger-than-life personalities vie for attention, he has never been in it for self promotion. His focus has always been on the music. Nor will he take credit for launching the careers of bands he’s booked. “There are a lot of bands, the first time they played here to maybe 10 or 15 people. Some that come to mind are the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Wilco. Then the next time they play, it’s 100, and a couple of months later they’re sold out. But just because Nirvana played here a couple of times doesn’t make us responsible for their success.”
Abramson has opened the door for countless bands across many genres, and finds them in many ways. “Discovering new bands, it’s never one thing. Over time I’ve built up a network of agents, managers, friends. People who ... if they’re involved with a band, identify it as quality. People you trust.”
And it’s not as simple as going by his tastes. “A lot of the music I cherish isn’t that popular. If you book only according to your taste, your venue won’t last long. But it’s nice when the booker interjects themselves and the club has their musical personality stamped on it.”
His favorite show of all time? “There are so many,” he says, “but one show the Cowsills played ... I didn’t know all that much of their stuff but it was just one of those magical nights.” He also points to Yo La Tengo’s yearly “8 Nights of Hanukkah” as a highlight that has now identified them in the public consciousness with Maxwell’s, and vice-versa.
Abramson seems to have his ear tuned to what people want. Maxwell’s has been voted “Best Club in New York-Even Though It’s In New Jersey” by the New Yorker and as “Best Reason to Leave the State for Dinner and a Show” by the Village Voice.
Abramson co-owns the place with Dave Post of the Swingadelics and Steve Shelley, drummer for Sonic Youth. Will they ever expand the brand to another location? He says they’d rather keep fine-tuning the one they have. “The day you think you know it all, you might as well hang it up.” he says. After 25 years, he’s still learning. He’s been a DJ for 15 years on WFMU, working as Todd-O-Phonic Todd. He is now booking for the Bell House in Brooklyn and is the founder of Telstar Records.
Has the digital era affected live performance venues? “It’s a lot easier for fans to have access, to check out a new band,” he says. “You don’t have to go to the local record store. You can find and see new bands on YouTube, download them on iTunes. And we can get the word out about shows a lot easier.”
That said, there’s no substitute for the real thing. He recalls a customer emailing to complain about everything he’d experienced one night at the club, from his PATH ride to the sound system. But that’s the magic of live music, Abramson says. “If you want it to be exactly the same, go listen to the record. Here, there are ... moments that are great, really great. And the failures are memorable.” That experience, he says, is irreplaceable.—07030