New musical memories to be created at reunion for iconic Club Soda

It was a smokey, dank, dark club. The bathrooms were nasty. Carpeting on the stage risers were so sticky with spilled substances that "your shoes would come off," Paul Toth says.

Yet there were a lot of great Kalamazoo music memories made at the Club Soda. To remember and reunite, Toth has organized a Club Soda reunion show at the Old Dog Tavern Saturday, Aug. 6.

Full disclosure: My first time seeing music at any bar was there, 1985, the WIDR New Music Night 18-and-up show with an edgy punkish girl group from Detroit, The Vertical Pillows. I and my other 18-year-old farmboy friends were thrilled to leave the boonies of Galesburg to see young women rock out, and to be in a crowd of Kalamazoo's freakiest haircuts.

Toth's first time there was when "I saw Koko Taylor, and I was just absolutely blown away that I was sitting only 15 feet away from a legendary blues artist in Kalamazoo."

He became a bartender, then a booking agent and manager at the club, from the '80s into the '90s, so he has a lot of memories. Like in 1989, when an obscure band from Seattle played, called Nirvana, "I think paid admission was about 50 that night, and I know at least 700 people that claim they were there," he says. 

From 1983-2007, the Club Soda was a major venue for live music from national and local acts. Especially so in the '80s-'90s, when live music elsewhere tended to be from cover bands.

On one night, Kalamazoo's shock rockers The God Bullies could be doing something unmentionable, the next night classic reggae or blues artists would be on stage, and on the weekend a national hip-hop or Detroit R&B act would fill the club.

"On any given night you'd go down there and see a very different crowd, a very different style of music. And yet sometimes those crowds would mix, you'd go down on a Monday night and there'd be all kinds of punk kids, but there'd also be a few business guys hanging around enjoying the show. It was always a really mixed crowd."

It felt uniquely Kalamazoo, a culture where a diverse community could gather around diverse sounds. 

"I'd have to agree," Toth says, adding that this culture infected the variety of Kalamazoo's summer festivals, "another opportunity to see that diversity happen.... That's the great thing about music, it brings people together."

Now the space on East Michigan Avenue is Newman's Bookshoppe, a Catholic bookstore whose carpets aren't at all sticky. Regular Soda bands rarely play anywhere, busy with life, families, careers. The old Soda sign hangs inside the Old Dog Tavern, which also has the Soda's old bar.
Club Soda Reunion

Saturday, Aug. 6, Old Dog Tavern, 402 E. Kalamazoo Ave. Minimum donation $7,
to benefit the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock.

Vegetable Soul, 9:15 p.m.;
Melt, 10:15 p.m.;
Edgerton Pen Conspiracy,
11 p.m.;
Circus McGurkis, 11:45 p.m.;
Black Spring, 12:15 a.m.;
Darcy Wilkin and Friends,
1 a.m.
Toth tries to catch local bands from the olden days when they do reunion shows. Every time, people suggest that it "feels like a reunion" of Soda regulars. He floated the notion of a Soda reunion on the "Club Soda Rocked!" Facebook Page, "and I was blown away by the reaction" coming from as far away as California and Sweden.

It wasn't easy getting bands together for a Saturday, but Toth's talent, he says, is in "organizing things. I've never played an instrument, but I've always been good at herding musicians and putting these things together."

The lineup includes the area bands primarily out of the '90s: Black Spring, Circus McGurkis, Edgerton Pen Conspiracy, Melt, and others.

"It's pretty much going to be a rock'n'roll show," Toth says, with styles ranging from post-punk Circus McGurkis to "probably the heaviest of any of the acts," Black Spring.

Photos of the Soda's past will be on a slideshow loop at the show. It's all to "celebrate the community," Toth says -- and to keep the local music alive, proceeds will go to the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock .

Mark Wedel has been a Kalamazoo-based freelance journalist since 1992, and doesn’t get out to the punk rock shows as often enough as he should these days.