12 Jun Steve Rodgers and the Art of Rebuilding a Music Scene
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
On a warm, overcast Friday in early June 2020, Steve Rodgers might have been strumming his guitar and thinking about set lists for a string of summer concerts. But instead, the indie rocker dad was hard at work building a new chicken coop out of the wood he salvaged from his daughter’s old toy chest.
“It’s for five chickens, which is the legal limit in Hamden,” says Steve, who has already built an impressive array of wood- and recycled-materials projects over the last few years, in the home he shares with wife Jesse, daughter Fable, 16, and son River, 10.
The act of repurposing good materials into something new and needed is actually a fitting metaphor these days: In the summer of COVID-19, as Steve and other musicians have been blocked from playing indoor concerts, it’s become necessary to figure out new ways to get live music to the masses.
And he’s doing a pretty good job, so far. In May, Steve — who is still best known for his role as the singer from Mighty Purple, the band he co-founded as a teen — was one of the first artists tapped by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas to start playing live, acoustic outdoor “backyard” sets. It’s one of the few options at the moment for safe, live music right now as most nightclubs are closed and concerts have been postponed or cancelled.
“I played two gigs in one day — one in a two-acre backyard and another on Court Street in New Haven,” says Steve. “There were, literally, on every porch, a family or friends and their roommates. Every time I finished a song people were clapping … they hadn’t seen any live music for two months. It was a good day for me and my fiddle player.”
And while it isn’t the summer he imagined, it’s an absolutely fitting experience for a guy who’s had to adapt and think outside of the box to survive.
When I first met Steve Rodgers, he wasn’t a 40-something dad of two, a music director in a church, or a nightclub owner. He was just 20-year-old dude from Hamden who started a rock band with his younger brother Jonny.
Mighty Purple officially formed in 1992, with Steve on vocals and rhythm guitar, Jonny on vocals and lead guitar, Adrian VandeGraff on bass and Will Mix on drums, and quickly grew into one of New England’s more popular regional acts, opening for the likes of Dave Matthews Band and Bare Naked Ladies. Their music spans multiple genres — folk rock, psychedelic rock, funk or even hard rock. The common through line is the Rodgers brothers’ earnest, powerful harmonies and the band’s high-energy performances. Even today, the band’s influence on the New Haven-area arts scene is still evident — nearly every musician I’ve met in Southeastern Connecticut has a Mighty Purple story.
My first Mighty Purple experience, in Fall 1994, happened by accident, as some of the best experiences do: I was to be a freshman at University of Maryland in College Park, where I met Jason DaPonte, who was from Stratford, Connecticut, and lived in my co-ed dorm (Elkton Hall). He knew Mighty Purple from his high school days, and helped them secure a gig at Javaheads, an intimate little coffeehouse-bar hybrid in downtown College Park, which served bottomless coffee and $2 well drinks. It was one of the last places where patrons could smoke cigarettes while listening to alt-rock acts play in a makeshift space by the windows.
Deciding to go to the show was a no brainer. Forgive me, but at the time I was 18 and full of hormones. I took one look at the flier and saw two guys with long hair, holding instruments. It was like the grunge version of Nelson. I was in.
But it was the music — arpeggiated guitars, bass, and percussion infused with some of the warmest vocal harmonies I’d ever heard — that kept me there. The show was a stripped-down, acoustic set, and the moment Mighty Purple launched into “When Kingdoms Fall,” an epic anthem characterized by its atmospheric effects, addictive hooks, and a singalong chorus, I became a fan.
After the set, I bought their CD, Bohica, and we somehow ended up having an afterparty in my dorm room, where Jason and Steve swapped stories of their youthful antics. I have a vague recollection of drinking and bong hits, but neither Steve nor I can remember that night completely. I did remember that Steve was the chattier, more extroverted of the brothers, while Jonny was the quieter one. I also recall the hours I spent listening to that CD on my walkman for the next 12 months, enjoying the heavier, funkier tunes like “Wail” and “Circle,” and my favorite — “Rose for Caroline” — throughout my entire freshman year.
“My brother and I wrote some songs collectively, and many more individually,” says Steve. “Once a song had a basic framework we would bring it to each other and then to the band. Throughout the various seasons of the Mighty Purple journey, we had many different ways of writing songs. Sometimes we wrote as a full band. Adrian, our longtime bass player, wrote many parts and transitions alongside my brother.”
Interestingly, it was during that year, within months after seeing and hanging out with Mighty Purple, that I would pick up a guitar for the first time, and learn how to play.
Building a Scene
Steve and I crossed paths again in 16 years later — in October 2010 — because I’d transplanted to Connecticut from Brooklyn by way of marriage, and managed to score a freelance-writing gig for NBC Universal. My assignment: to write mini profiles of the coolest bars, nightclubs, and hangouts in Connecticut — including the best venues for live, original music.
Unfortunately, I lived in Stamford, a city which felt artistically void, oozing with pop-rock cover bands and dance nights with pre-recorded boom-boom pop. Nothing against these diversions, but I pined for cute little coffeehouses, poetry slams, dive bars and the artist-enclave culture that reminded me of college.
“Remember that band Mighty Purple, you met during our freshman year?” said my old pal Jason, who’d since moved to London after we graduated from University of Maryland. “The singer, my friend Steve Rodgers, opened a nightclub called The Space. I think you should check it out.”
Oh yeah, I realized. I did remember Steve Rodgers!
The next day I hopped on the Merritt Parkway and headed toward Hamden, Connecticut, a college town I’d never set foot in, to check out Steve’s new commercial digs. As I greeted Steve for the first time since the nineties, I almost didn’t recognize him. The person who stood in front of me was no longer the wide-eyed guy the on the cusp of 21, but a man halfway into his 30s, with much shorter hair — and a wife and two young children.
The Space itself was unlike any music establishment I’d seen. On the outside, it was gray-block building that looked like it was plopped down in the middle of an old parking lot, in the middle of nowhere. But inside, it was gloriously cool, with a ‘90s record-store vibe, teeming with knick-knacks and hanging lights, and band posters plastered to brightly painted walls. There was a spacious main floor with a stage, and a cozy little basement-bar area, intended for open-mic nights.
Over the course of two hours, Steve shared his plans to lease a second venue, to be called the Outer Space, which would be tailored to 21+ patrons who wanted to enjoy good beer with their music. He would go on to do this, and then in 2013, add a third, all-ages venue — The Spaceland Ballroom — with an ample, checkered floor space that was perfect for watching all kinds of performances, from bands to burlesque.
But by mid-2017, after years and years of growth, things started getting complicated. Keeping up with the Spaces’ overhead costs and renovations was tough, and Steve occasionally needed to hold fundraisers to keep business afloat. Some health issues had developed, and he began to meet with a couple of parties who were interested in potentially purchasing the venue. Yet he was still working feverishly every day to keep the club vital.
The signs that something had to give kept coming. Steve’s doctor told him that his vocal cords were fried, and he’d need surgery for his nodules. He’d also need to quit smoking. In January 2018, Steve underwent throat surgery, which left him unable to speak much for months.
There was one “final straw” incident in particular that shook him. About six months before the Spaces would close, Steve was getting ready to lock up one night and was approached by a man in the parking lot who pulled a gun on him. This incident was traumatizing and was one of the signs that told Steve it was time to sell.
What happened next, which led to Steve ultimately exiting the Spaces, is a long story involving landlords and lawyers — and you can read the New Haven Register’s detailed account here — but from Steve’s perspective, the timing, although bittersweet, all worked out as it was supposed to. The Space and The Outer Space/Ballroom closed in late December 2018.
Re-Building a Life, Part 1
It would be remiss to write a profile of Steve Rodgers without acknowledging the role that his faith in God and the church have played in his life.
The son of an Anglican minister, Steve’s earliest memories are of him sitting in the Cathedral at King’s College and listening to sacred hymns. This tied into his musical upbringing, as his parents — “church hippies” — were songwriters and guitarists who frequently played at services. But in his teens, his parents divorced, and Steve found himself struggling with his feelings about religion.
“The church establishment has driven so many from the faith because of intolerance, judgmental rhetoric and divisive narrow thinking,” says Steve. “My heart breaks to see the divide the church has created. I embrace all humans no matter who they are and no matter what they believe in.”
In his 20s, after a decade of constant touring with Mighty Purple, Steve rediscovered his faith and enrolled in a Christian missions training program. His re-involvement grew slowly from there, and soon, he began playing drums in a church band. For the last 15 years, he’s served as the church’s music director (even when he was working overtime at his nightclubs).
“My faith now is about my relationship with God and about the spiritual mindset, which helps me to seek and spread hope, love, joy and peace in my everyday life,” he says.
Faith also proved crucial when it came to the tumultuous reentry into normal, post-nightclub-owner life in early 2019. In the aftermath of his departure from the Spaces, Steve grappled with lingering feelings of sadness.
“Even though I’ve always been a family guy, I was at work 60, 70 hours a week,” says Steve. “I had no idea what I was going to do after all that stuff went down. Financially, that was a very difficult time. In the six months following the Spaces, my true friends made themselves known.”
What Steve did appreciate was having significantly more time with his family and friends — and himself. He spent the first three months after the Spaces closed building miniatures, including miniature train sets and fairy homes. And as his voice continued to heal, and he acclimated to a more balanced home life, inspiration struck again, and he started writing new songs.
In April 2019, Steve Rodgers released “Count it All Joy,” a full-length album that leans closer to country — and further from rock — than a Mighty Purple record, with mellow melodies and multiple stringed instruments. It’s clear the songs are the work of someone who’s faced incredible challenges and emerged a better person. My favorite, so far, is “Why Are You Here?”, a song about the way humans seek spiritual comfort in the wake of hardships. Even after the imprint of 27 years of smoking, Steve’s voice soars brightly in songs like “Love Will Conquer You.”
The album features Ben Dean on fiddle, Jonny Rodgers on acoustic guitar and Seth Adam on bass, and Fred Delione playing keys for a couple of song.
“‘Count it All Joy’ means ‘no matter what trials and tribulations … there’s always something you can find joy in,” Steve tells me. “Get excited about the things you do have and throw yourself into something.”
Re-building a Life, Part 2
Steve and Jesse chose to homeschool their own children years ago, because they wanted their kids to have a more personalized and nurturing learning environment. So the past three months of mandated “distance learning” are nothing new, except that his kids can’t gather with their friends.
However, their approach to homeschool may seem a little unorthodox by some parents’ standards. For example: While some parents try to educate their kids with a structured schedule, the Rodgers let the inspiration of the day guide learning. So if 10-year-old River would rather paint a mural at 9 a.m. before doing math, he paints a mural. There’s always time to do math later on.
“I know a lot of people are really struggling right now, but we’ve been really family closening,” says Steve. “This experience has helped us get a lot closer and understanding each other more.”
After our conversation about homeschooling, I found myself questioning this approach.
I’m a creative person, but I’m also a mom. When the urge comes on to write a song, I can’t just drop my income-generating work or childrearing to write it down. Without structure, how will my kids accomplish anything that isn’t fun?
But over the course of several hours, I came around a bit in my thinking. I realized that it’s important to take inspiration when it comes. If my 6-year-old son feels like stapling papers together and “writing” a book, he’s still learning. Maybe that’s more important than forcing him to add numbers at a pre-designated time.
Also, inspiration frequently comes at inopportune times — when we’re focused on other things, or when we’re experiencing pain or loss.
“My last show before coronavirus lockdown was March 6,” Steve recalls. “It was in this little coffeehouse in Vernon, Connecticut, and I sold 30 CDS, which is huge by today’s [streaming] music standards, and I had a lot of momentum building. But I can’t let this time discourage me. I had 20 gigs cancelled, and some really good ones, like a festival in Massachusetts. But instead of getting bummed out, I started spending 10 or 12 hours a week in my basement, learning recording software. Musically, I’ve just let any idea come out. If it feels right, I write something — I don’t let any genre or ideas about genre limit me. I’m not sitting down writing songs called ‘Coronavirus Shut In,’ but I’ve been writing stuff about coming together and healing.”
In March, he channeled his despair and hope into the song, “Invisible Forces,” which is universally relatable to everyone suffering in the pandemic. The song is mixed by local producer Vic Steffens, and video is not for the faint of heart, with images of spiked COVID balls spinning aimlessly through space, masked pedestrians strolling briskly past one another, and a haunting scene filled with empty children’s chairs. But it’s a cathartic visual experience, and proof that music can bring us together, even when we’re apart.
On June 13, Steve will participate in his second round backyard concerts with the New Haven Arts & Ideas Festival (you can still book a slot here).
“Really, this summer, what I’m looking forward to is doing some more shows, outdoors and stuff,” says Steve. “I’ve also taken up home recording, and am learning how to use software. Some of my music friends are busy with their own stuff, so you know what? I’m playing bass now. I’m playing lead guitar — which I’ve never really known. I’ve taken this time to learn.”
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.