On Dec. 21, 2015, a few dozen people gathered in the back room of Shaskeen Pub in Manchester. They watched a short video that shared a vision for transforming a former Amherst Street movie house into a new venue: Old Sol Music Hall. With near-religious fervor, Old Sol co-founder Matt Wilhelm spoke of a venue that would be about “more than music,” a community magnet emblematic of the rebirth he saw in his hometown. The crowd cheered; one even wept. It was a hopeful moment; then, the work of making it a reality began.
In the ensuing months, Old Sol became an official nonprofit, held fundraisers, raised its profile and labored with determination toward its goal. If the stars align, Old Sol hopes to open in late 2018 — but hurdles remain. A Feb. 7 meeting with Manchester’s Board of Mayor & Aldermen is key.
In a recent interview, Wilhelm reflected on the many challenges that he, partner Alyssa Solomon and the rest of Old Sol’s organization face.
“We just feel it’s the right place, right time, and we know it’s going to take a lot of hard work,” he said. “If this was so easy, people would have done it already.”
The community feedback so far seems to validate Old Sol’s mission to be “more than music” for Wilhelm and Solomon.
“It’s confirmed our hunch that it needed to be ... a concert stage, but also a community and multipurpose stage,” he said, “with flexibility in how we set up the room — sometimes cocktail tables, sometimes no seats at all.”
An ideal venue should accommodate everything from ballroom dancing to a headbangers’ ball, he added.
“We talked to people, and with other nonprofits, that said, more than anything, we need a space that can do a lot of things,” Wilhelm said. “The other thing we heard from the nonprofit community was excitement to have a place for events that they’d otherwise do in a church basement.”
A benefit concert for Old Sol is planned for Saturday, Jan. 21. Once again, it will happen at the Shaskeen Pub, and star Pat & the Hats. Wilhelm first saw the Concord pop rock quintet perform at the 2015 Granite State Music Festival, and came away impressed by their onstage energy and connection with the crowd. The group released an eponymous six-song EP in early 2016.
“I was blown away by their musicianship and showmanship,” he said. “Part of what we want to do is support the local music scene, and even though the band has moved on to Boston, their roots are so deep here that it just makes sense. It’s symbolic in a lot of ways for what we want to do at our venue.”
Opening the show is Sarah & the Wild Versatile, a soulful roots rock band fronted by singer-songwriter Sarah Seminski and guitarist Eric Reardon. Veteran blues performer James Montgomery praises Reardon as “a very inventive player, way beyond his years in terms of being able to just jam and go with it. His solos are seamless.”
The Boston group has appeared several times at Nashua’s Riverwalk Cafe, and opened for Robert Randolph’s Family Band last summer. “Alyssa has been following them and she thinks they are a great complement to Pat & the Hats,” Wilhelm said. “We love the diversity on stage and both men and women for both acts.”
Wilhelm’s belief that the dilapidated Rex Theatre at 23 Amherst St. can be reborn as Old Sol Music Hall is bolstered by the surge he sees in his home city.
“Manchester is at this really exciting turning point,” he said. “There is a lot of downtown development, leveraged by the Chamber of Commerce ... we’ve been really impressed by the progress made in just the last decade. A lot has to do with local business owners; if I don’t do something at this particular downtown location, no one will.”