Ryan Montbleau unveils first of four new EPs

On the first track of his latest record, Ryan Montbleau celebrates imperfection. “If things don’t have to be perfect, it’s a lot easier for them to be right,” Montbleau sings, quoting his therapist.

There’s a lot of self-care on the new EP Wood, the first in a series to be followed by Fire, Water and Air. Montbleau tends to look on the bright side of things, like his upcoming gig at Portsmouth’s Music Hall on March 19. True, social distancing rules will reduce crowd size, but performing in the storied Historic Theatre instead of the smaller Loft space is a big plus.

“I’ve always wanted to play there; all it took was them limiting capacity to 20 percent,” Montbleau said with a laugh in a recent phone interview.

Similarly, the Massachusetts-born singer-songwriter managed to turn his pandemic year into a growth experience.

“It kind of sped up the process of life,’ he said. “It’s weird, but in some ways I’ve almost never been happier.”

Montbleau purchased his first house, in Burlington, Vermont. He took piano lessons, did weekly Facebook Live sets and the odd solo gig, and appeared on a local music talk show.

“I’ve been very lucky through all this; it’s kind of allowed me to stay in one place for once and start to build a home life,” he said.

Spotify and other streaming services provided a cushion as well.

“I’ve been building this thing for 20 years, and I don’t have to tour my face off like I used to,” he said.

One bit of good fortune: He completed the basic tracks for the new music in summer 2019, playing with a rotating cast that included jazz jam legend Martin Medeski. Montbleau worked with producer Adam Landry (Deer Tick, Rayland Baxter) at Guilford Studio in southern Vermont.

“I had just amazing people coming in and out,” he said. “Turning it into a record [is] what’s taken the last year and a half … a lot of tweaking, taking things out and putting them in.”

He divided the collection’s 15 tracks into four themes. Wood is rustic and down to earth, while Fire rocks hard. Water is calm, reflective, with songs inspired by time Montbleau spent doing medicine work in Peru.

“I would sit in the jungle in a tent for 10 days and work with different plants,” he said, calling the experience “pretty life-altering. … It points you in a different direction. … I feel like some of those songs were gifts; that’s why they ended up on Water.”

The final chapter, Air, offers a sense of closure and peace. It ends with “The Dust” and Montbleau singing, “just know that you are not alone, and that’s all you get to know now.”

Wood, Fire, Water and Air’s songs reflect a long and sometimes difficult period for Montbleau.

“My old band split up around 2013 and I lost my management at the time; I had a long relationship end and I’d been on the road for 10 years,” he said. “I had a lot of growing to do. Since then, I’ve been searching for who I am, how to heal and how to be better.”

Wood was scheduled to be released on March 12; the others are expected to arrive over the next three to four months.

The just-released EP includes the charming “Ankles,” an autobiographical song that touches upon his first tour, where he suffered a burst appendix and a busted van. Montbleau soldiered on in spite of that nightmare, becoming a festival staple along the way.

“If I could survive this, I could survive anything,” he decided.

“On the road I found my muses, off the road I lost my mind,” he sings, concluding with, “off the road I lost my uses, on the road I found my shine.” For most touring musicians, Montbleau explained, standing still is where the trouble begins.

It’s also where his growth had to start.

“You get so used to being on stage and having people appreciate what you do… when you get home finally and you’re just sitting alone in a room, it’s really daunting,” he said. “What is my purpose? What are my uses? Back on the road, I would find my shine under the lights, and find my purpose again. So I think the years leading up to now have been me digging deep and figuring out who I am, and who I was before I started doing this.”

An Evening With Ryan Montbleau
: Friday, March 19, 8 p.m.
Where: The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $38 at themusichall.org

Featured photo: Ryan Montbleau. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Green Again

Enjoy St. Patrick’s Day music virtually

A year ago Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki was heading into his busy season and primed to play traditional Irish music across the region. Following a St. Patrick’s Day weekend kickoff show, the Jordan TW Trio, including Matt Jensen on guitar and bass player Chris Noyes, would play its biggest gig of the year, to a sold out Saturday night crowd at Bank of NH Stage.

It was Friday the 13th, however. In 2020, that cursed day delivered misery like never before.

“As we stepped off stage, I took out my phone,” the fiddler said in a recent phone interview, “and found out that we’d been canceled from that point on.”

Though Tirrell-Wysocki would resume a fairly busy schedule later that spring Zoom lessons with cabin-fevered students were a silver lining during the pandemic on March 17 the jigs and reels were streamed from his home on Facebook Live.

This year he’ll finally take the stage in downtown Concord. Alas, apart from a camera operator and sound engineer, his trio will play to an empty room.

He calls the situation “weirdly ironic” but is pleased nonetheless. “I’m grateful that the Capitol Center has figured out how to present quality livestream content. … I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The March 12 show is one of four Irish-themed virtual events offered by the venue. On March 13 a late afternoon show offers We Banjo 3: Live From Ireland. An indie band with Celtic roots, they most recently performed a virtual Christmas show.

That’s followed later in the evening by the concert/travelogue Virtual Ireland with Michael Londra. A prerecorded live concert experience featuring world-renowned step dancers and musicians, Rhythm of the Dance debuted in February and will run two more times in March.

An “intermission” from live events imposed late last year has been challenging, Capitol Center Executive Director Nicki Clarke said recently. Federal CARES Act money and donations have sustained them financially.

“We’ve been taking it literally month by month, saying, ‘We’re just going to pause and look again, and pause again,’” she said.

Socially distanced standup comedy from Juston McKinney was set to resume in-person shows on March 27, but “the board decided to stay in our ‘pause’ state,” Clarke wrote in a Feb. 25 email, so the event is postponed, with no new date confirmed. A May 14 Adam Ezra Band show is still listed on the venue’s website; everything before that is off or virtual, and the Ezra show is not certain either, Clarke said.

“Our board weighs in on the pause question the second Thursday of each month for the following month,” she said. “This means the call to go or re-schedule again will be made on or around April 8.”

Some silver linings emerged from the dearth of live events. Necessary stage repairs could be made, for example.

“In some ways being closed was a good thing, because we can get that done right,” Clarke said.

Still, livestreamed shows are no substitute for the real thing money-wise.

“We might be making like $2 for every ticket that we sell; it’s really for the benefit of giving people something to watch,” she said. “This mud season is going to be tough. We’ve got to get through March and April, then hopefully we’ll be outside and able to join up with each other.”

Tirrell-Wysocki is also willing to wait.

“As much as I’m looking forward to being able to work in a normal capacity again, I don’t want to rush it,” he said. “I have been offered indoor shows, and I honestly feel weird. I don’t blame anyone who’s willing to perform inside with distance guidelines and all of that, but a huge part of my job as an independent musician is filling a room, and I just can’t really in good conscience do that. … I want to be sure we’ve waited long enough to do it safely and feel good about it. If that means livestreaming for now, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki Trio Livestream
: Friday, March 12, 8 p.m.
Where: online
Tickets: $20 at ccanh.com

Featured photo: Jordan TW Trio. Courtesy photo.

Thinking and drinking

Bars across New Hampshire offer trivia fun

By Sadie Burgess

If you’re full of seemingly useless information, you can put it to good use at one of several weekly trivia nights hosted by local bars.

Area 23 in Concord has been hosting trivia nights every Tuesday for more than five years.

“We get people who are very intense on trivia,” bar owner and trivia writer Kirk McNeil said.

Five different categories are offered each week, rather than one overarching theme. These can range from Broadway musicals to UFOs to European food to classic movies, and they’re often suggested by the bar’s patrons.

Area 23 doesn’t take trivia lightly. The bar was awarded toughest trivia in New Hampshire in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

“I don’t know if they gave it out after that,” McNeil said with a laugh.

Part of this honor is because of die-hard fans, like the six-person team that’s attended the events every week since it started.

But, McNeil said, “This doesn’t mean you can’t do well as a newbie.”

Area 23 sometimes awards prizes, which range from free appetizers to T-shirts or koozys from local breweries.

Liquid Therapy in Nashua is a bit newer to the trivia scene, devoting Thursday nights to trivia for just under two years. Attendees typically sign up a week ahead of time, sometimes two, to secure a seat.

“People even sit outside right now, when it’s cold,” the bar’s owner, Stanley Tremblay, said.

Tremblay feels that the open, airy space that Liquid Therapy offers makes patrons feel more at ease amid stressful times.

“I think there’s a lot of comradery, even between teams,” said Tremblay. “And it adds some normalcy to what’s going on in the world right now.”

For each trivia night, there’s a three-question themed round, with the theme chosen by the team that came in second the week before (first place gets a $25 gift card). The themes tend to be very specific and have ranged from fantasy novels like The Wheel of Time to Fleetwood Mac to Philadelphia sports teams.

Smuttynose Brewery offers trivia on Tuesday nights at its Hampton location, as well as Thursday night trivia at Smuttlabs in downtown Dover. DJ Koko-P hosts the events throughout the year at both locations.

This brewery is new on the trivia scene; it introduced trivia this past summer at the Hampton location, and only about a month ago in Dover. Their trivia is completely contactless and played through each participants’ cell phone. DJ Koko gives you a URL to go to, according to Colleen Lynch, the marketing manager at Smuttynose, and all questions are answered through the URL.

The night is divided into three rounds. The first is a warm-up round, where the winner receives a free appetizer. During the second and third rounds, gift cards and larger, specialty prizes can be won. In the event’s short past, prizes have ranged from lawn chairs to T-shirts to grills. Themed trivia nights are offered once a month. On Feb. 28, Star Wars themed trivia will take place at Smuttynose in Hampton.

Trivia nights bring more than just an assortment of fun facts to the bar experience.

“It gives people the option to come by in a comfortable setting, and do something other than just sitting around and talking,” Lynch said. “It really gets people engaged. And it’s nice to give everyone a little bit of a sense of normalcy back.”

Weekly trivia

Here are some local places with regular trivia nights. Find more every week in the Music This Week listing. Know of a trivia night not mentioned here? Let us know at music@hippopress.com.

Area 23 Trivia
When: Tuesdays, 7 p.m.
Where: Area 23, 254 N. State St., Unit H, Concord
Visit: thearea23.com

Cheers Trivia
When: Fridays, 9 p.m.
Where: Cheers Grill, 17 Depot St., No. 1, Concord
Visit: cheersnh.com

Chunky’s Cinema Pub Trivia
When: Thursdays, 8 p.m.
Where: Chunky’s Cinema Pub, 707 Huse Road, Manchester
Visit: chunkys.com

Community Oven Trivia
When: Wednesdays, 7 p.m.
Where: The Community Oven, 24 Brickyard Sq., Epping
Visit: thecommunityoven.com

Liquid Therapy Trivia
When: Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Liquid Therapy, 14 Court St., Nashua
Visit: Find them on Facebook

Smuttynose Trivia
When: Tuesdays, 6 p.m.
Where: Smuttynose Brewing, 105 Towle Farm Road, Hampton
Visit: smuttynose.com

Smuttlabs Trivia
When: Thursdays, 6 p.m.
Where: Smuttlabs, 47 Washington St., Dover
Visit: smuttynose.com

Still rocking

Fable finds Leaving Eden in fine form

Since forming in 2011, Leaving Eden has remained among the most dedicated bands in New England. Their latest album, Fable, shows them maturing but still delivering high-energy rock ’n’ roll. “Broken” is a floor-mopper that stands with anything on their eight previous records, but there’s also a strummy cover of “The Rose” — yes, from the ’80s movie. “Detached” has a Beatlesque jangle evoking “Nowhere Man,” and the piano-driven title track is a tuneful departure for the band.

Keyboards are a recent addition to Leaving Eden’s sound, provided by Alyssa White, their newest member. White also collaborated on songwriting with guitar player and principal lyricist Eric Gynan on the song. She also co-wrote the title track of Dream With Me, released last year, and used it for an evocative Covid-19 themed video.

That wasn’t the plan, Gynan said in a recent phone interview. Dream With Me was due to support a tour covering most of 2020.

“We didn’t have one open date, and I had to turn places away,” but the pandemic had other plans, he said. “Of course, everything got canceled.”

So the band filmed a video full of masks and dancing molecules, then set about finding ways to work — successfully.

“We were able to play different places we’d never played before, like Hampton Beach Seashell Stage; right on the sand was just so cool,” Gynan said with a vial-half-full positivity. “As one door closed, another door opened, and we went straight through November, when it got too cold because everything we were doing was outdoors.”

They used the chilly months to complete the new record, released in mid-January, and practice for a livestreamed Lockdown Series show that debuted Feb. 13. The YouTube concert will eventually become a live album.

The band’s original lineup included two women: lead singer Eve and bassist Carissa Johnson, who’s now a solo artist. So adding White is a return of sorts. They were introduced in late 2018 at a gig — sort of.

“Alyssa was too shy, so she had her cousin come up to us to say she plays keyboards, sings and wants to be in the band,” Gynan said.

He responded by giving White Eve’s cell number.

“If she calls, that’s cool, then let’s see if she shows up,” he said. “She showed up. So [then it was], let’s see if she can learn the material. … She just did it all, a check mark off of each thing.”

Rounding out the group are drummer Jake Gynan and bass player Rick Chouinard. The latter played with Gynan and Eve (Gynan’s wife) in a pre-Leaving Eden band. Their latest public appearance was at The Chop Shop in Seabrook on Feb. 20. But the livestreamed show felt like a return, Gynan said — even if the stage was a bit cramped due to camera restrictions.

“I wanted to jump around but I couldn’t because if I moved even a little bit to the right or left I’d be covering Alyssa, and if Eve moved she’d block Jake and Rick would be out of the frame,” Gynan said. “We literally had just those spots, but it still had the energy.”

A show scheduled for Feb. 27 at VFW Post 88 in Kingston has been postponed to May 22, but a March trip to Florida for a few gigs is still on. As warm weather returns, they expect their home turf to become more welcoming.

A few Leaving Eden songs have appeared in movies, including Mayday, Lockdown, Painkiller, Bloodthirst and The Penthouse, all from Italian director Max Cerchi. Seemingly inspired, Gynan wrote his own screenplay for a film called The Nitwit. Rooted in reality — “things that really happened to me or somebody very close” — it was filmed in Iowa and is nearly complete.

“We would be done if this pandemic didn’t happen,” he said. “We’ve only got to go there for a long weekend and we can finish up.”

Ten years down the road, Leaving Eden soldiers on. Is the original vision intact?

“That’s a great question,” Gynan said. “You can’t be a frustrated musician forever. I guess you can be, but it’s not fun. It’s good to set your expectations high [but] I’ve learned to be totally happy doing exactly what I’m doing right now. Every gig is just as important as the next … a big concert or a little dive, it’s still important to me. It’s all just a matter of perspective.”

Leaving Eden
Watch Leaving Eden, The Lockdown Sessions on youtu.be/N31j1cfmkQM, or find them at facebook.com/bandleavingeden

Featured photo: Leaving Eden. Courtesy photo.

Write through it

Tyler Allgood shines on soul-baring Through The Empty

Surgery and its aftermath are often challenging; for a recovering addict, the experience can be harrowing. As Tyler Allgood faced a spine operation in early 2019, he worried about whether essential pain medication would lead to relapse. For six to eight months prior to entering the hospital, this fear had him “staring at the ceiling … going crazy wondering if my life was ever going to change,” Allgood said in a recent phone interview.

“Knowing I’d have to take drugs again to go through this,” he said, “I kind of had to revisit my past and revise it.”

The answer came through his music, on songs like “Downtime” and “Who Am I Now.” The latter is a dreamy meditation about being “always off, lost in the fixtures,” while keeping vigilant. Both appear on Allgood’s soon to be released album Through The Empty, a 13-track cycle that’s both starkly honest and expertly composed.

“The writing saved me,” Allgood said. “I had to keep writing; it’s really saving my life.”

Though this is his second LP, Allgood feels the new effort is a lot like a debut.

“It’s kind of a wrap-up of all those years,” he said, noting that 2019’s The Weight of Thunder “was whipped together kind of quickly [when] a friend of mine had had an opportunity and he was an engineer. It’s still very meaningful, but on [this] record I finally bring my composing all together … and really produce the sound that I’m going for.”

Allgood, who also deals with alcoholism, “depression, PTSD and plenty of other mental issues,” said his songwriting is “ninety percent personal experience and stories.” Some can be heartbreaking — “Love In Vermont” deals with a love affair that ends in suicide.

There’s also hope. One of the record’s highlights, “No Visions of Fear,” contains the memorable line, “I’m too miserable to die.” Allgood is quoting a friend who succumbed to breast cancer.

“I don’t think he knew how powerful it was coming from him as he was dying,” he said, adding the statement was a reflection of his friend’s giving nature. “He hadn’t done all of his work helping people … that was the reason he was miserable. That he would have to leave other people behind.”

Along with strong songwriting, what distinguishes the new album most is its music: densely layered guitars, delicate keyboards, deft time changes and Allgood’s haunting vocals. He played and sang nearly every note.

Through The Empty was recorded at Loud Sun Studios with producer Ben Rogers, who also plays drums on the record. Dan Labrie, from Allgood’s old group BandBand, played slide guitar on a couple of tracks, and Eliot Pelletier contributed guitar as well.

Allgood got into music as a teenager.

“A friend of mine, Kyle Weber, was this really talented guitar player right from the get-go,” he said. “He played the talent show at our middle school, and that was where I realized that I really wanted to do that as well.”

He agrees that most listeners will detect a clear influence running through the new album.

“Jerry Garcia was hugely important finding my way through whatever it is I’m doing with music,” Allgood said. “The Grateful Dead, George Harrison’s solo stuff, all helped open my eyes to what was possible on my own, to create, to not have limits.”

When a release event happens — never a certainty these pandemic-limited times — Allgood plans to assemble a band to back him. For now, though, he plays solo and eschews looping sounds.

“I might incorporate that soon, but I tend to keep it as original as I can, I suppose,” he said.

His shows also include judiciously chosen covers of artists like The Beatles and Johnny Cash.

“I try to cater to everything, and then also mix in my original work,” he said.

Allgood expects to release the album in early March — “It’s coming as soon as possible,” he said.

He’ll play a lot of it during a livestream show hosted by Nova Arts on March 19 (novaarts.org).

Tyler Allgood
: Thursday, Feb 25, 6 p.m.
Where: Village Trestle, 25 Main St., Goffstown
More: instagram.com/tgood_extrabetty
Allgood also appears Saturday, March 6, 6 p.m. at Village Trestle in Goffstown

Graig Murphy, Francis Birch & Mike Smith
When: Saturday, Feb. 13, 8 p.m.
Where: Strikers East, 4 Essex Dr., Raymond
Tickets: $20 at laughriotproductions.com or call 895-9501

Featured photo: Tyler Allgood. Courtesy photo.

Family man

Comedy showcase features Francis Birch

In standup comedy, a weekend booking represents validation. Francis Birch’s first was at Veronica Laffs in Strikers East, a Raymond bowling alley. The pop-up club closed mid-decade, when comic and entrepreneur Jay Grove opened a dedicated venue, Curlie’s Comedy Club in Rochester.

The laughs are returning to Strikers East — as is Birch, who’ll share the stage with headliner Graig Murphy on Feb. 13.

The upcoming show is presented by Laugh Riot Productions and will be hosted by its CEO, Michael Smith.

“It’s kind of cool to go back,” Birch said recently by phone. “To work there as a more polished comic who has a little bit of a reputation now.”

Birch began doing comedy in 2011, egged on by friends who said he was funny. However, his first attempt at an open mic night wasn’t a triumph.

“I did not know what I was getting myself into,” he said, ruefully noting that a friend taped his 11-minute, laugh-free set and posted it on YouTube. “Sometimes when I need to humble myself, I’ll watch that.”

Unbowed, Birch persisted, finding a home at a Monday night gathering called Punchlines, hosted by Grove at Penuche’s Ale House in Concord. While there, he worked the same five minutes repeatedly, “to just see if I could nail my timing” in front of a tough, sometimes unforgiving crowd.

One night, the antipathy in the room broke his rhythm — and led to a breakthrough.

“Some drunk guy was yelling at me,” Birch said. “I just had a conversation with him, and it really went well. Jay said to me, ‘Any time you can engage and shut down a heckler, and he comes up to shake your hand afterward, is a good thing.’”

Birch is married with three boys of his own, and he’s a stepfather to one more. The big family is a major source of material, but it was also parenthood that caused him to step away from comedy, from 2015 to 2018. The decision came after he’d received one too many videos of his son, now 8, “doing awesome stuff, and I wasn’t there,” he said. “I missed my other boys I was raising because I was in my 20s and being an idiot. Now I was missing this one growing up because I was doing comedy.”

Along with his children, Birch’s mother was a big part of his act. It was her death in 2018 that helped spur him back into the game.

“I had the itch,” he said. “I wanted to go out and tell some jokes, make fun of her a little bit. Because she helped me write those jokes.”

He did a midweek open mic, then a Saturday night guest slot at Curlie’s.

“Maybe if I got 10 minutes on a weekend that’ll be scratchy enough to satisfy,” he reasoned, but “that did nothing. It made it more itchy. Since then, I’ve been working full steam ahead, just growing my act and incorporating some of the things that happened since.”

Birch said he came back more confident, and more honest — “I started to speak to my stories, being them instead of reciting it.”

He also quit smoking and gave up drinking in the months after returning to standup; again, he was guided by his mom.

“She got pneumonia and her body wasn’t strong enough to fight it, because she had COPD,” Birch said. “[I realized that] if I don’t make changes in my life, that’s gonna be me. My kids are gonna have to watch me die.”

A fitness regimen “to make my body as strong as it can be to fight off any infection” soon began, an effort that grew into a coaching business.

“I help people create habits and become better versions of themselves,” Birch said. He believes telling jokes is not dissimilar. “When I do comedy, I feel like I’m helping people escape their reality and laugh a little bit.”

Asked if the health focus had an effect on his act, Birch replied with a laugh, “I got a lot of fat jokes I can’t use anymore! That’s something Jay taught me when we first started … don’t write jokes about your beard or being fat because you might not always have that beard, you might not always be fat.”

One subject remains, though: Birch’s beloved mother.

“I make fun of her like never before,” he said. “I’ve actually written more material about her, and I like to deliver it with a smile. Because I know that’s what she’s doing — she’s smiling. She’s my rock, my heart and soul, and she’s with me every performance.”

Graig Murphy, Francis Birch & Mike Smith
When: Saturday, Feb. 13, 8 p.m.
Where: Strikers East, 4 Essex Dr., Raymond
Tickets: $20 at laughriotproductions.com or call 895-9501

Featured photo: Francis Birch. Courtesy photo.

Northern song

Record release show among Area 23 events

An off-the-beaten-path Concord restaurant and taproom is doing all it can to keep original music alive in New Hampshire. Area 23 was among the first venues in the state to revive live entertainment when lockdown was lifted last spring. Owner Kirk McNeil continues in these cold months, lately offering Saturday night “swap sets” that give two local artists an opportunity to showcase their talents.

“We all have something to say about our experiences in the world; we’ve all been touched by a certain song or songs in our lives,” McNeil said recently, when asked to explain his commitment to the regional scene. “Supporting local music helps those fresh voices and experiences come into the world and reach more ears.”

Many of the acts appearing at Area 23 began at the midweek open mic, including Littleton-based Thrown to the Wolves, which will celebrate its first full-length CD with a release party on Feb. 26. The rootsy duo consists of singer-songwriter Higher Frequency — who answers to Freak while declining to reveal his birth name — and fiddler JD Nadeau.

Freak is an amalgamation of a high-country Tom Waits and the Illustrated Man. Ink covers much of his body and all of his face. The habit began as a fascination with his father’s tattoos, and eventually he became an artist. He said in a recent phone interview that he first thought of facial tattooing as a seven-year-old.

“Doing it for the first time was revelatory,” he said. “I wasn’t really comfortable with me until I started. … When I looked in my mirror after I had my first session on my face, I said, ‘Oh, there you are!’”

Musically, Freak’s moaning, growling songs are filled with images of hellhounds, fire and fury; mostly, his unbridled singing is about rejecting all of that.

“I don’t need to believe one way or another to be a good human being,” he said.

“Just love your fellow man and cherish your own soul,” sings the minister’s son on the lead track to the forthcoming Right Side of Wrong, Wrong Side of Good. “I don’t need your Heaven, and I don’t need your Hell — to be a better man, I just found myself.” 

Freak is self-taught; he picked up guitar a few years back.

“As soon as I could put three chords together I wrote my first song,” he said.

The woman he wrote it for was not as enamored of his foray into music.

“The more I wrote, the more she hated it, and the more in love with it I became,” he said.

Nadeau’s galloping fiddle adds a wealth of spice to their tunes; it’s hard to think of them without the texture he provides. When they met at an open mic in Newport Center, Vermont, a couple of years back, Freak thought he only played guitar. They did a dozen songs together that night and met up a few weeks later at Nadeau’s apartment.

“Our styles weren’t fitting,” Freak said, noting that when Nadeau mentioned his other instrument, “I was like, ‘You play fiddle? Why didn’t you bring that up before?’”

The spark thus lit, the two would play their first gig at a festival in upstate New York originally booked for another band that, in Freak’s words, “went south.” He didn’t want to give up the slot, and meeting Nadeau made it an easier choice. A line from a song in progress gave the duo an appropriate name; that was over two years ago.

In mid-2019 a friend in the Concord band The Rhythm Upstairs invited him to Area 23’s Wednesday open mic. He and Nadeau got up and played a few songs. Soon after, they were offered a gig.

“First time I met him I was not expecting his music to be what it was,” McNeil said. “But I was in no way disappointed.”

Given its interesting beginnings, his growing audience is a pleasant surprise, Freak said.

“I never expected when I picked up the guitar that I would play in a band, or that people would like my music,” he said. “It even took me a few years to be like, ‘OK, there’s not that many people lying to me.’ So I just kind of rolled with it. Everything that I’m doing now is like a bonus … because it was never expected when I started this.”

Upcoming at Area 23
Friday, Feb. 5 – Dillan Welch
Saturday, Feb. 6 – Ross Arnold and Steve Butler
Friday, Feb. 12 – Brian Munger
Saturday, Feb. 13 – Hometown Eulogy
Friday, Feb. 19 – Mikey G
Saturday, Feb. 20 – Chip and the Figments
Friday, Feb. 26 – Thrown to the Wolves
Saturday, Feb. 27 – Ken Clark and Chris Fitz
Every Wednesday – open mic
Every Saturday – jam (2-5pm)
All shows run 7 to 11 p.m. except Saturdays

Featured photo: Thrown to the Wolves. Courtesy photo.

Looking back

Live entertainment figures share memories

When the Hippo launched 20 years ago, Granite Staters often had to drive to Boston for live music or comedy. There weren’t nearly as many local venues, and a lot of the venues that were around weren’t interested in showcasing musicians who played original music. In the final piece of our month-long series looking back at some of the subjects Hippo has covered over the years, we talked some of the bigger names in New Hampshire’s music and comedy scene.

Scott Hayward

Scott Hayward is the founder of Tupelo Music Hall, which opened in Londonderry in September 2004 and moved to a larger space in Derry in the spring of 2017.

How would you describe the local live entertainment scene 20 years ago? 

New Hampshire didn’t have as many venues as it has today and the music offerings were more specific. Typically, people would go to Boston to see a show 20 years ago. There weren’t many multi-genre venues. There were blues clubs, jazz clubs, rock clubs, etc. Today, venues are providing much more diverse programming aimed at a patron demographic rather than a musical genre.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

Twenty years ago, artists were able to make a living selling recorded material. Touring was not as important as it is today. Now, as CD and record sales have taken a back seat to Spotify, Pandora, and other streaming services, artists need to tour constantly. Ticket sales and merchandise sales at shows is what artists are living on these days.

How did your efforts impact the local live entertainment scene?

Tupelo Music Hall opened using a multi-genre model focused on a patron demographic. We were one of the first venues to do this in New England. About five years after Tupelo Music Hall opened, other venues started using the same model, booking similar artists.

What has surprised you about the way the state’s live entertainment scene has developed?

New Hampshire has a very vibrant music scene and offers venues from capacities of 50 to 12,000. I believe this is in response to more people moving into southern New Hampshire from Massachusetts as the Route 93 corridor has improved from Concord into Boston. There’s really no need to go into Boston to see a show anymore.

What do you think the live entertainment scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

The recent Covid crisis that we are in will definitely change the music business. How it will change remains to be seen, but I suspect that cleaning protocols, refund policies, and general health awareness will all be permanently modified. Although streaming shows have definitely improved in quality and viewership during Covid, I believe artists will always be touring and people will always prefer to see a live performance. I suspect there will be more consolidation of venues and less independent venues. I hope I’m wrong about that particular suspicion.

Aside from your own venue, what’s your favorite spot to enjoy live entertainment?

The Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion is a favorite spot for me and my wife when we can get away from our own venue.

Jim Roach

Jim Roach is the President of JJR Productions, and books shows across the region. The Christmas Buzz Ball, Concert for the Cause and Veterans Park Summer Concerts are among the events he’s involved with, as well as music and comedy shows at the Palace and the Rex Theatre in Manchester.

How would you describe the local live entertainment scene 20 years ago

Twenty years ago, the music and entertainment scene in New Hampshire was in rough shape. There were few venues to perform in, and most of those venues wanted cover music or background music. Talented musicians were having to make a living off other musicians’ music.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

I believe the most important decision came when local officials moved forward with the civic center — formerly the Verizon Wireless Arena, now SNHU Arena. The Palace Theatre was one of the few places to see well-known, live entertainment in Manchester at the time. The clubs catered to cover bands, or the occasional hair band trying to make a comeback. With big acts coming to the civic center, restaurants and bars opened to serve those fans. Some were worried that those big shows would hurt the Palace and others. Just the opposite: Manchester was now a destination for entertainment. Strange Brew brought in blues bands, and other venues started to experiment with live music. I think Hippo was a big factor helping push other print and broadcast media into covering local, regional and national talent.

How did your efforts impact the local live entertainment scene?

My effort to bring more entertainment to the area has always been about building a team. To produce successful shows, you need that team to work together. First you need a venue, a place for people to gather. … Second, you need a performer or performers that have crafted their art onto something they want to share. Third, you need to find a way to market those shows: print, radio, television, social media, word of mouth. Finally, you need people that will buy tickets and come see your event. I truly believe my role is to bring the pieces together. When you have an audience that connects with an artist, it does not matter your race, creed, color or preference; you can be red or blue. In that room, we are humans experiencing art that might make us smile, laugh, sing, dance or even cry. At that moment, we are more human. We need that now more than ever.

What has surprised you about the way the state’s live entertainment scene has developed?

In New Hampshire, I am surprised at how long it has taken for people to embrace live entertainment. I want more people to get off their couches to see, hear and feel something that touches their soul.

What do you think the live entertainment scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

I’m not sure about the next 20 years. What I know is that the next five years are going to be the most important. Getting through this virus is the biggest concern right now. Keeping venues alive until then is the only way we can secure the future of entertainment. In the next year, we are going to find a way to build on virtual events and socially distanced events … events that allow patrons to feel safe and be safe with mask wearing and being respectful of each other. If we work together with our elected officials and the health community, we can get to a place where a year from now we can gather with friends we know and others we don’t to immerse ourselves in the arts. I am excited to see new rooms opening: The Rex, Bank of NH Stage, Showroom in Keene, The Colonial and C.A.K.E. in Laconia, Jimmy’s on Congress in Portsmouth….

What’s your favorite spot to enjoy live entertainment?

Everywhere! I love a dive bar with a killer blues band, a lounge with jazz performers opening your mind, a theater or club packed for a play or an artist playing their hits we heard on the radio, a field with a stage, good vibes and a beer tent. My favorites include Hampton Beach Casino, Flying Monkey, Tupelo Music Hall, Strange Brew, The Rex, Bank of NH Stage, Meadowbrook, The Palace, Capitol Center for the Arts … and so many more.

Paul Costley

Paul Costley runs NotSoCostley Productions and books the lion’s share of live entertainment in New Hampshire’s night clubs and restaurants. He’s also a musician, a drummer who has co-hosted several open mics and played in a number of groups, including the Josh Logan Band.

How would you describe the local live music scene 20 years ago? 

The music scene back in the 2000 was lots of fun. People tended to pay a little more attention to music back then. Today when you play at a venue it always amazes me how many people are on their cell phones and checking their social media versus really paying attention to the music that is taking place in front of them.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

There’s a lot more venues that have music than back 20 years ago. I feel there are a lot more options for people to get out and see music. Many small little cozy venues are springing up, with some great live acoustic music, which I think is great.

How did your efforts impact the local live music scene?

I’ve worked hand in hand with many of the venue owners that I book music for to see the best way to keep patrons and my musicians safe during this crazy pandemic, and still have live music take place. Hopefully, with the vaccines now being distributed, things will start opening up again in the spring and fall.

What has surprised you about the way the state’s live music scene has developed? 

I’ve run an open mic with Nate Comp since 2010 and it’s very promising to see all the young talent that we have in this state. We’ve had so many young people attend our open mics as well as our friends’ open mics and they all say the same thing. There’s still a lot of young people trying to make their mark with the local music scene, which I love seeing take place.

What do you think the live music scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

To be honest with you, I don’t really have a clue, as the technology changes on a daily basis. But it will be fun to just sit back and watch what takes place.

What’s your favorite spot to enjoy live entertainment?

I personally love seeing music in a small intimate setting where you can really get up close and personal with the musician that’s performing. … On the other hand, I think it’s wonderful that we have great live music venues like Tupelo Music Hall and the Bank of NH Pavilion, where you can listen to some of the best music in this country.

Rob Steen

Rob Steen is a standup comic and entrepreneur who runs Headliners Comedy Club and has spent 35 years booking shows throughout New England at venues that include several opera houses, restaurants and night clubs, the Chunky’s Cinema & Pub chain and his own showcase club in Manchester’s DoubleTree Hotel.

How would you describe the local comedy scene 20 years ago? 

Well, back in the late ’80s there were many shows all over the state in small venues and bars. Nearly every venue would have a comedy night. It was great, as you could work literally seven nights a week and make a decent living. Patrons would follow comics from place to place and they really supported the local comedy. Comics would create a following, which really helped. Also, we had such great comics like Bill Burr, Lenny Clarke, Dane Cook, Tony V, Steve Sweeney and other great Boston and New York City comics working up here on a regular basis, especially if they were already in the area doing Boston or a corporate show. Occasionally you would have Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Steven Wright and other national acts popping in to do sets while in the area too, which was super exciting.

What do you think the most significant changes have been over the last 20 years, pre-pandemic?

In the past 20 years comedy has changed in that now every area and market has a handful of local comics who are very funny, so the need to bring in acts from out of New England has shrunk. New England continues to pump out some of the best comics in the country. I think it’s due in part to the fact that there are so many unique venues and opportunities now, as well as a very diverse and talented pool of comics here. Comics in the Northeast are able to work colleges, high schools, cruise ships, corporate shows, fundraisers and clubs. … This all makes for a well-rounded comic who is able to work any situation. Also venues now know what comedy is and are aware of what they are getting on every show due to YouTube, the web and social media. Comics now can create their own brand and market that brand directly to the customers, which really helps agents and promoters when booking the shows.

How did your efforts impact the local comedy scene?

When I began doing shows in New Hampshire in 1986 I was very young, and like most comics I was just trying to find my voice. I was living in the Boston area and booking shows around the North Shore in Massachusetts. I began promoting shows in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, as there were not many agents focusing on northern New England. My goal was always to give everyone I could a stage to perform on. Currently, I’ve had the longest-running weekly shows in New Hampshire. I partner with a few local venues like the DoubleTree in Manchester and Chunky’s Cinemas who share the same goal to create a comedy scene here in New Hampshire. I have seen many young comics grow from open mic to touring with national acts and even go on to do late-night television and sitcoms. … I would never take the credit for their success, but I feel honored to have played a small role. I continue to book and produce over 50 events a week for local and regional acts to cut their teeth on. I welcome the next generation of comics to my stages. From what I’ve been seeing, we have a very talented crew coming up.

What has surprised you about the way the state’s comedy scene has developed?

One of the most surprising things I’ve seen is how supportive the comics are. There is a sense of camaraderie that is so prevalent now. I see comics who are very talented and gifted helping the younger generation. There are some comics that coach, and in some instances mentor, the younger comics and show them the ropes. I also have seen a shift in that we [comedians] … have always offered to give back to the community by doing countless fundraisers for all types of organizations.

What do you think the comedy scene will be like 20 years from now, and what challenges will it face?

I think the scene will continue to grow and evolve. I feel that in recent times we have been forced to explore other areas to express ourselves and perform. Live comedy will always thrive in New Hampshire thanks to the support of local venues, as well as patrons that want to see comedy. Not only will we see live comedy grow, I’m sure we will see growth in the streaming of these shows online so patrons in small areas can join in. We are in the beginning stages of Zoom comedy. It will be great to see what this will be like moving forward. … [And places like] Manchester … [have] been growing so fast and really becoming a hub for smart and energetic people. There are many businesspeople, like Dean Kamen, for example, who are playing a major role here in New Hampshire. What he and others are doing is awesome and helping to make New Hampshire a place to be. This will inevitably help all of us here in the arts.

What’s your favorite spot to enjoy live entertainment?

Whenever I work locally, I like to go out after my shows. I like going to see a blues and jazz band at Strange Brew. I also like Penuche’s on Elm for their bands. Tupelo has really done a great job bringing in so many great acts over the years. Honestly, there are so many places now to enjoy live music or dancing. New Hampshire really has something for everyone now. 

Featured photo: (From, left to right) Scott Hayward, Jim Roach, Paul Costley, Rob Steen.

Playing out, in

Winter Warmer showcases regional talent

The spark for Winter Warmer, a virtual music festival that kicked off Jan. 16, came in the sweltering days of August. Along with fellow musician Nick Phaneuf, Mike Effenberger and his wife, videographer Amanda Kowalski, produced an outdoor, multi-camera video project and came away elated with the results.

As they watched the playback, the thought occurred to them that filming a series of professionally staged shows could provide a boost to the area scene when gigs grew scarce. They reached out to Martin England, who frequently uses his barn, dubbed North Buick Lounge, for house concerts. With plenty of space and good ventilation, it was a perfect venue for what they had in mind, Phaneuf said in a recent joint interview with Effenberger.

“The idea was to film when it was warm and safe, so that musicians could … monetize their work in the winter by having a high-quality concert to sell tickets to,” he said. “It would keep the local audience engaged with the scene by providing them with content to keep them caring.”

Area bands, spanning multiple genres, jumped on board immediately. Eleven sets were shot over two weekends, straddling the end of September and the start of October. The first performance filmed was by Boston rap group STL GLD (pronounced “Still Gold”). Effenberger wasn’t sure how the neighbors would react, even though they’d been advised of the plans.

“It’s 11 in the morning and there’s high-volume hip-hop happening that was exciting and briefly nerve-racking, but nobody complained,” he said. “Their set was incredible.”

The livestreams premiered in mid-January with New Orleans channelers Soggy Po’ Boys, and the March 27 finale stars Dan Blakeslee and the Calabash Club. Effenberger and Phaneuf are members of both groups. Upcoming shows include bluegrass from Green Heron (Jan. 23), Americana trio Young Frontier (Feb. 27) and harmony-rich quartet River Sister (March 20).

Phaneuf’s favorite was Seacoast rockers Rick Rude.

“I’ve only got to see them a couple of times over the years, and it was great being up close while we were capturing the concert,” he said. “Their music is joyful and chaotic, in all the best ways. That was a refreshing set to listen to.”

A key benefit for participating musicians is that they’ll retain full ownership of their performance video.

“Creating high-quality content that the bands could then continue to monetize or utilize after the series is done” was a key goal of the effort, Phaneuf emphasized. “We feel pretty good as an outcome of this that we can give them that.”

Both Effenberger and Phaneuf had a limited schedule during 2020, but when they did perform, they were pleased by the outpouring of support from the community.

“I was personally blown away at the dollar value that people put on the thing that we do,” Phaneuf said. “Doing this for a living, you spend at least some amount of your time as musical wallpaper. … You’re seen and not heard. People paying $50 to lock down a table at a Portsmouth pop-up to hear a show made me feel the community really valued music more than I thought they did. It was sort of an ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ situation, where there was less music, but the audience dedication to being at those shows was impressive.”

Effenberger liked how venues adapted, and how a few new ones sprouted up overnight. “It was an uphill battle,” he said, noting a farm in Kensington that “simply built a stage and bought a PA, and said, ‘Let’s do this and see if the community bites’ — and they did.”

Almost all the money from Winter Warmer will go to the artists, with five percent benefiting Continuum Arts Collective, an effort run by Martin England that puts musical instruments and equipment in the hands of kids who don’t have access. The series also received critical assistance from Seacoast nonprofit Project MusicWorks.

Shows will be available for viewing after they premiere, for the rest of 2021.

“We’re encouraging people to have a group experience,” Phaneuf said, “but if you miss it on that Saturday, you can watch it later.” Winter Warmer Online Concert Series

Winter Warmer Online Concert Series
Shows debut on Saturdays at 8 p.m. on seacoastmusicsupport.com

Premiere dates:
Green Heron, Jan. 23
Rick Rude, Jan. 30
STL GLD, Feb. 6
Jim Dozet Band Record Release Show, Feb. 13
Jazzputin and the Jug Skunks, Feb. 20
Young Frontier, Feb. 27
Earthkit, March 6
Sojoy, March 13
River Sister, March 20
Dan Blakeslee and the Calabash Club, March 27

Featured photo: Courtesy photo.

Brooks plays Brooks

Virtual tribute show promises the best of Garth

There’s an emphatic mood these days at the Palace Theatre: The show must go on.

Since the pandemic has again ended performances for live audiences, some postponed events are now being repurposed to happen virtually at the Manchester venue. One scheduled for Jan. 15 is a night of Garth Brooks hits performed by local musician Brooks Young.

Two more evenings of music are set, an All New Piano Men tribute to Elton John, Billy Joel and others Jan. 22, and the Feb. 5 Divas Through the Decades, reprising singers from Etta James to Gloria Estefan, Tina Turner and Madonna. All shows premiere on Friday night, and later are made available to stream on demand.

A singer, guitarist and songwriter, Young is no stranger to the impact that national events can have on the arts. His breakout gig, opening at Singer Park for B.B. King, was nearly canceled the day it happened: Sept. 11, 2001. But the concert had already been rescheduled from 12 days earlier, and the blues legend wasn’t going to let it slip again.

Along with his musical prowess, Young has worked as technical director for the Palace and Rex theaters for the past two years.

“It was a good fit with my background,” he said in a recent phone interview, noting that he’s currently studying for a music business degree. “I love all the people. … I feel like I haven’t worked a day since I started here; I just get up and do something that I love every day.”

One of Young’s latest projects was overseeing the installation of a new state-of-the-art video screen for the Palace stage; it will be behind him at his Brooks Plays Brooks show. He promises a high-tech performance, with a socially distanced band that includes a steel guitarist and a fiddle player.

“It’s going to be your typical Garth Brooks show with the fancy lights, the video wall, the smoke, the whole nine yards,” he said. “We’re not just going to be standing up there like deer in headlights.”

The event’s name was a natural choice, as was the artist being lauded.

“I grew up listening to him and I’m familiar with all his music. He was one of my first CDs in the ’90s. I always thought if I were to do a country show, it’s definitely going to be Garth Brooks,” Young said, noting that his grandfather was in a touring country group when he was younger.

So the longtime blues ace decided, “I’m going to try it. So I got myself a cowboy hat, and we’ll see what happens.”

One result is a new song with a country flavor called “Ask Me How I Know” that recently debuted on Spotify. Young has plans for more studio work in the spring.

“I always thought I’d play some country music, and my grandmother always asked me, ‘Hey when are you going to have a country group, because you love it,’” Young said. “She passed away last July, so I said … ‘Maybe now is a good time to do it.’”

The new tune follows a Christmas song that arrived last month, reflecting a strategy of putting out a lot of material, one track at a time.

“You can’t just release something once every two or three years,” Brooks said. “Things need to come out a couple of times a year, singles and stuff like that — that’s how the algorithms work with all the streaming services. I’ve been learning a lot and trying to adapt with these new times.”

Brooks Young Plays Garth Brooks
Friday, Jan 15, 7 p.m.
Where: Palace Theatre, 96 Hanover St., Manchester (virtual event)
Tickets: $15 at palacetheatre.org (free to members)

Featured photo: Courtesy photo.

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