Local Rhythms – The Second Set Satisfies

Music at downtown Claremont’s latest venue, Sophie & Zeke’s, is off to a rousing start.  With some great performances completed, and more on the way, it’s becoming a popular weekend destination for fans of folk, rock and country.

The ambience is always comfortable, and during food service hours the management takes care to make sure the performers don’t overwhelm diners who might not want serenading.  The chatter of table conversation can be distracting at times for those who are trying to listen, though.  A gaggle of foreverinmotion followers staked out a table just a few feet from Brendon Thomas last Friday to assure they didn’t miss a note. 

But when the dinner hour ends, the second set begins, and that’s when those who fancy themselves aficionados (like yours truly) kick back and enjoy themselves.  The other night, local tunesmith Rick Davis and his companion lingered after the meal, and when Brendon turned up the volume a couple of notches, others also paid closer attention.

It’s not an easy transition, though after four weeks of posters in the window advertising upcoming shows, S&Z’s is starting to solidify in people’s minds as a place for music lovers.

That’s the way trends are born.  Bit by bit, people are finding their way to downtown, and starting to view Pleasant Street differently.  It’s not Broadway in Nashville, with bands playing from one of end of the block to the other, but things are picking up.  Nick Koloski of the Hullabaloo Martini Bar told me recently of plans to bring talent to not only his club (in addition to occasional music and DJ dancing, they’ve had much success with comedy), but also to other places in the area. 

In the meantime, the downtown grows as a magnet for culture mavens, and there are some exciting upcoming performances, like Stonewall’s Josh Parker playing unplugged June 30, and what may be Pete Merrigan’s first downtown sets in years on July 7.  There are plans for bluegrass, too, with the Spiral Farm Band July 21.

The eclectic mix is exciting, to be sure.  If you really want to enjoy, though, take my word for it – stay for the second set.

Here’s the weekend picks, with top choices in and out of town:

Thursday:  Over the Rhine with Hem, Iron Horse – Ethereal pop from a seriously underrated band who deserves better than cult status.  With music bridging alt-rock to cabaret, they’re hard to pin down, which is probably why the mainstream hasn’t picked up on them yet. Don’t make that mistake.  Hem, a neo-folk combo opening the show, is pretty interesting in their own right, enough so that they’re headlining half the shows on this mini-tour.

Friday: Colin McCaffrey, Sophie and Zeke's – I’ve sung this man’s praises for a long time now.  What a joy to see him in downtown Claremont.  With a demeanor worthy of James Taylor, with perhaps a more Northern sensibility, he’s a good storyteller and a great songwriter.  McCaffrey’s built a fine following in the Upper Valley – let’s show him how we do things in the south, shall we?
Saturday: Third Anniversary Party, Salt Hill – Three years is a long time in the bar world.  Tonight, the Tuohy brothers, Josh and Joe, celebrate the continued rewards of the risk they took back in 2003 when they poured the first pint of Guinness and resumed the family tradition begun at Sunapee’s Shanty way back in the Sixties.  Tonight, it’s a main stage Irish Session with Dave Loney, followed by the “singing bartender,” Will Michaels, until closing. Congratulations, guys – here’s to many more years!

Monday: Little Big Town, Lowell Brewery Exchange – An up and coming country band with lush harmonies and potential staying power beyond their first hit, “Bring It On Home.”   Their latest, “Boondocks,” has the same great sound. The Brewery Exchange is the perfect venue for this CD release party.  It reminds me of Gilley’s in Texas, only with better beer.

Wednesday: English Beat, Tupelo Music Hall – Way back before MTV, this ska band rocked steady with the best of them, then spawned Fine Young Cannibals and General Public, two 80’s bands that had pretty successful runs.  They’ve still got it, if a clip from a recent NYC performance of “Tears of a Clown,” available on their website, is any indication.  They’re playing two nights at Tupelo, and there’s a show set for next weekend at Iron Horse.

Finally:  Steve Smith, Program Director at Rock 93.9, has redoubled his efforts to boost the local music scene.  He just announced plans to do an August 5 show at Whaleback Ski Area.  Six bands, including Hexerei and Stonewall, are tentatively lined up.  The event will also include an “X Games” styled competition – dry mountain skiing, perhaps?  We’ll tell you more in the coming weeks.

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