Local Rhythms – Fine dining in Claremont, NH

Picture 1Let’s talk about food.

I remember my first night in Claremont almost 30 years ago.

After wrapping up a six-hour shift on the radio, I was looking for something to do.  The Shades (a band from my then-hometown Worcester) were playing a club gig.

Having no clue about regional geography, I planned on going – until learning the show was 45 minutes away.

Since then, I’ve grown accustomed to a long journey as the first course of many meals.

Lately, however, things are changing.

Claremont could become a dining destination, not a departure station.

Let’s start with the buzz around the new Common Man Restaurant.

I sat on the brick patio overlooking the Sugar River the other night, enjoying a pint of their signature ale, watching a steady stream of people pass by.

All were incredulous at the expanse of waterfalls and freshly rehabilitated mill buildings, which include condos, offices and a 35-room hotel.

It felt like I was sitting at a magnet for the rest of New England – if not the world.

“Are we really in Claremont?” was the constant refrain of the seemingly ‘Oz-struck’ patrons.

Inside, the dining room was packed, and the bar was humming.  The food’s great (I had the duck), the desserts sublime.

If Common Man was the only story, it would still be a good one – but there’s more.

Carmella’s, specializing in fresh pasta, homemade meatballs and fettuccini alfredo, is opening (a sign in the window says “July-ish”) in the Pleasant Street location vacated by Sophie & Zeke’s when they moved to their posh new digs in Opera House Square.

Factor in the Pleasant Street Restaurant (don’t miss the popovers), and downtown’s positively jumping.

Across town, Bistro Nouveau jump-started the Claremont fine dining movement a few years ago, before moving to Eastman.

Soon, their empty Washington Street location will emerge as Kouzoku, a Japanese steak house with hibachi tables and performing chefs.

Kouzoku, which also features traditional tatami rooms and a sushi bar, comes from the ownership of Imperial Garden, a place that’s given the live music scene a big boost.

They hope to open by the end of July.

That’s three new fine dining locations in a month’s time. Call it what you want – a renaissance, a surprise or simply long overdue – my backyard has never looked so good.

Yes, I’m really in Claremont – waiting for you.

What’s the rest of the week look like?

Thursday: Norris Cotton Silent Auction, Eastman Events Center – Reservations are required for this event, which includes desserts from Bistro Nouveau and music from Second Wind, the duo of Terry Ray Gould and Suzi Hastings – along with a few guests.  All proceeds benefit NCCC, which provides the latest medical technology and assistance to those stricken with the disease.

Friday: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Hanover Green – A free show by a West African group that met in Guinea refugee camp.  The music they made there became the subject of a much-heralded documentary.  Their sound blends autobiographical lyrics celebrating freedom with an infectious reggae beat. It will be cool to see them outdoors on the big lawn – not many shows happen there (unless Dartmouth graduation counts).

Saturday: Adam McMahon Trio, Silver Fern – An excellent addition to Claremont’s downtown, serving drinks, pub food and providing fans of English football (uh, soccer) a place to indulge their pastime.  There’s also live music on the weekends, including this blues player, a former member of the Larry Dougher Band, another frequent Silver Fern performer.

Sunday: Strawberry Festival, Cedar Circle Farm – Localvore denizens converge around this East Thetford farm, with music provided by the Strawberry Farm Band, a Bath, NH band specializing in progressive bluegrass. The event includes horse-drawn wagon rides, strawberry picking, Gabriel Q puppetry, a VINS raptor demo, strawberry shortcake and wood-fired pizzas.

Monday: Vermont Symphony Orchestra & Fireworks, Quechee Polo Grounds – It’s Lake Champlain’s Quadricentennial honoring Vermont’s own Uncle Sam – Samuel de Champlain, who discovered the lake named after him in 1609. The VSO programs includes Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” show tunes from South Pacific and Les Misérables, a patriotic John Phillip Sousa section and the 1812 Overture, complete with a show in the sky.

Tuesday: Susan Tedeschi, Paramount Theatre – The blues diva, who just announced a November LOH appearance, comes to Rutland.  She’s got brass – I love her comment about meeting the Rolling Stones a few years ago.  “I’m not intimidated by a bunch of British rockers,” she said. “I’d be intimidated by Howlin’ Wolf if I met him, but I’m not intimidated by those guys.” Ha!

Wednesday: Atlantic Crossing, Strafford Unitarian Church – The first in a series of shows, which run through August 19, features a Vermont-based band specializing in Celtic rhythms.  Future performers include Damn Yankee String Band (7/8), Skellig (7/15) and the trio of Jeremiah McLane, Sarah Blair and David Surette (8/5).

Local Rhythms – A Ride Down Autumn’s Highway

wcleaves.jpgAs I write this, the weatherman is forecasting warm, dry weekend weather.   

The New Hampshire state tourism bureau expects over 600,000 leaf-peepers, up 1 percent from last year.  Whether you’re a transplant like me or a multi-generation native, autumn’s charms are irresistible.

Is there a better time to be in New England? 

So let’s put aside our crankiness at flatlanders, who tend to slow down to 10 miles per hour at the oddest times, and map a local route to the pleasures of the season.

We’ll begin in Springfield, Vermont, a little town that’s the official home of the Simpsons, and for this Saturday and Sunday, the Vermont Apple Festival.   

Stop by and enjoy some warm cider, apple flapjacks and buy a few crafts. 

Be sure to make time for the music, which includes kid’s favorite Alli Lubin, Americana duo Josh Maiocco and Jesse Peters, the folksy Bradford Bog People and Three Way Street, an acoustic trio that travels a musical journey from 30’s swing to modern bluegrass. 

Speaking of travel … get in the car and take a ride across the Cheshire Bridge (I miss the toll booth, but not the toll), head down Lover’s Lane, and pick up Route 12 to Claremont.

The center of Saturday’s Fall Festival is the Chili Cook-Off, which closes off Pleasant Street for the day.  For a small price, any opinionated soul can be a food critic.  Though it’s a good-natured competition, the entrants take their chili very seriously.   

The only appropriate music for this soiree is Claremont’s Flames, for obvious reasons.  John Lovejoy leads the four-piece through classic rock chestnuts like “Hot Blooded.”

Now that our are bellies warm and full, it’s time for a slow drive to Warner.  Few vistas rival the Sunapee region in early October.   

Little Lake Todd, just before Bradford, is particularly beautiful. 

Take your time rolling along Route 103 – the other drivers will think you’re a tourist in a rental car, which is kind of fun. 

Warner hosts the Fall Foliage Festival (Saturday and Sunday), now in its 60th year.  There’s food, crafts and fun, including a pie-eating contest for kids, an oxen pull and a country bazaar.

The music has a decidedly old-time bent, with Dixieland from the Fountain Square Ramblers, the Stuart Highland Pipe Band and the gospel Shape Note Singers. 

All in all, it’s a lovely New England day.

What else is in store this weekend? 

Thursday: Little Feat, Lebanon Opera House – Superlatives don’t do this band justice.  If you love rock and roll and haven’t seen Little Feat, you must – it’s that simple.  I first saw them in the late Seventies, when founder Lowell George was still alive, and I literally could not stay in my seat.  By the third song, I’d moved to the back of the room.  My dancing feet would not stop moving. 

Friday: Ray DeVito, Electra – Lots of comedy in the area – when it rains, it pours.  DeVito riffs on slacker angst – the travails of dating, McJobs, and advertising (“Verizon says they have towers everywhere, which means if my girlfriend doesn’t call, it’s not their fault.  I’m just a loser”).  With the way they mix up their entertainment, this club should change their name to Eclectic. 

Saturday: I Love a Piano, Claremont Opera House – Six actors perform a musical that looks at America through the lens of Irving Berlin’s.  The show includes over 60 timeless songs.  This all singing, all dancing revue traces the journey of a piano from Tin Pan Alley to the present, as it winds its way through the lives of Americans.

Sunday: Woodchuck Hollow Band, East Thetford – An autumn discussion must include pumpkins, right?  East Thetford hosts a festival brimming with pumpkin pie, bread and soup, along with a mid-day performance from this nifty band.  They brand themselves “Organic White Mountain Music.” There are a few nods to the Appalachians and Ozarks, and on “Ruby,” a dash of Cash.  It’s all good-time country. 

Tuesday: ALO, Iron Horse – This band always makes me think of Salt Hill Pub, which booked them a few years back when they were up and comers.  These days, they are playing much bigger stages, opening for people like Jack Johnson – they recently signed with his Brushfire record label – and winning lots of new fans with their loose, rootsy sound.  It begs the question – are there other current Pub performers are due to break big?

Wednesday: Café Americano, Metropolis – Brattleboro’s newest club features some wonderfully varied talent, including this trio, which plays swing and jazz standards.  There’s also a cool open mike/jam session night Tuesday with fiddler Lissa Schneckenburger and Corey DiMario on tenor guitar and bass.  It’s worth a trip south – the leaves on the interstate should be nice for a few weeks.

Tim Sample & Bob Marley – A Tale of Two Mainers

bob.jpgComedy fans have a chance to see two examples of Down East humor in the coming weeks.  Tim Sample performs this Saturday at the Newport Opera House, and funny man Bob Marley returns to the Claremont Opera House the following Saturday. 

But these two Mainers each take distinctly different approaches to their craft.  Sample’s folksy observations come straight from the pages of Yankee Magazine, a “Prairie Home Companion” with rocky beaches.  He riffs genially on clueless tourists and delusional transplants – the ones who believe that 40 or 50 years in-state has earned them the right to be called natives.

“It don’t work like that theyah,” scoffs a pitch perfect Sample, who once made a disc called “How to Talk Yankee” with Bob Bryan of “Bert and I.” 

In fact, after Marshal Dodge (the other half of “Bert and I”) died in 1982, Sample worked with Bryan to carry on the duo’s humorous tradition.  Together, they recorded four CDs.

“Every now and then Bobby and I still perform onstage together,” says Sample.  “Whenever we do I am privileged to join him for some of the original stories he and Marshall made famous (“The Body in th’ Kelp,” “The Lighter Than Air Balloon”) and we always do some of the classic material from “How to Talk Yankee.” 

His wink-and-a-nod anthropology pokes plenty of fun at the “born, live and die in Maine” crowd, but Sample’s comedy stays comfortably within his home state’s borders.

Bob Marley is also a native (born in Portland), but the similarities with Sample end there.   

“In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve only run into Tim once.  We travel in different circles,” says Marley, with a thick, unmistakable accent.  “I do a lot of clubs, road houses and one-nighters.”

Someone who’s never set foot in Maine can easily get their brain (and funny bone) around Marley’s stand-up routine.  It’s an everyman revue of daily life – family, friends and supermarket hijinx – familiar to all, regardless of where they were born. 

Marley’s constantly at work on new material.  With over 200 appearances a year, he’d probably go crazy otherwise.  He promises an entirely different show next Saturday.  “You know the Vegas dancer who’s been doing the same routine night after night, looking at her nails while she’s on stage? You can practically read her mind: ‘did I do my laundry?’ I never want to be her,” he says.

These days, his mind is on the season and its’ oddities.   “Fall’s kind of a hassle. I never know how to dress,” he says.  “In the morning, it’s 12 degrees, and by afternoon I’m sweating like Mike Tyson at a spelling bee.  I’m ripping off my clothes like a stripper, down to a thong and pasties.” 

“And what’s the deal with gourds?” he asks.  “Who decided we should put these things on our table?  They’re like squash with herpes.”

How about the Red Sox?  “I know they’re doing wicked good, and they have a great pitcher named Suzuki Kawasaki or something,” he says.  “But if I have to hear Jerry Remy try to speak Japanese one more time, I’m gonna shoot myself in the head. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto? Jeez!” 

Marley has a new CD of stand-up material (his 12th, along with 5 DVDs) due next month.  His half-hour Comedy Central special last February was so well received that the network is negotiating with him to do a full hour.

Marley moved back to Maine after a few years of chasing fame in California to do east coast comedy full-time, and he’s built a nice franchise.  Lately, however, he’s feeling the lure of Hollywood.  He recently returned to L.A. for work on a DirecTV project, a pilot with fellow comedians Bob Saget, Dom Irrera and Jon Lovitz called “Comedy Justice.”  The show is patterned after “Judge Judy” and “People’s Court,” but with comedians as lawyers. 

But he loves his life here too much to move back.  “If they can put something on tape and be done with it, that’s fine,” he says, “but I’d have to think hard about doing a series.” 

Why would he want to?  He packs houses from Maine to Maryland.  His Manchester shows have drawn so well, there’s talk of playing the Verizon Center next time around. 

As for Claremont, Marley says, “I’m psyched – I had such a great time there last time.”  In January, he played to a sold out house, and lingered in the lobby for over an hour after the show, signing CDs and posters for fans.  For Saturday’s show, he’s bringing George Hamm.  “He gets the crowd going from zero to sixty in nothing flat,” says Marley.  “He headlines in Boston.  He could do that in any room, so it’s great to have him opening for me.”

Local Rhythms – My Thanksgiving

turkey.gifTonight at the dinner table, I’ll give thanks for my family, and after, antacid.  Right now, I want to be a little more public in my display of gratitude.  Here’s an honor roll of the people and things that sustained me over the past year.

Thanks to  Claremont’s  restaurateurs for making my hometown a destination, and transforming the question of where to go for dinner into a wonderfully complex decision process.  Demiglace, garlic knots, coconut shrimp or handmade ravioli?  So many choices, I love it!

Thanks  to the young musicians – Hexerei, Stonewall, foreverinmotion, Syd, the Ruse (past and future), and others – for pumping the blood into my rock and roll heart.  There’s not a lot of money in the music business, but these kids have boundless passion and commitment in spite of that.

Thanks to YouTube, MySpace, purevolume and GarageBand.com, for providing easy to use tools to help bands get the word out, and a way for me to find them.

Thanks to the veteran players still in the game.  Al Alessi, Pete Merrigan, Spectris, Rick & Dave Davis and the Conniption Fits all continue to represent the region’s rich musical heritage.

Thanks to Charlie, Patrick, Ezra, Thomasina and the rest of the gang at Flying Under Radar in Bellows Falls.   It was a great run – come back soon.

Thanks to Josh and Joe Tuohy, for challenging their customers every week with eclectic musical choices.  When you walk into Salt Hill Pub, you can expect the unexpected – everything from power pop to Celtic reels  to  jumping jam band sounds. 

Thanks to Gardner Goldsmith at WNTK for proving  that  two people can be worlds apart ideologically, yet find common ground talking about YouTube, iTunes and the Long Tail.  Let’s promote world peace by giving the Israelis and the Palestinians a Radio Birdman record to discuss.

Thanks to Keith Olbermann, for being snarky, smart and never boring. 

Thanks to  HDNet, for TV concerts that look and sound better than the real thing, and  don’t cost a paycheck; also to Rhapsody for building a digital player that makes music discovery portable with their brilliantly cool Channels feature.  Now I don’t have an excuse to stay home all the time.  Where should you venture this weekend?  Here are a few compelling area performances to consider for the coming days:

Thursday: Sun King, Heritage Tavern –  Join former members of Shine for an after-dinner party in Charlestown, and dance away the holiday meal.  According to National Geographic, the tryptophan in turkey has gotten a bad rap all these years.  It doesn’t really make you sleepy after all.  I still need a nap after all that food, though, whether it’s the bird’s fault or not.

Friday:  Spare Change, Sophie & Zeke’s – Speaking of veterans of the local scene, Joe Stallsmith’s name is discussed a lot when the history of Hanover music comes up.  He fronts a few different bands with varying musical styles.  This combo is a three-piece –  guitar, mandolin and fiddle – that mines the same territory as Spiral Farm Band, another S&Z’s favorite.  From Nashville to Texas, with a long walk along the Blue Ridge Mountains – that’s Americana.

Saturday: Davis Brothers Garage Band 2, Shenanigans – After a fun-packed reunion a few weeks back, a local institution returns with a slightly different configuration.  Carey Lee Rush sits in on guitar, and  there will be a few surprise guests during the evening.  Last fall, Rick Davis organized a birthday bash for our mutual friend Bob Rivers, where we watched a few vintage 1981 reels of the band.  That must have started this trip down memory lane.

Sunday:  Aztec Two-Step, Iron Horse – 35 years after meeting at a Boston open mike night, this duo is still playing and making new music.  Their repertoire is full of easygoing folk tunes.  It’s a mystery why Seals & Crofts made it to the top of the pile while these guys only got halfway up the ladder. 

Tuesday:  Irish Sessions with Dave Loney, Salt Hill – Last Tuesday, there were a dozen musicians in the circle at the center of Lebanon’s pub on the Green.  That’s what happens when the weather turns cold.  So if you want to beat the chill, stop in, grab a pint and enjoy the spontaneous inspiration that so often transpires with this pickup band of fiddlers, pickers and pennywhistlers.

Wednesday:  Dinosaur, Jr., Paradise Boston – Long before Nirvana and Pearl Jam, high school buddies J. Mascis and Lou Barlow pioneered the refined garage band sound in the clubs of Northampton, Massachusetts.  Mascis and Barlow fought like the Toxic Twins, but in the past few years decided to mend fences and play together again.  A new album from the original trio is due next year.  The band plays also plays Pearl Street in their hometown on December 1.