Sophie & Zeke’s Plan December 6 Grand Opening

rosenquintetEverything’s bigger at Sophie & Zeke’s since their move to Opera House Square in downtown Claremont – even the music.  After a rehabilitation of the historic Brown Block building lasting years, the restaurant now has twice the kitchen space, room enough for double the customers, and an entertainment calendar that will soon extend to three nights.

For their first appearance at the new location, the Billy Rosen Quartet became a quintet.  Shayma, who joined the group in late fall, sang jazz standards, while Billy and sax player Nick Scalera traded licks.

“We want to mix it up and try something different,” Rosen said between sets.

Sophie & Zeke’s owners Reid & Danna Hannula have similar intentions – they recently announced plans for an official grand opening on Saturday, December 6.

The all-day party features food samples from Walpole Creamery and Claremont’s North Country Smokehouse, a live radio broadcast, and music – lots of music.

In addition to wine tasting and an art opening, there are plans for dancing into the late evening hours.

That’s a first for the restaurant.  Since opening in 2005 at 50 Pleasant Street in Claremont, they’ve stuck mostly to jazz, with an occasional bluegrass band and evergreens like Pete Merrigan and Al Alessi.

Clearing away tables and jamming well past dinner is brand new.

“It’s the kind of thing we want to do more of,” Reid Hannula says of the big event.  “We plan to pick a Saturday night each month, bring in high energy bands, and go a bit later.”

For the grand opening, Sophie & Zeke’s invites New York-based “The Thang” to get the dancing started.  The funky band rocks a sound somewhere between Black Eyed Peas and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Reid found the group through Abby Payne, an alt-rocker who’s booked to play her own set prior to the Thang’s.

“She got in touch with me about coming here.  I listened to her MySpace songs and was really impressed,” he says.  “She’s friends with the Thang and it’s just great that we can get them both.  I’m really looking forward to seeing her.”

Payne is a mainstay in her Brooklyn hometown, and in New York City clubs like the Red Lion.  She owes a debt to Fiona Apple on songs like “Bad One” and “Green,” both from her recently released “In a Pretty Box.”

On the record, she evokes Jacques Brel cabaret for “On Nature”, and spices up the poppy “Little Lotus” with Chicago horn charts straight out of “Wake Up Sunshine.”

She also does a terrific, revved-up version of Annie Lennox’s “Why.”

It will surely be a memorable double bill, but believe it or not, the twofer is only the latter half of an entire day’s worth of music and activities.

At 1 PM, a jazz/blues trio led by Tim Utt and Barbara Blaisdell will play an easy mix of covers and originals, a few of which have been heard on the big screen.  They call the scaled-down version of their hugely popular Sensible Shoes dance band “Sensible Soul.”

A live remote broadcast from Hanover radio station 99 Rock will bridge the gap between afternoon and evening, along with the aforementioned food and wine specialties.

With all this non-stop action, there’s barely time to change clothes between shifts.  Fortunately, Reid now occupies a freshly renovated apartment on the second floor of the Brown Block (in addition to the family home in Sutton, New Hampshire).

“It’s always been a dream of mine to live in my restaurant, to just have it always there,” he says.  As he describes the sweeping views of Broad Street Park and Opera House Square from his new corner unit, it’s clear the upstairs/downstairs arrangement is working well so far.

Sophie & Zeke’s will continue to present music every Thursday and Friday night at the new location; they’re also working on a first-ever New Year’s Eve bash, with menu specials, champagne and DJ dancing.  The restaurant hopes to have firm details of the event in time for the grand opening.

Local Rhythms – Live Free Or Die

lrnewsmall.jpgAdapted from a previous post

There’s nothing like seeing your town on the big screen, and for many in attendance at the “Live Free Or Die” premiere Monday night at the Claremont Cinema, that was the main draw.  It isn’t for all tastes; there are more F-bombs in the film’s 90 minutes than a lot of the audience had probably heard their entire lives.

But seeing Shirley’s Donut Shop and Lambert Supply on the big screen made it all worthwhile.

The film’s profanity may be shocking, but that’s the way a real guy like fast-talking loser John “Rugged” Rudgate would operate.   To their credit, co-directors (and former “Seinfeld” writers) Greg Kavet and Andy Robin didn’t flinch when creating him, and Aaron Stanford’s star turn as Rugged is, to use the character’s favorite phrase, “shit hot.”

The small-time criminal blusters with every breath, plotting low-margin scams and paying his rent with ill-gotten rebate checks. All the while, a real crime wave grows around him in a seemingly parallel universe; it’s a neighborhood that Rugged will, of course, ultimately stumble into – and at just the wrong time.

Stanford’s good, but Paul Schneider (”Family Stone,” “Elizabethtown”) is even better, quietly stealing scene after scene as Lagrand, Rugged’s dimwitted sidekick.  With each toss of his hair, Schneider gives the film a “Napoleon Dynamite” meets “Blood Simple” charm.  It has the Coen Brothers’ sensibilities, but without the wood chipper that turned happy-go-lucky “Fargo” into Midwestern Gothic.

Contributions from top-notch character actors like Judah Friedlander (”American Splendor”), who has a memorable turn as a foul-mouthed hardware store owner, and Ultimate Fight Club wannabe Alex Gazaniga, played with equal parts stupid and sinister by Ebon Moss-Bachrach (”Mona Lisa Smile”), could well lift “Live Free or Die” from a cult sensation (it won Best Narrative at the last years SXSW) to a solid smash on a par with “Clerks” or “Garden State.” The writing’s certainly good enough, and the performances are dead-on.

I only wish Zooey Deschanel (”Elf,” “Failure to Launch”) had gotten more on-screen time as Lagrand’s sister Cheryl.  She’s apparently the only competent adult who isn’t a police officer in the fictional town of Rutland, New Hampshire (Rutland? THAT bit of dramatic license sure drew some chortles Monday night).

What I’m ultimately saying is that you should go see “Live Free or Die” when it opens tomorrow – not just because it was filmed in Claremont.

See it because it’s a shit hot funny movie.  Now, what else is going on this weekend?

Thursday: Jason Cann, Brown’s Tavern – Sadly, this in-demand singer/guitarist’s busy schedule precluded him from playing a farewell set at Claremont’s Bistro Nouveau.  He’ll be performing at the new locations in Springfield and Eastman later in the month.  Jason’s built quite an Ascutney following with his easy on the ears catalog of songs that include the Dead, Dave Matthews and Dan Loggins.

Friday: Roland Yamaguchi Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – The music lineup at downtown Claremont’s favorite dinner spot changes a bit in the coming weeks.  Tonight, it’s a reconfigured New Kind of Blue, sans vocalist Emily Lanier.  There are some new faces in April, including upcoming Thursday dinner sets from the Norm Wolfe/Peter Concilio duo, and Draa Hobbs with sax player Michael Zsoldos.

Saturday:  George’s Back Pocket, Boccelli’s on the Canal – Listening to Rutland singer/guitarist George “G.V.” Nostrand’s music on his web site, I’m reminded of bluegrass skiffle bands like Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks or Asleep at the Wheel.  Nostrand played and recorded a well-received set at the Windham before it closed last year.   Tonight, he’s at Bellows Falls’ newest music venue.

Sunday: Green Mountain Shuffle, Middle Earth Music Hall – Since we’re discussing indie films, it’s worth mentioning the first movie from Vermont musician and writer Michael T. Hahn, which gets a 2 PM screening today.  Starring Heather Fitch, Adam Desautels and Derek Campbell, “Green Mountain Shuffle” is described as “an unforgettable tale of passion, deceit and redemption.”  It also features performances by Hahn’s eponymous band.

Tuesday: Taylor Hicks/Toby Lightman, Avalon (Boston) – As the current “American Idol” circus lurches through another season, last year’s winner proves there’s no guarantee of success beyond the title.  He’s no Carrie Underwood in the record sales department, and the Avalon isn’t the EnormoDome either.  The best thing about this show is Toby Lightman, the Philly chanteuse who could have been an Idol if she’d wanted to.

Wednesday: Lunasa, Chandler Music Hall – Randolph, Vermont’s jewel of an opera house was born from, of all things, a church merger in 1907.  Renovated in the 1970s, it’s hosted both local and international talent. Tonight, it’s a fine Celtic band, rich in tradition but with state of the art playing skills.  It features members of the Waterboys, Donal Lunny’s Coolfin and the Riverdance band.

Local Rhythms – There’s Irish, Then There’s Salt Hill

lrnewsmall.jpgEverybody’s going green this weekend. Murphy’s in Sunapee has a leprechaun DJ and a contest with an Ireland vacation as grand prize, Hullabaloo in Claremont features green beer, something you won’t find in Dublin, and Guinness – something you will.

For something more authentic, Killarney in Ludlow is a real Irish bar, or you could get in line before sunrise for a chance to see the band Flogging Molly’s annual acoustic set, complete with bohdrain and accordion, at the Black Rose in Boston.

Anyone can hang a shamrock on the wall for St. Patrick’s Day, but there’s really only one local watering hole where being Irish is a 365-day a year condition – Salt Hill Pub, on Lebanon’s Green.

The celebration has been running all month long. Two days ago Longford Row, a traditional band from Burlington, marked an unofficial return of the weekly Irish Sessions; they resume in earnest at the end of the month. The Pub also made a foray into concert promotion. Tuesday, Galway’s Saw Doctors played an energetic set, capped by a 7-song encore, to a fevered crowd at the Lebanon Opera House.

Inchicore, named after band front man Derrick Keane’s Ireland hometown, perform traditional songs about, says Keane, “Irish history and the patriot dead” tomorrow night. It’s certain to provide a rousing lead-in to the big day.

At Salt Hill, March 17 commences at 9 AM with the ceremonial “pouring of the first pint,” followed by a traditional Irish breakfast of fried eggs, thick cut bacon, bangers, along with two pate-type sausages called black and white pudding. Oh, and a side of beans.

“It’s the kind of thing you’d find in any pub in Ireland,” says Salt Hill owner Josh Tuohy.

The pub is also sponsoring, along with Harpoon Brewery, the annual “Shamrock Shuffle” 5K race at 11 AM. There’s also a 1-mile “fun walk” for those still recovering from morning pints.

Music starts at 4 with the Roger Kahle Zigzag Band, a traditional group that will pack up at the end of their set, and head for Salt Hill’s new location in Newport’s Eagle Block. There also be, says Josh Tuohy, “random step dancing and drive-by bagpipes.”

O’hanleigh, a year-round Salt Hill favorite, closes out the evening beginning at 9.

Now, if being Irish isn’t your thing, here’s what the rest of the weekend looks like:

Thursday: New Kind of Blue, Sophie & Zeke’s – This sort of sultry jazz is the antithesis of Irish music. You won’t hear Emily Lanier sing “Danny Boy,” but the songs she does sing – “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Route 66” – are smooth and elegant. It’s a biweekly tradition that doesn’t ever get old. Tomorrow, S&Z’s welcomes pure bluegrass with the Spiral Farm Band.

Friday: Sarah Blair & Friends, Seven Stars Center (Sharon, VT) – Blair is one of Vermont’s best fiddle players. She celebrates the release of her new record by teaming with Ben Power and Colin McCaffrey for an evening of high-powered music infused with Celtic traditions. Power plays flute and bohdrain and is also a first-rate singer. Multi-instrumentalist McCaffrey brings a down-home elegance to the project.

Saturday: Sun King, Heritage Tavern – Straight up rock and roll from one of the area’s favorite party bands. Word this week of the club’s sale was quickly followed with assurances that live music Saturdays would continue under the new management. That’s good news, as some of the area’s most interesting talent passes through this Charlestown landmark.

Sunday: Blues Jam, Off the Green – I received word via Dave Clark’s weekly email that this regular Woodstock jam session is going great. Last Sunday, Clark joined guitarists Terry Diers and Jason Twigg-Smith, upright bassist Lisa Rojak and harp player Jed Dickinson. When the playing commenced, says Clark, “a bunch of folks drifted in off the street and we ended up having a nice little blues jam.” Sounds perfect.

Tuesday: Mark Vogel, Canoe Club – Called a Swedophile, if that’s a word, by John Chapin, Vogel plays an interesting mix of music – “blues, country, jug band and folk, woven into a tapestry of tales about hanging on and letting, coming together and falling apart.” He performed at Canoe a few months ago with an all-Swede band, so this is a bit of a departure I suppose. Vogel plays solo, accompanying himself on guitar.

Wednesday: Keb’Mo’, Lebanon Opera House – I mention this show for two reasons. First, to point out the high caliber of performers that swing through the area. Second, to let anyone thinking of seeing this master of the American blues-rock idiom know that the show is sold out. There’s a waiting list if you’re really desperate, but thankfully no one’s scalping seats on EBay. When that happens, I’m moving to Yarmouth.

Local Rhythms – New Venues, New Bands

photo_021707_002.jpgThis week, I’m happy to report a few additions to the local arts scene. That’s what makes life exciting for me: new venues, and new bands to discover playing in them.

Last Friday India Queen, tucked behind Hanover’s International DVD and Poster shop on Lebanon Street, emanated curry, saffron, tequila and sweat, as the restaurant made its first venture into live music.

You’d be forgiven if you mistook the entrance for a backstage door. To get a seat at the horseshoe-shaped bar, one had to first tiptoe around Jen De la Osa’s bobbing silver Telecaster, as she and her band Aloud pounded through a high-energy set.

Aloud combined the Pretenders’ sass with U2’s sonic fury on songs like “Battle of Love” and a clever cover of “Baba O’Riley.” Fireflies, a New York City band reminiscent of “Cool Places”-era Sparks, opened the show. Their final number, “It’s A Party, You Can Dance If You Want To,” completely caught the DIY energy of the night and the bar.

India Queen owner Bhavnesh has a try-anything-once approach to entertainment. He pointed out snapshots on the wall of celebrities like Jack White enjoying the food, and talked excitedly about upcoming events – belly dancing (2/23), a “Nice-Up” reggae-tone dance party (3/9) and yes, more live bands.

The place has a great late-70’s punk rock vibe. If IQ continues to get great talent like Aloud and Fireflies (not to mention a decent PA system), there are promising times ahead.

When La Dolce Vita recently opened for dining in New London, owner Charlene Jerome took a cue from former employer Sophie & Zeke’s. The Claremont restaurant she used to manage has had great success with live music – regular guests the Spiral Farm Band have even released a “Live at Sophie & Zeke’s” CD.

Beginning tomorrow night, Kid Pinky and His Restless Nights will belt out the blues at La Dolce Vita on a biweekly basis. Whether this leads to more music on Thursdays and Saturdays remains to be seen.

In any case, it’s gratifying to welcome another home for live music to the area.

Finally, Newport’s Salt Hill also announced some plans the other day. March 16, right before St. Patrick’s Day, the Woodkerne Celtic Band will pluck some Irish cheer as a lead-in to the big day. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come.

Speaking of which, what’s coming up this weekend?

Thursday: Vieux Farka Toure, Collis Common Ground (Dartmouth) – This week’s eclectic entry. When this Mali singer/guitarist decided to follow in the footsteps of his musician father, he got a lot of resistance. Dad thought he should be a soldier because musicians were so poorly treated. Farka Toure pressed on anyway – “Farka,” after all, means “donkey” in Mali – and ultimately received his father’s blessing.

Friday: The Squids, Gusanoz – Always a crowd-pleasing band, the Squids played their first set at this Woodstock Mexican eatery last month and were immediately asked to return. If you like to dance, you’ll enjoy this band. Speaking of dancing, there’s salsa with Black Beans every other Saturday at Gusanoz, if you like it muy caliente.

Saturday: Kid Pinky, Sophie & Zeke’s – An after-hours dance party starting around 9. S&Z’s celebrated their first birthday at the end of December by clearing away a few tables, and turning up the music energy level a few notches. They liked the results so much they decided to do it again, this time with a Concord-based blues band led by a guy with a 20-year reputation for heating up a room.

Sunday: Suicide City, Claremont Moose – Bobaflex was originally scheduled for this afternoon metal show, but had to cancel. Suicide City toured with Hexerei last summer, so this pairing almost makes more sense. Hexerei will play a set before the headliner; A City Divide, Trancent, Starefall, Soul Octane Burner and Escape to Everything also perform. The show runs from noon till five, so the music (mostly metal) will be packed.

Monday: Jello Biafra, Iron Horse – A spoken word performance by one of punk rock’s most dangerous individuals, at least in the eyes of those who would silence him. “Holiday in Cambodia” is a masterpiece; the opening bars still sound as sinister today as they did in 1980. Nowadays, Biafra combines a street theatre sense of the absurd, using the stage pseudonyms Osama McDonald and Count Ringworm, with a committed progressive political stance.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm – Dave Clark recently uploaded an hour’s worth of material from the February 6th installment of this weekly jam session. Check it out on – there’s some great stride piano from Raphael Gulazzi that sounds like it came out of a 1920s speakeasy, and a nifty bass solo from author/musician Lisa Rojak. Or go see it live; it’s worth the trip.


Local Rhythms – Finding the Sweet Spot

dubac.jpgI don’t envy tavern owners faced with the task of booking talent to their establishments. How do they know what their clientele want? From what I’ve gleaned, it’s a hit and miss affair where “learn from your mistakes” tends to be the operative phrase.

Sophie & Zeke’s, the downtown Claremont hot spot du jour, tried everything from shoe-gazing singer-songwriters to unplugged heavy metal when they began offering music last year. For some reason, jazz, with an emphasis on crooner styles popularized by Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme, seems to get people moving towards, and not away, from the stage. There’s also a serious bluegrass contingent that turns out every third Friday to hear the Spiral Farm Band play.

On Washington Street, the opposite’s true at Bistro Nouveau, where “solo on a stool” acoustic musicians hold sway, and not much more than a microphone requires electricity. Performers like pianist John Lovejoy and singer/guitarist Jason Cann regularly entertain appreciative diners.

It’s even harder when you’re trying to fill a 700-seat room like the Claremont Opera House, which is why it was so gratifying to see a sellout last Saturday night for Bob Marley’s stand-up act. This is the third or fourth time that comedy has drawn a big crowd there. That’s encouraging news, because the next Opera House show, on Thursday, February 8 also features a very talented comedian.

Robert Dubac transformed his club act into a one man show, “The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron?” I’m a long-time Dubac fan, going back to the days when he used to warm up crowds at Eagles and Jimmy Buffett concerts. When I learned he was coming to Claremont, I immediately blocked out the date.

Dubac’s that rare combination of funny and smart; during his show there are as many “ah-hah” moments as “ha-ha” moments. “The Male Intellect” is a 90-minute, multi-character look at the differences between the sexes, offering hilarious insights like this:

“What do women want? They want men to feel more and think less. Feeling more will take some practice, but we can think less right away.”

Maybe it’s cabin fever – laughter warms the body as well as the soul – but comedy seems to be the sweet spot for the COH. Hopefully, that means more funny folks like Bob Marley and Robert Dubac are on the way.

What’s coming up this weekend?

Thursday: Billy Rosen Jazz Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s There’s been a lot of different music here, but for some odd reason, this is the first time a saxophone has ever made an appearance. Rosen’s a fine guitarist, and a veteran of the Upper Valley supper club circuit. Tonight, he’s joined by Norm Yanofsky on keyboards, Jim McNutt on drums and Nick Scalera on sax. Tomorrow, another new duo – Have Blues Will Travel – stops by S&Z’s.

Friday: Stonewall, The Underground – Chester native Brendon Thomas started this club in a space below the music store where he worked. It’s become a magnet for area musicians, many of whom learned from Thomas (who performs live and on record as foreverinmotion). Tonight, rising stars Stonewall headline a three-band show which includes political metal from d’Brotherhood, who are kind of an anti-Hanson, and Orange Juice.

Saturday: Spare Change, Salt Hill – One of my favorite bluegrass bands, led by multi-instrumentalist Joe Stallsmith of Joe’s Waterworks fame. When anyone asks me to name the one kind of music I can’t live without, it’s inevitably a combination of acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle, because you can’t fake any of those instruments. If you’re awaiting word on Newport’s Salt Hill Two in the old Eagle Tavern space, wait no more. Opening day is February 5.

Sunday: Roger Marin, PK’s Tavern – I mentioned in my blog a couple of weeks back that Ezra Veitch, an angel of the Bellows Falls scene, was still in town. Lately, he’s mixing a Mr. Burns album while he recovers from hand surgery. He also sent word that he’d put together a quick show this weekend with Marin, the longtime Fred Eaglesmith guitarist who went solo about 18 months ago, and Adam Carroll, a Texan with the gift for weaving a story into a song. By the by, Boccelli’s February calendar is filling up – check out for more info.

Wednesday: Jason LeVasseur, New England College – This is the future of music. Not this guy, though he’s very talented, but the way he brings his music to the people. MySpace, mailing lists, independently produced records made on a shoestring with musicians who are equal parts hired guns and fellow travelers, and a ton of solo touring. The aforementioned foreverinmotion is doing it, as is LeVasseur, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter with a touch of sandpaper in his voice, and a nice balance of pop and plaintive.

Weekend Review

boccellis.JPGIt felt like a fall evening in Bellow Falls last Friday, with a smattering of rain and overflowing cheer at Boccelli’s on the Canal. As Josh Maiocco took the stage, I was reminded why the scene there is so compelling. Josh played a couple of his original songs, then remarked, “it’s great to have an … audience.” Guys like Josh (and co-headliner Jesse Peters, and Colin McCaffrey, Jason Cann, Chris Kleeman) play songs which deserve to be heard, yet too often suffer the indignity of being background music. Not in BF, where Boccelli’s fans sat and paid attention.

Charlie Hunter, who came out of retirement to present shows for Boccelli’s, introduced the performers and also confirmed that the tentative Dave Alvin & the Lonely Men show is now confirmed for February 1. I haven’t seen Charlie looking so chuffed in a long time.

Also in attendance was Ezra Veitch, who had plans to leave the area for Arkansas last fall that “fell through.” Ezra’s been out of action due to a hand injury that’s fortunately now on the mend. He told me he’s mixing a Mr. Burns album; he also said it won’t be heard on MySpace. “I don’t like their policies,” he said, referring to the social networking site’s willingness to allow pages from “artists” who are really fans. This situation is benign sometimes – Shana Morrisonwas “surprised” to find out she had a MySpace page neither she nor her management set up, but professed that it stayed up to date and was basically a good tool for her fans. Not so in Ezra’s case.

I was only able to stick around for Josh’s set, but I did see a Josh/Jesse duet that was pretty good. Josh is s very talented songwriter, and line from one of his songs sort of summed up the night for me:

“It’s winter then it’s spring and now it’s winter/there should be a name for the season in between”

That’s the way the weather is, and that’s the way Bellows Falls has been, never letting the twin devastation of a big venue’s closing and the fire at Oona’s kill their spirit. A mostly packed house helped celebrate the return of spring to one of the area’s vital musical homes.

Later, I headed back to Claremont to catch Al Alessi and Bill Wightman’s second set at Sophie & Zeke’s. Bill’s looking forward to the next JOSA show, and both he and Al are exicited about January 20 at the Newport Opera House. Though the show’s being advertised as the Al Alessi Band, it’s really a full-band version of what Al and Bill do the first Monday of every month in Claremont – a dip into the Great American Songbook with a healthy dose of jazz. It’s a huge hit at Sophie & Zeke’s, and I’m sure it will wow the crowd in Newport.

I wasn’t able to get to Bistro Nouveau for Jason Cann’s Saturday set, but I assure you that he was a crowd pleaser. I took some guests to the Shana Morrison show December 29; Jason opened, and at least two of the women there wanted more Jason. Mr. Cann’s original songs are quite good. “Inside Information,” in particular, is timely, topical and soulful. He also does some clever covers – he re-worked Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” in a different key with a slowed down tempo and exposed a part of the song I’d not seen before.

Jason plays open mike at the cramped and often indifferent Skunk Hollow every Wednesday, and most every Friday in Ascutney.

Speaking of Ascutney, the next big show there is the duo of Barry Goudreau (Boston) and James Montgomery. I hope they do it in a different room than the Crow’s Nest, which is IMHO unsuitable for concerts. Background music, maybe, but if you actually want to concentrate on the band, there’s nary a good vantage point anywhere.

I also heard a rumor that there may be an outdoor CSN show in the summer. We’ll wait and see on that one.