During an encore performance at Jimmy’s Jazz and Blues Club in Portsmouth on a recent rainy evening, The Blind Boys of Alabama ripped through a funky, blues-drenched cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Audience members clapped along, some raising their hands in a welcoming gesture, soaking up the positivity and energy exuded by the five-man powerhouse band.
The Blind Boys, a gospel act that’s been going strong for generations, reimagined Wonder’s song — which touches on themes of rebirth and reincarnation — to create a soulful, electrified celebration.
Jimmy’s is one of several new, smaller-sized venues across the state. Longstanding New Hampshire clubs like The Music Hall in Portsmouth, Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, The Flying Monkey in Plymouth, and others are facing some friendly competition from clubs like The Rex Theatre in Manchester, the Bank of New Hampshire Stage in Concord, the Nashua Center for the Arts and the Colonial Theatre of Laconia.
Capitol Center for the Arts Executive Director Sal Prizio, who leads the CCA staff and is in charge of programming and outreach for the Bank of New Hampshire Stage, isn’t worried about the new options for entertainment lovers.
“There’s something to be said for having a healthy music scene throughout the entire state, so I don’t view any of it as competition,” Prizio says. “I think it’s nice to have more grains of sand in the sandbox for all of us to play in.”
These venues, some with in-house dining options, some housed in lovingly refinished historic buildings, are infusing glitz and glamour into New Hampshire’s live arts scene.
Jimmy’s Jazz and Blues Club, a renovated 1905-era multi-story site at the former YMCA building, has stained glass windows and a 22-foot ceiling. When renovation began in 2018, developer Mike Labrie called the site “a treasure that needed to be saved.”
Meanwhile, the Nashua Center for the Arts, which opened in April, sports a modern design and can seat up to 750 people. Extra seating can be expanded to fit about 1,000.
The Rex in Manchester, part of the Palace Theatre family, is a flexible 300-seat venue. The venue was born as a printing press, then became a movie theater and, later, a series of nightclubs. In 2016, the Palace Theatre Trust partnered with the Manchester Development Corporation to reinvigorate the site. The Rex opened in October 2019, on the eve of COVID. Now back in full force, The Rex hosts comedy acts and rock bands.
After a multi-year renovation, the Colonial Theatre in Laconia reopened in 2021 and seats 761. The Colonial has hosted local and national musicians like Lori McKenna, Brandy Clark and Amy Grant; comedy acts like local success story Jimmy Dunn; holiday performances and tribute acts.
To book artists, the Colonial works with Spectacle Live, a booking and management organization based in
Massachusetts that also manages the Nashua Center for the Arts and several venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The Bank of New Hampshire Stage underwent its own revamping, reopening in fall 2021. A cozy 296-person facility, the venue has hosted acts like Tom Rush, Cozy Throne, Adam Ezra, Long Autumn, Muddy Ruckus and April Cushman.
These new venues also bring a broader diversity of acts to the state, and flexibility for those who love live entertainment. For example, if you can’t see your favorite act in December at The Rex, then maybe you’ll catch them in March at the Colonial in Laconia.
So many places to play
These additional opportunities also pose questions for local artists, like comedian Juston McKinney, who has performed at the Portsmouth Music Hall, Rochester Opera House, and the Capitol Center for the Arts, among other venues.
McKinney, who lives in Newmarket, has to strategize when booking shows due to “radius clauses” — noncompete agreements enacted by clubs that effectively prevents an artist from performing at another site within a specific radius and time frame.
This raises the possibility that the performer may lose revenue or exposure, the comedian says.
“I don’t want to hurt myself either. And I don’t want to hurt ticket sales at one venue,” McKinney says.
So he’ll space out his appearances to maximize impact.
“They got to be a certain distance away. The Capital Center I do in March, and the Palace I do in October. That way, I’m splitting the year with those two venues because they’re not that far from each other,” McKinney says.
Regardless, McKinney likes that venue owners are raising the bar. He’s looking forward to his debut performance at the Nashua Center for the Arts this December.
“If you’re an artist that wasn’t working in that market, and a new venue comes in, it’s a benefit. But if you’re an artist that’s already working at a venue and another venue comes in, it’s just more competition,” McKinney says.
John McArthur is co-founder of NH Music Collective, a Gilford booking agency that works with local artists to book shows at breweries, wineries and other intimate club venues. But he also works with local performers to see who might be a good fit to open for more recognized acts.
New Hampshire is a great environment for up-and-coming local artists hunting for an available stage, he says.
“New Hampshire is really easy to work in. It’s great,” McArthur says. “There’s lots of work for artists. We’ve got some performers that are working six days a week.”
McArthur says while some artists, like local April Cushman, sometimes find
additional opportunities in larger markets like Nashville, they’ll still call New Hampshire home.
“We have so many artists that go down to Nashville for some record industry networking or songwriter networking opportunities, but they come up here to make a living,” McArthur says.
The Music Collective supported more than 1,300 events last year and expects to exceed that number this year.
“The ones who want this as a career, we try to give them as much work as we possibly can, while making sure that we match the style of music and the type of performer that they are, with what the venue is looking for,” McArthur says.
Prizio says The Bank of New Hampshire Stage is still carving out its niche and
hopes to tweak the venue’s fame as a “name-driven” club.
“We had (spoken-word artist) Henry Rollins in that space, and it sold out, no problem. Other nights, you might have 50 some-odd people in the room,” Prizio says. He remains confident he’ll find his audience.
“But that’s incumbent upon us to continue to build that brand, so that people can trust and rely on the quality of programming we put in there, so that they can just take a chance on a random thing they don’t know yet,” Prizio says.
Prizio can see the issue from both sides. While with a power-pop band in the early 2000s, Prizio toured small, yet prestigious Boston clubs like the Middle East, TT The Bears Place and The Rat.
Back then, Prizio did all the band’s booking and remembers “a lot of rejection.”
“I’d call every club until one gave us a Tuesday night to go play for beer and tips,” Prizio remembers.
Tupelo Music Hall owner Scott Hayward says Tupelo focuses on hosting more national acts in an intimate space.
“Artists like Toto, Pat Benatar, Melissa Etheridge, Peter Frampton, Chris Isaak, Lyle Lovett and others typically don’t play venues under 700 seats,” Hayward says. “The intimacy that is achieved by them playing to a smaller audience can be really memorable.”
He explains that the existence of new venues can be a “double-edged sword.” While it can present New Hampshire as a viable place to play, that doesn’t always mean diverse bands are making it here.
“The new PAC’s (performing arts centers) are simply competing for the same shows that were already going to the state,” he says.
Hayward gave the example of a new movie theater opening near another one; if one shows offbeat films for a niche audience, everyone wins.
“There isn’t a benefit if both theaters are playing the same movies. There is a benefit, however, if one of the theaters specializes in first-run indie films,” Hayward says.
While venues aim to avoid “doubling up” when booking acts, Hayward says the artists’ agents are in control of the booking.
“Venues don’t really coordinate with each other regarding bookings, although they should. It’s the agent’s job to make sure contractual distances are maintained to avoid overplaying an artist in an area,” Hayward says.
Prizio says venues just need to communicate with one another to coordinate booking.
“I think you have to keep the lines of communication open with all of your fellow club owners or talent buyers in the area. It’s just a matter of making sure that we don’t step on each other’s toes,” Prizio says.
He says good communication is simply a “a common courtesy” and a best practice when coexisting with other club owners and booking agents.
“We’ll talk to places like the Music Hall in Portsmouth. We’ll talk to Tupelo Music Hall. We’ll talk to our friends. I’ll even talk to the folks over at Spectacle Live for their venues down in Nashua and up in Laconia, as well. I have a good relationship with Peter down at the Palace in Manchester who has his venue, the Rex, which is the exact same size as ours. So we coexist. It works fine.”
Regardless, everyone has their own business to consider.
“Some of it is professional courtesy. And some of it is strategic, and some of it is, ‘all right, how do you, as a venue, carve out your own niche within all this?’ ”
Prizio points to the Word Barn in Exeter, an intimate venue that hosts bands, speaking events and workshops.
“They have such a distinct, unique identity there that none of the rest of us have. That’s one of the important things, I think, is to create that forward-facing, unique identity,” Prizio says.
With a lifetime of entertaining crowds under his belt, Tom Rush says connecting with his audience is paramount.
“The audience doesn’t want perfection, they want connection. They want to feel they understand what you’re singing about.”
Rush, a Portsmouth native who first came to national prominence during the ‘60s folk scene, missed that connection. To continue playing during the pandemic, Rush began offering private, outdoor shows, a practice he continues today.
“It was hard to get people to come out to a concert. We got to get them back in the habit,” he says.
Rush is confident things are on the upswing.
“The trend seems to be getting better and better.”
Other NH Music Venues to Check Out:
Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion
72 Meadowbrook Lane, Gilford
The Word Barn
66 Newfields Road, Exeter
The Music Hall Lounge
131 Congress St., Portsmouth
The Casino Ballroom
169 Ocean Blvd., Hampton
48 Emerald St, Keene
Flying Goose Brew Pub
40 Andover Road, New London
The Shaskeen Pub
909 Elm St., Manchester
The Flying Monkey
39 Main St., Plymouth
The Stone Church Music Club
5 Granite St., Newmarket
The Press Room
77 Daniel St., Portsmouth