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Tupelo Honey 

Checking in with Vermont’s newest music hall

click to enlarge Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams at Tupelo
  • Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams at Tupelo

As the owner of Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry, N.H., Scott Hayward has spent the last six years figuring out what makes a good concert, for both listeners and performers. Now, with the recent opening of a new Tupelo in White River Junction, music fans on the other side of the river can benefit from his experience and vision. Steps away from the Center for Cartoon Studies and Northern Stage theater company, the new club promises to boost the town’s increasingly flourishing arts scene.

Tupelo Music Hall is located in the former Boston & Maine Railroad Depot, a 1930 structure recovered and repurposed by Mike Davidson of Home Partners. Never intending it to be a date-night destination for the Hanover and Woodstock crowds, Davidson bought, renovated and subdivided the space into smaller offices a few years back. After Elixir restaurant relocated to the former depot building early last year, Hayward saw its potential. Now, Tupelo occupies roughly half of the massive building, and Elixir most of the rest. Outside one long brick side of the building, freight trains still roll by on occasion.

“Spare no expense” is a rarely uttered phrase in 2010. But that dictate led to Hayward’s success with his first establishment and is evident in the sequel. The lobby is simple: a coat check, a will-call location and a bar for nonalcoholic drink service — provided by Elixir. Inside, the original one-inch rock maple floorboards have been varnished but not sanded, and thus retain some excellent, artistic scarring that pays tribute to the building’s previous use decades ago. Just inside the theater and to the left, the ear-level sound booth is enclosed by a half wall along the back edge of the hall.

The stage, a waist-high, carpeted expanse about the size of a two-car garage, is just 50 feet from the front door. Two columns of speakers hang from either side, supported by a subwoofer built into the base of the stage. The lighting is simple and efficient. Overhead, the slope of the ceiling and the dramatic arc of massive girders make for an interestingly assymetrical room, with the roof higher on one side. Sound-absorbing material is strategically placed between the girders, and all other flat, reflective surfaces bear panels of a different studio foam. Hayward invested in full consultation with Auralex Acoustics, the folks responsible for much recording-studio soundproofing. New black curtains adorn every original, steel-frame window.

It’s easy to see Tupelo Music Hall not only as a performance venue but a hi-fi listening room. What wouldn’t sound good in here? Actually, the club — with a maximum capacity of 250 — can employ a variety of seating arrangements suitable to the show: general admission for stand-up-and-dance bands, fixed theater seating for songwriters and folkies, and round tables for cabaret and comedy acts.

Tupelo manager Doug Phoenix smiles as he shows off state-of-the art sound gadgetry. As the former production manager of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College, he brings more than 20 years’ experience to Tupelo and has a cool demeanor to match. For him the club is “a welcome change,” Phoenix says.

Tupelo’s green room is fully equipped with dressing rooms, laundry facilities and a kitchen — though Elixir will provide food for performers. Nodding at a partition with nearly ceiling-high shelves, Phoenix explains simply, “grand-piano storage.” With piano giant George Winston on tap for mid-December, securing a 1906 Steinway Model A was a top priority.

Winston is just one of many notable acts slated for the club’s inaugural run. The lineup includes boomer legends (Dave Mason, Judy Collins, John Sebastian); singer-songwriters (Martin Sexton, Dar Williams, Steve Forbert); ace blues men (Jesse Colin Young, Johnny Winter, Savoy Brown, David Bromberg); and younger bands out to represent, and define, their genres (Glengarry Bhoys, Ryan Montbleau Band, Carbon Leaf, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers).

“We’re not shitting around,” says Hayward of his goal to bring music for the “serious listener” to the Upper Valley.

He expects clientele who are serious enough about music to be trusted. Hayward says his club will be all ages, all the time. “It’s up to parents to decide what is appropriate for their children to see,” he suggests. And to be successful, that trust must be reciprocal. Respect for the needs of his audience is a critical lesson Hayward learned at his New Hampshire hall.

That trust in patrons may be best reflected by Tupelo’s BYOB policy. For a $3 fee to cover insurance and glasses, patrons can bring their own beer or wine. An obvious question comes to mind: Why won’t this run amok?

“The crowd is self-policing,” Phoenix explains. While a few revelers may turn out for certain shows, TMH’s lineup generally targets a mellow and respectful crowd.

If heaven were a building, the rejuvenated former Boston & Maine Depot could serve as a model: a space created for industry and repurposed for pleasure and relaxation, with excellent digital sound, chill lights, a Steinway and, next door, good food and Vermont brews on tap. And if everyone who appears on stage is a master of their musical craft, the Tupelo Music Hall should do just fine.

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