Earlier this year, five of my friends and I chipped in on concert tickets to see a band we’d been hoping to see for a few years. We might have gathered more if the tickets had been a bit less expensive. I was looking forward to the late-June show for two reasons. One, it would introduce us properly to a band we had only recently learned to appreciate. And two, it would give me a chance to experience the new Tupelo Music Hall.
I mentioned Tupelo last year in a rambling look at live music venues across the state. For years, the Tupelo Music Hall called Londonderry home. Situated off Route 102 in an old barn, Tupelo was reputed to be the place to see a show. The floor-level stage opened to a room of tables and chairs where guests were gathered like old friends to sit in and watch a show in their living room. Tupelo was never out to capture the most popular touring acts; most would hardly fit in the parking lot, never mind the venue. Instead, Tupelo’s management sought artists who were best enjoyed in an “intimate” setting. Artists on the venue’s upcoming schedule run the gamut of genres, from singer-songwriters like Don McLean and Anna Nalick to rock-radio staples like The Fixx and 10,000 Maniacs to bass virtuoso Stanley Clarke.
My first visit to Tupelo was with a friend to see a local folk-rock act about six years ago. The show was one of the first where the tables were replaced with rows of chairs to fit a larger crowd. The then-new “stadium seating” approach worked well for a number of acts, and was in place when I went to the venue for the second time, this time to see 1980’s hard-rock pioneers Living Colour. Even with rows and rows of chairs, the sense of intimacy was preserved, with room for about 240 audience members at most.
That’s not to say Tupelo was without its faults. Most were relative to the venue’s small scale; parking was scarce and usually involved occupying the front lawn by the barn. There were few luxuries for the visiting performers and fans alike, including the lack of air conditioning. About a year ago, venue owner Scott Hayward set the wheels in motion to move to a larger location in Derry, somewhere where the few wrongs could be righted.
The new Tupelo Music Hall opened its doors in March of this year. The new building was formerly a health club, and the brick exterior is far more office-park and far less rustic than the old hall. Inside the glass doors is a sleek, modern lobby, with vendor space for visiting artists to sell merchandise, a food counter and a full bar, and new restrooms. A backlit script above the bar echoes the Music Hall’s mantra: “It’s All About The Music.” Beyond a wall of tinted glass awaits the all-new performance hall, where that mantra becomes reality.
The new performance hall is roughly twice the size of the old one, large enough to seat just under five hundred patrons. At the front of the room, the stage sits just a few feet above the lowest level of seats, just high enough to be seen from the back of the room. The lower level steps up to the main floor, and a waist-high counter encircles the lower level to create a sort of pit in front of the stage. The only permanent seats rise up against the back wall to create a sort of mezzanine. The rest of the room is as malleable as the old hall; seats can be laid out in rows or arranged around pub tables, depending on the performance.
The performance hall has the same modern aesthetic as the lobby. It looks more like a movie theater and less like an historic ballroom or a converted barn. A bar nestled behind a window keeps patrons from returning to the lobby during a show for another beer. The counter around the lower level is just high enough that patrons in wheelchairs need not worry about losing their sightline to the stage. Even at my height, I could see everything in front of us. And, as promised, the performance hall is now air-conditioned.
But for all the creature comforts, is it really, as the script above the bar claims, all about the music? I was convinced. It’s easy for music to overwhelm a small space or to underwhelm any space. On this night, with this band, we could hear and feel everything exactly as you would want to. Some of that is a credit to the sound engineers, some is a credit to the band’s own roadies. But however the sound gets to the speakers, it then has to be treated with care as it fills a room, and the new Music Hall is no echo chamber. It delivers as promised.
And while our experience was in a layout well-suited for the seven-piece rock band, Tupelo can cater to that independent singer-songwriter just as well. I’ll have to take in such a show. It’s only fair to make an educated comparison, after all.
It can’t hurt that the band we saw at Tupelo was of legendary stature. Rocking the tiny venue that night was Toto, a band known mostly for singalong favorite “Africa.” (For a laugh, we exited the hall to a light drizzle…bless the rains, indeed.) Toto has plenty of other hits under their own name. But beyond that, the band and its musicians have had a guiding influence on popular music, writing and performing songs for artists like Elton John, Cher, Michael Jackson…the list goes on and on. We were in the presence of greatness. Toto has not toured much recently, so this might have been our last chance.
Given the opportunity, we’ll go again.
And that leads me to a sort of plea.
Our favorite musicians aren’t getting any younger. If, like me, your favorite bands overlap the bands your parents raised you on, chances are those artists are well into their sixties, if not creeping into their early seventies. If you’re lucky, they’re still touring for love of the craft (or, in some cases, love of the dollar).
If this describes one of your favorite musicians or bands, and there’s a show coming up, go. Find a venue that’s close or one that’s a couple hours away. Find a friend or find someone who needs to receive the gift of live music. Just go.
You don’t want to regret next year that you didn’t see them perform this year.