What Once Was Meadowbrook

Live music is hardly a seasonal treat. Given the right stage and the right sound, it’s a treasure you can appreciate all year long. But there is something special about bringing music out-of-doors. I’m not only talking about full-on outdoor shows. Even a streetside busker with a guitar or a little Muzak piped through speakers into an outdoor corridor can create atmosphere.

It’s not a concert unless you’re somewhere near the lap of the artists, like we were for a Michael McDonald/Boz Scaggs show earlier this summer.

And that makes outdoor concerts that much more captivating.

I’ve only seen a couple bands both inside and outside. It’s hard and maybe unfair to say whether they were “better” inside or outside, but that’s not the point. An indoor concert, particularly in winter, is somewhere you show up, at a venue that was designed not for folks to mingle but for folks to get in, sit down, and use the facilities in an orderly fashion. An outdoor amphitheater, on the other hand, has much less urgency, probably because people aren’t shivering at the doors trying to get through security. People relax, they tailgate, they mingle, because for a few hours, they’re exactly where they want to be.

New Hampshire has a great outdoor venue that makes all of that possible. For a few years, I didn’t make any trips there and I missed it dearly. In that time, they undertook major renovations to upgrade the venue for larger crowds. Last year, I finally got to go back and see how little Meadowbrook had grown.

Years ago, this was the extent of the Pavilion’s covered seating. It’s come a long way.

Much to the consternation of corporate sponsors, that’s still what I call it, because the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion just doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way. (I suppose it’s the same way with the Whatever-Comcast-Calls-Itself-This-Year Center For The Performing Arts, which used to be simply “Great Woods” when my folks were growing up.)

Back in 1996, it simply used to be Meadowbrook Farm, an outdoor amphitheater on a family’s longtime summer estate in Gilford. Meadowbrook Farm was a seasonal venue to the degree that most of it was temporary; the stage could be taken away out of season and the 2500 seats were not bolted down either.

It was another few years before the popularity of the venue necessitated a more permanent approach. A permanent stage was a keystone of what had become the Meadowbrook Musical Arts Center. And in 2002, a pavilion roof was built over 3000 permanent seats, retaining the lawn behind the pavilion for additional general-admission seating for another 3000.

Over the next few years, the upgrades were incremental. A second stage was added on the grounds for local artists to perform before or after shows. Bars were established to refresh visitors, which led to a terrace with pub-table seating toward the rear of the pavilion. In 2007, when the pavilion sold off naming rights for the first time, the renamed Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion was awarded Venue Of The Year by the Academy of Country Music.

It’s cool to look back and see cell-phone flashes reaching way back up the hill behind you at an artist’s request.

The latest wave of renovations came through about four years ago. The pavilion roof was extended back over part of the lawn, and another 3000 permanent seats were installed, bringing the total capacity to just over 8000. To refresh concertgoers, the paved midway outside the pavilion was redesigned with new booths for food vendors and a massive restroom facility that dwarfed the old restroom by the stage. For years, the venue was only accessible by a two-lane driveway from Gilford’s lakeside summer resorts, weaving past winter boat storage. A new access road was carved in from Lily Pond Road, cutting through the hangars of Gilford’s airstrip and accessing the parking lots from the rear. Two new premium parking lots were paved to accommodate VIPs and the disabled (especially since some of the old VIP lot was used for the new restroom facility). New title sponsorship came in 2013 as well, with the venue being renamed the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion.

Little Meadowbrook was, indeed, all grown up.

The revised midway has more walking space, with food concessions and other vendors conveniently off to the sides.

With family and friends alike, I had seen some pretty phenomenal shows over the years at Meadowbrook, from Huey Lewis & The News to parody legend “Weird Al” Yankovic to a triple-bill featuring ‘70s rockers Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Ted Nugent. (I can’t count how many times we saw “Weird Al” there; Meadowbrook was almost always his New Hampshire destination when on tour.)

But in the wake of the upgrades, the renamed Pavilion was attracting artists that could fill those new seats. A lot of those artists were country performers, not exactly my first choice in music (but, admittedly, one best enjoyed in an open-air pavilion). For the first couple years, I missed going to the Pavilion because there were few artists on the schedule that caught my eye.

Then last year, “Weird Al” (whose last tours took him to some smaller NH venues like Keene’s Colonial Theatre) booked a show at Meadowbrook for the first time since 2012. Coupled with a show by Eagles founder and ‘80s solo artist Don Henley, I got to go to Meadowbrook twice after being absent for a couple years. And this year, spurred on by a couple more great shows, I got to go twice more.

The Pavilion or the Paradise Theatre? Styx argued for the latter.

I will openly admit that creature comforts aren’t a great concern for me; I go to a concert for the music, and everything else is just sort of “there.” But I appreciate that my companions, whether my wife or a friend or my father, might need to take advantage of those little luxuries. The new restrooms are a huge improvement over the old lines. The new refreshment options are convenient if you don’t have time to eat or drink before the show, and the prices aren’t out of sight by event standards. All parking is now paid parking, but the ingress and egress seem to be a little easier than they once were. The new seats seem like a great upgrade from lawn seating, though still too far from the stage for my liking.

The concert experience, from your seat to the stage, has not changed one bit. And that’s a great thing.

Don Felder and REO Speedwagon’s Dave Amato walk out onto a stage extension that was a promised feature of the pavilion updates.

My only gripe with the renovation is perhaps a bit specific. Before the pavilion was renovated, the best available handicapped-accessible (or “ADA,” in industry parlance) seats were to the left and right flanks of the stage, offering a rather wide-out view. The renovation added ADA seating, but all to the rear of the old pavilion, also cutting out the left-flank seats. A few seats a bit closer to the front and closer to stage-center would have been a nice touch, but at least there’s always stage-right.

By any name, we’re fortunate to have one of the region’s premier outdoor concert venues only an hour north of Manchester. And while I’m not sure I’ll ever accept “how are ya, Gilford?” as a rallying cry after the opening song, I’ll welcome any artist that wants to make a stop at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion.

Even the country artists.

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