What: Mole Hill Theatre
Where: 789 Gilsum Mine Road, East Alstead, NH
When: Fridays & Saturdays
Why it’s neat-o: The Mole Hill Theatre is both a performance space for music and theater, and a fully functioning tool and die shop. The combination of art (performing and visual; you’ll see some super cool paintings and collages as you wander around) and working, practical, industrial-strength machinery makes this space the most unique and comfortable that I’ve been to; I think it’s the complete lack of pretention and attitude of both the space and its hosts, Dennis and Jackie, that make me miss the Mole Hill when I haven’t been there in a while. Plus, it’s just a fun place to hang out, and affordable too. It can also be rented for weddings (we went to a wedding here one July, and it was gorgeous, personal, and really fun), birthdays, and holiday parties.
It’s BYOB, so no inflated prices for beer (or whatever liquid refreshment you’re into), and often there is a potluck dinner, where guests bring whatever they feel like whipping up. They even have a full, spacious kitchen with a sink and refrigerator that guests can use for potlucks & private events for some last-minute prep work and clean-up. It’s kind of like a house concert where someone else hosts.
I haven’t been to a play at the Mole Hill, but have seen plenty of bands there, the styles of which range from quieter folk/Americana to fully electrified rock bands, and everywhere in between.
As a sometimes-performer in a couple of bands, my eyes light up when an opportunity to play here comes up. Dennis and Jackie have moved things around over the years, and made upgrades such as adding restrooms (there used to be just one when they started out – now the performers even have their own designated restroom!), and expanding the open area on the stage (very nice when performing with our 6-piece band). Performers can set up the stage exactly as we want it, and can use the house PA system or bring our own. There is a Green Room for performers to leave their things, practice up beforehand, and just lounge around comfortably in peace & quiet; this room has so many cool details that I spot something new every time I’m in there.
There are two distinct levels for audience members, so people who’d rather focus on the performance, and/or dance, can be in one section, and people who would rather chat and wander can be in the upper section, while still having a good view of the stage. All around the perimeter of the lower level are string lights, giving everything a warm, cozy glow that everyone looks pretty awesome in.
The grounds that surround it are idyllic New England countryside, particularly in the bloom of summer. Cows graze in an open field across from the venue, and everywhere you look is green. When it gets hot inside on a jumpin’ night there, people wander outside for some fresh air and fantastic stargazing.
I tried to capture some of the magic of this place in pictures at various times over the years; here is a mini-tour (click on an image to view it full size; hit your browser’s Back button to return to this page):
I’d encourage any national acts passing through the area to set up a show at Mole Hill; it will be an evening you will not forget. If you do, tell Dennis that Neat-o.com sent you, and I’d be happy to help publicize your event locally in any way I can.
For more information, visit the Mole Hill Theatre’s facebook page, or call (603) 352-2585.
What: Joe Val Bluegrass Festival
Where: Framingham, MA
When: February, the weekend before President’s Day (this year it’s February 13-15)
Why it’s neat-o: This is a real deal, bonafide bluegrass festival – what makes it different is that it’s all indoors. From the moment you arrive, and see the brick turrets, ‘70s-colored, Swiss chalet-esque siding, and crowds of people toting at least one instrument each, it’s obvious that you’re entering a different world for a couple of days.
Upon entering the large, open lobby, there are groups of pickers (people who play bluegrass music) and spectators scattered throughout, and just about everyone is smiling. There is also 24-hour picking allowed on the first two floors of the hotel, so you can’t go far without running into live music.
If you prefer to watch professionals perform, you can head to the main stage; there’s typically someone performing until 10pm on Friday and Saturday (Sunday performances wrap up earlier, but the first two floors are still picker-friendly ‘til Monday morning). Joe Val has some of the biggest names in bluegrass every year, and it’s a real treat to be able to just toddle on downstairs and watch some of the greats. After a performance, you can usually meet them at their merchandise tables right outside the performance space. I think that is one of the coolest things about Joe Val, and bluegrass festivals in general – there is very little separation between performers and audience, which makes for a real friendly atmosphere, where you might just meet one of your idols!
If you’re interested in smaller acts, and a more intimate space, every one of the bands performing at the showcase stage would be thrilled to see you. This is where the up-and-comers show what they’ve got, and hope to get noticed, although some pretty big names have performed on this stage too, at various points in their careers. It’s a great way to discover your new favorite band.
There are also workshops happening on the ground floor throughout the festival; if you’re looking to learn a new instrument, hone your skills, or get a peek into how performers do some of the stuff they do, these are an amazing bonus feature. There are a variety of levels and topics, so there is truly something for everyone.
Vendors are also located on the ground floor, so if you happen to be in the market for an instrument, it’s a great place to check out. I can personally vouch for Born Again Basses out of Haverhill, MA; I bought my first upright bass from him, and it was in great shape and very fairly priced. He has been at Joe Val every year that I’ve been, so be sure to check out his beautiful, refurbished basses.
At the heart of this festival, though, is the hotel pickin’. Whether or not you play anything, it is so much fun to wander the halls and hear what people are playing. There are some downright incredible players here, and you never know when you might come across a jam session happening in one of their rooms, or by an elevator. The professionals playing the main stage often wander the halls, too, and if they hear something they like, they will join in if they have time. As long as you don’t mind a little debauchery, late-night wanderings are especially fun!
If you’re stuck inside for the New England winter, this is such a wonderful escape from the ice and howling winds outside; it’s truly a little slice of summertime, but with your very own private shower.
For more information, visit the official Joe Val Bluegrass Festival website.
I purchased the neat-o.com domain back in the late ’90s, and boy howdy, has it seen a lot of changes. With the start of 2015, I see that it’s a great place to write about some of the neat(-o) things I’ve done, people I’ve met, music I’ve heard, and other miscellany that I like.
My hope is that anyone who swings by will discover something new, or maybe start thinking about something not-new in a new way.