The Difference

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On August 9 I wrote about my wife's and my experience at the Meadowbrook concert venue in Gilford, New Hampshire. The Nanny State atmosphere robbed what should have been a fun and enjoyable evening of much of its luster.

A similar experience awaited us a few days later, at the Redhook Brewery in Portsmouth, when we saw Robert Randolph and the Family Band, a funk-rock jam band often seen opening up for the Dave Mathews Band, play to an audience of about 1,000. Though a better experience by comparison — we were at least allowed to carry our beers around the grounds with us — the large, and, I should add, unnecessary police presence again created that environment of authority and watchfulness typical of a public school cafeteria.

Both events, however, stand in stark contrast to our experience last Saturday night at the Stone Church in Newmarket, New Hampshire. Standing atop a steep hill and overlooking this lovely New England village, the Stone Church, a circa 1832 former Universalist Meeting House built on land donated by the Newmarket Manufacturing Company, has all the charm one would expect from a wonderfully preserved historical structure serving spiritual and other enlightening pursuits for over a hundred and seventy years. We were there to see another of our favorites, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a New Orleans-funk-jam band, an eight-man tour de force of trombone, sousaphone, trumpet and flugelhorn, electric guitar, drums, tenor sax, baritone and soprano sax, trumpet and vocals, that fairly blows the doors off of every place they play.

While the band certainly makes the scene, it's impossible to disconnect the pleasure of this occasion from the place where it happened. With a maximum capacity of just 200, the Stone Church provides an incredibly intimate setting for listening and dancing to good music. Entering through a big wooden door and vestibule, the large, open room holds a long bar to your left and a scattering of tables around the floor and bar stools along the walls to your front and right. The tables go right up to the stage at the far end of the room, leaving only about ten square feet of space for an unofficial "dance floor" — a space that quickly expands to accommodate a steadily growing number of people on their feet as the music gets going.

The staff Saturday night was just two bartenders and a waitress, friendly, efficient, and competent enough to easily serve the small crowd. The food is very good American-café-style stuff, and reasonably priced. The beer selection is great; macro-brews like Sam Adams are side by side on the row of taps with regional brews from the Smuttynose Brewery in Portsmouth, Shipyard Brewery in Portland, Maine, and a smooth and tasty microbrew called Rogue Ale from Oregon.

As the small room began to heat up, the staff put out several large coolers of ice water and plastic cups for patrons to help themselves. Nobody cared if we took our beers into the small but wildly dancing crowd in front of the band. Nobody checked my I.D. when I ordered a drink. There isn't any silly "No Re-entry" rule at the Stone Church, though they did check my ticket at the door — but only once, despite the fact that I came in and out several times over the course of the evening. It is a smoke free building, at the insistence and preference of the business-owner — a preference usurped by our newly elected Democratic legislature, whose smoking ban goes into effect in the middle of this month.

All in all, the Stone Church gives a little truth to the First Amendment's promise that government "shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble." While all around us statists draw the noose ever tighter, this church-turned-music hall provides a tiny sanctuary of peaceful, responsible association without a lurking police presence to remind us that freedom is largely becoming an illusion.

Sitting at the bar before the show started, I struck up a conversation with one of the bartenders about beer, which soon turned to the topic of good music and bad concert venues. Telling him briefly of my experience at Meadowbrook, he said, "Everyone's terrified about loosing their liquor license."

(And with good reason: the September 2 New Hampshire Union Leader reported that the Aborigen Restaurant & Bar in Manchester had its liquor license "immediately suspended" because of a shooting outside the bar in the early hours of this morning. The fight started initially inside the bar, "was broken up, and then a subsequent fight broke out and went out the back door. And then shortly thereafter, some shots are fired," is how Detective Bill Davies explained it to the paper. Patrons act stupid and the business-owner is punished. In the upside down world of the Nanny State's definition of personal responsibility, that's how it goes.)

"So how do you guys handle underage drinkers," I asked him.

"We use common sense," he said. "If we're going to be full to capacity, we check ID at the door and don't let the underage people in. But if it's a small crowd, we check ID if someone looks underage. Maybe we'll mark their hand with some kind of identifier, and we try to move around in the crowd to make sure kids aren't drinking."

"We check ID if someone looks underage." Like at liquor stores and supermarkets, I thought. And that seems to be working out okay. "Sounds pretty libertarian to me," I said, "unlike at the big venues, where cops are everywhere standing around like thugs."

"There's a difference between doing your job and being an asshole," he said.

"Right," I replied. "I like the idea of security being there to make sure no one hurts anyone else, but there's a big difference between keeping the peace — "

" — and actually causing the problems," he finished the sentence for me.

When we left that night I carried a cup of water out the door with me. Everywhere else I've been you wouldn't be allowed to do that. We took a midnight stroll around Newmarket before driving home to relieve the babysitter. As we walked up Main Street to our car a police cruiser rolled by, slowing down to eyeball me — no doubt hoping I was carrying a cup of beer so that he could harass me for drinking in public.

If you want to be treated like a kid, eat bad, overpriced food, and generally feel like you’re in school again, go to the big music venues for your fun. But if you're in New Hampshire and want good beer, good atmosphere, good music, good food, and good company, I highly recommend a visit to the Stone Church. Especially if the boys from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band are in town.

September 3, 2007