June 19, 2008

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Stone Church needs sanctuary
Falling profits threaten music venue
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

Dave Gerard started playing at the Stone Church Music Club in Newmarket when he was in his teens as a student at the University of New Hampshire. He’d show up there for open mikes and play. Since 1986, he’s played regularly at the Church with the band Truffle.

“The greatest thing about it is the vibe,” he said. “It’s a very special type of music room that there isn’t many left of.”

The future of the Church is in doubt, as the owners feel the pinch of consumers’ spending less in an uncertain economy coupled with a large debt they took on when they bought the Church in 2003 and made extensive renovations. It’s been a struggle since they opened the doors, said Paul Nessel, one of the three owners of the building, along with John Pasquale and Chris Hilsop.

“It’s never been a time that it’s been, ‘We’re rolling in it and we’re kicking ass,’” Nessel said. About three months out of the past four years, Nessel estimates, they’ve done well. The losses are adding up.

“We’ve got to come out and say it’s a struggle,” Nessel said.

If it weren’t for the renovations, the situation would probably be less dire.

“We got caught up in the emotion of saving the Stone Church,” he said. Now they’re hoping others will help in saving the 19th-century church that became a music venue in the 1960s. Since then, it has become one of the main venues for original music in the state. Many weeks, there are five nights of music at the Church, though that will dwindle during the summer months as the students from UNH in the next town over are gone for the summer. Nessel and company are now only booking shows they know will do well, Nessel said.

“You want to be good and positive and put on good shows,” Nessel said. “It’s tough. The climate’s tough.”

Having good Boston sports teams hasn’t helped the venue that has no television and purely focuses on music.

“The Pats and the Sox have been killing us for years, and now the Celtics are getting in on the action too,” Nessel said.

Since the Stone Church opened in the 1960s, many national acts have played there, like Bonnie Raitt, Parliament, Patty Larkin, David Grisman, Bela Fleck, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Wilders.

This Saturday, June 21, there will be a benefit concert for the Stone Church from 2 p.m. to close, featuring Dave Gerard and Truffle, Elsa Cross and Her Band, Daniella Cotton, Ed Gerhard, Chris O’Neill, The Ride and the Nate Wilson Group.

“It’s a true treasure. Why it’s not packed every night is a mystery to me,” Gerard said. “People need to go to shows and go and eat there once in a while.”

Nessel was computer consultant in Portland, Maine. His first show at the Stone Church was in 2001 when he saw the Seth Yacovone Band. He saw many music venues close down, so he finally got into the music business with the other two to save the Church. Initially, they floated the idea of making the place a nonprofit, but they were unable to entice other people to get on board. Now, with a better atmosphere in the building, they hope that more people will want to help make a nonprofit a reality, or have additional investors help out the three struggling owners.

“We have to make some profit,” Nessel said. “We spent so much to restore the building ... we have to kick ass all the time.”


Save the Stone Church
When: Saturday, June 22, 2 p.m. to close.
Where: 5 Granite St., Newmarket
How much: $20 advance, $25 day of the show. 659-6321, thestonechurch.com.