George Thorogood scampers on stage, throws up his hands, and declares, "How SWEET it is!" It's very sweet for the 2,000 fans who have come for the first of his two sold-out shows at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, the leading New Hampshire club that has been setting attendance records and expects to book more than 70 shows this year by luminaries from LeAnn Rimes and Gretchen Wilson to B.B. King and George Carlin.
"We're bringing big-city entertainment to the beach," says Andrew Herrick, a Casino Ballroom spokesman. "We're doing everything from classic rock to heavy metal," adds Bob Duteau, booking agent of the company Live Nation.
New Hampshire night life has been humming at the resort areas this year, whether it's in Hampton Beach, the Lakes Region (led by the 6,500-seat Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion by Lake Winnipesaukee), in the charming White Mountain village of North Conway, or historic Portsmouth.
The recent Thorogood show was a manic, beer-soaked evening that he referred to as his "Friday night jamboree and hootenanny." He and other artists love playing the room not just because of its intimacy, but because its old wooden walls offer better acoustics than the sterile concrete amphitheaters into which many acts are steered. My only complaint was that the crowd was squished into rows and rows of tables and chairs -- hey, a little legroom would have been nice. Otherwise, it's an excellent setting with a new sound and lighting system this year.
Up the street is a terrific spot called the Sea Ketch, consisting of three stories of open-air decks overlooking the ocean. It's mainly a restaurant, but there's a bar on each deck and the views are breathtaking. A solo singer-guitarist named Steve Tolley played on the second floor when I arrived -- and his array of classic-rock covers, including a great version of the Beatles' "Come Together," was beamed by closed-circuit TV to the upper deck as well. A nice touch.
My night life getaway also peaked at Meadowbrook in Gilford, which is unique compared with many cookie-cutter outdoor sites. "It's rustic," said a Boston fan who had driven the two hours north to catch grass-roots sensation O.A.R., which nearly filled the place with its reggae-influenced rock.
Meadowbrook has a high, barn-like roof and a casual feel spiced by a large, attached bar where patrons rev up as though at a Cape Cod happy hour. The whole atmosphere feels like a backyard party. And from the bar you can still see the bands, unlike many sheds where you have to walk a long distance to get a drink.
Many classic rock groups play Meadowbrook, including Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band nearly every year, according to R.J. Harding, general manager. "We've also done well with country," he adds, noting an appearance by Reba McEntire this summer and upcoming shows with Nashville stars Trace Adkins (tonight at 7) and Sugarland (Sept. 2).
Around the corner is Patrick's Pub & Eatery, a festive restaurant/bar with a glowing shamrock in the window and a mix of live music and comedy. Recently, comedian Rob Steen had an older, mostly married crowd in stitches, especially when he suggested to a front-table couple that had been wed for 31 years: "That's like a prison sentence!"
The town of Laconia is nearby, so I decided to check out a downtown spot called Goodfellas Tavern & Grill. It's a billiards/karaoke kind of place and an informal, middle-brow crowd listened closely to a man and woman duet on the Kid Rock/Sheryl Crow hit, "Picture." But that was also my cue to finally head off and get some sleep. I remained in the Lakes Region the next day and went to Weirs Beach. I fell into a bar called The Crazy Gringo on the waterfront by Lake Winnipesaukee -- and enjoyed its Southwestern flair and breezy atmosphere, highlighted by a sign over the bar that said "friends gather here." And within view is the bigger Weirs Beach Smokehouse, a concert club that features area acts like Hot Damn and Mama Kicks, along with Boston's roots-rocking Dave Sammarco Band.
The Smokehouse has a two-story hotel above it and used to be called the Eden Roc back when it had such guests as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, according to Dave Chase, general manager. The club has a roadhouse flavor and a great outdoor patio overlooking the beach and the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railway, though when the train goes by its whistle is loud enough to knock you off your chair.
There was an air of mourning there because co-manager Henry Mariani had just passed away from a heart attack at 41. The marquee out front said, "God bless Henry." But one senses that this place will bounce back. It's a must-see night-life destination in the Lakes Region.
Earlier in my trip I visited a couple of spots in picturesque North Conway. One was in the village center -- the delightful Horsefeathers, with a sign that broadcast its motto: "Sustenance, merriment and cheer." Located in an antique building, it's a multilevel bar (and restaurant) with a fireplace on the second floor, adjacent to a concert room that exudes character and has a Persian rug covering the stage floor. Toni Lynn Washington, Boston's great R&B singer, recently played there and it's an added paycheck for other Boston acts such as Three Day Threshold and the Chris Fitz Band.
Down the street is a friendly tavern/restaurant named the Up Country. Its sizable tavern doubles as a sports bar and has karaoke and DJ entertainment. But what stands out is the number of fire department hard hats and insignias on the walls, from all over New England. "I was the fire chief in town for 19 years," owner Wayne Derouin says with a smile.
No trip to New Hampshire vacation spots is complete without a visit to Portsmouth, one of my favorite cities. The night life is teeming at such places as the Muddy River Smokehouse (with live music in the basement) and The Press Room, featuring music seven nights a week -- from jazz acts early in the week, to a variety of bands on weekends, including the Boston-area Racky Thomas Band and Joe Barger & the Soul Providers. And they have an Irish session early Friday nights with the legendary Great Bay, whose members have played there for 23 years.
Portsmouth also has fine dockside bars such as the Old Ferry Landing and Poco's Bow Street Cantina, which overlook several tugboats in the harbor with a view of the highway bridge to Maine in the distance. And across the street is the Spring Hill Tavern, a small but lovely wooden bar with tasteful acoustic acts.
New Hampshire has so much night life; this is merely a sampler. Get up there and see for yourself.
Steve Morse, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.