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Published: 2010/05/31
by Brian Robbins

Featured Column: See You In The Balcony

From Jambands.com News 5/27/10:

Portland, ME’s The State Theatre to Reopen

The Bowery Presents and concert promoter Alex Crothers will reopen Portland, ME’s State Theatre. The historic theater closed in 2006 after undergoing a number of renovations over the years. Crothers and The Bowery Presents will remodel the theater and reopen it for approximately 80 shows a year.

The Bowery Presents currently books or co-books New York venues such as Mercury Lounge, Bowery Ballroom, Terminal 5, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bowl and Webster Hall, among others. The company recently expanded to present shows in New Jersey, Boston and upstate New York, as well as larger venues throughout New York City. Crothers is a co-owner of South Burlington, VT’s Higher Ground and produces other events throughout New England, including Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival. Both promoters have roots in the Phish and jamband worlds but have helped launch a new generation of indie bands.

“Until Alex brought us this opportunity, we hadn’t envisioned expanding into Maine,” The Bowery Presents’ Jim Glancy said in a statement. “But once we visited Portland and toured the State Theatre, we fell in love with the City and saw the potential in the theatre that will appeal to Portland’s creative community.”

The 2,000-plus person venue has hosted Bob Dylan, Wilco, Modest Mouse, Gillian Welch, David Byrne, Interpol, Snoop Dogg, Ray LaMontagne, Sonic Youth, and John Hiatt.

… And let’s not forget Guster, Los Lobos, The Black Crowes, Govt Mule, George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic, Keller Williams, Assembly of Dust, Bo Diddley, or RatDog, either. Or any of the other fine folks who graced the stage of the former porn theater during its years as a jam-friendly concert venue (1994-2006).

Sure, towards the end, you really, really thought about it before you ventured down into the murky, weird-smelling bowels of the State to hit the men’s room – but I never knew of anyone that fell through the staircase or had a chunk of the ceiling crash down on them while they were navigating the stalls, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

And, yeah, the balcony had a habit of picking up the rhythm of the band on the hotter numbers, bucking and undulating in a manner that both accentuated the musical experience and frightened the feint of heart.

But it was worth it.

If it was a dancing kind of night, the pit down on the main floor was the place to be. But if you were looking for a sit-down-and-sop-up-the-tunes-while-watching-the-roadies-juggle-hot-blown-tubes-between-songs sort of experience, then the front row of the balcony was perfect. Tigger and I are suckers for the visuals at a show: the “Woah – that was close,” looks exchanged between bassist and drummer; the blissful grin of the keyboardist caught up in the groove; the 1000-mile gaze of the guitarist who’s totally at the mercy of the muse. The front row of the State put you above all the happy wildness of the pit, but not too far up – the sound was good and you were still looking the band pretty much in the eye. (Although, for the record, I was sitting in the balcony at the State the night I was first made aware of Bob Weir’s thin spot on top.)

Our last visits to the State were a nice little run of shows in late 2005: Derek Trucks and the band on 11/16 (at one point I locked eyes with Count M’Butu and took two psychic steps sideways); Susan Tedeschi blew some of the gilt off the flaking ceiling on 10/29; and maybe our favorite State show of all time – String Cheese on 10/7/05. From the warm-and-perfect-October-evening sidewalk scene out front as we waited for the doors to open to the Cheese’s encore (“Jellyfish” > a suitably-goofy version of “The Joker”), it was a night of nothing but good vibes.

The fact of the matter was, we didn’t know who Chris Berry was prior to that show; by the time Berry and his band Panjea left the stage, their world soul music had picked us up, spun us around, and plunked us back down in our creaky seats, grinning like fools. The old balcony hummed and throbbed like the soundbox on Berry’s mbiri … we were goners.

The Cheese not only kept the groove going, they nurtured it, shone their light on it, and allowed the thing to blossom. When the first set concluded with the whole house singing “_Way Back Home!_”, we all wondered how it could get any better; when the second set began with Berry and his thumb piano joining them for a long, blissfully jammed-out “Shine”, we figured it out.

The music was the paint; the old State was the canvas. Crusty, funky, peeling, faded – but the absolute perfect canvas. It was more than four walls and a roof over the music – it was part of the band, giving-and-going with the dynamics of the sound, leaning into the curves, breathing hard and sweating freely. And the balcony was laughing.

It was great.

There are a number of cool venues in Portland, ME (only two hours north of Boston, folks!) – and I suppose the question deserves to be asked: does the city need another one?

The answer is, as long as the new management is able to retain the funk while tidying things up, then, sure – the State would be just the thing. Bring the vibe back.

See you in the balcony.

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