Manchester Rock City
Or, I’m a Stranger Here Myself
In downtown Manchester, bars line both sides of the street. Cigarette butts smolder in the ashtrays, smoke rising to the neon skies. Elm Street comes alive every weekend night with muffled music pounding against the walls of the restaurants, waiting to be spilled onto the street by anyone crazy enough to open the door and walk inside.
For the first couple of years I lived in Manchester, I kept to the cocktail bars and speakeasies, where the music often came from the bartender’s Spotify playlist. Given my past exploits as a rock journalist, this was extremely uncharacteristic. The tough reputation of Manchester’s live music scene, however, made me cautious.
But the pulsating music I heard outside the window of my downtown Manchester apartment began to ring like a siren song. With the company of my friend Sean, we set out to explore unknown territory.
To prepare, I joined a community page on Facebook called Manchester Happenings Now. After a query, a flood of comments filled my inbox within seconds, offering recommendations of places to go for live music. The five most common suggestions were Strange Brew Tavern, Murphy’s Taproom, Penuche’s Music Hall, The Wild Rover, and The Shaskeen. Unfortunately, The Wild Rover wasn’t offering music the night of our adventure, so the list was cut to four. This might have been for the best; looking back at my notes about the last bar of the night, my nearly incoherent scribbling included nothing about the beer or the band, but made clear how excited I was for bloody marys and fried potatoes in the morning.
Strange Brew Tavern
We arrived at our first destination around 9 p.m., right when the band Silvertone & Ms. G started playing, but an hour after the Market Street restaurant’s four-hour happy hour ended. I scanned the list of all the great craft beers that had been 50% off a mere 60 minutes before my arrival. It was the only time I had been late to drink a beer in my entire life.
Strange Brew offers a “kick the keg” special to clear overstock, and some seasonal offerings from the fall were on sale for $2 a pint. I had already consumed so much autumn ale before Halloween that I was starting to look like a turkey. I ordered a Miller Lite.
The band launched into a cover of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Before we got a chance to take a sip, about a dozen people jumped up in front of the small stage and started dancing to the tune. I had never seen a group of people dancing sober before 10 p.m. since my sister’s middle school dance recital.
We watched Silvertone rip through some blues and jazz standards. When the courage to dance with the old folks never came, we moved on to the next bar.
Murphy’s is located on the outskirts of Elm Street. During the warmer seasons, it plays host to massive crowds. In the cold months, however, the bands are migrated inside to a small event space off the main area. At 10 p.m., I held my breath and braced for the claustrophobia of a packed crowd of sweaty Southern New Hampshire University students raging to Saturday night music.
When we opened the door, the sound startled the dozen or so people who were hanging out. Groups of middle-aged men and women were sitting and politely watching the band Sunday Ave perform stripped-down covers of popular classic rock songs.
We ducked to avoid obscuring the view of the patrons and ordered a beer at the bar.
“Just out of curiosity,” I said to the bartender. “What’s the cheapest beer you have on the menu?”
“All bottles are $2,” she said, rolling her eyes.
We drank Miller Lites and watched the band for a little while. After each song ended, the crowd offered polite applause. I studied the musicians for a moment.
“You think these kids are still in high school or something?” I said, looking around. “Seems like this might be a ‘bringer’ show.”
Sean looked around briefly and agreed. When I was playing in bands in Concord a decade ago, we never had the chance to perform in venues like this. Bars would never give high school kids the time of day. We had to put on shows in church basements and recreation centers, and at house parties. The times, though, seemed to have changed, and I felt jealous and bitter and old.
I needed to know. I needed to know how old these kids were. But I was on my fourth beer of the night. I still had the good judgment to realize it was a bad idea to approach underage kids in a bar to ask how old they were, especially if their parents might be in the audience. The band took a quick break, and that was our cue to move on.
Penuche’s Music Hall
The floor of Penuche’s was packed. Several members of the Marine Corps dressed in uniform and dancing to a five-piece band called Zero 2 Sixty that was performing cover songs from the ’80s, ’90s, and the aughts.
Again, I asked the bartender about the cheapest beer on the menu. To no surprise, he dropped the name Pabst Blue Ribbon, a brand I hadn’t had since graduating from college in 2014. I ordered one and put my lips to the pint. It tasted just like I was about to fail molecular biology all over again.
Then camera flashes started going off. I turned to see that some of the Marines had bum-rushed the stage and started dancing along with the band, which was nervously looking around for the bouncers.
We finished our beers quickly, but as we put our glasses down and turned around, one of the Marines had left the stage and was standing in front of us, asking if we wanted another drink. Sean and I looked at each other and shrugged. The Marine called for two more pints, and a Bacardi and Diet Coke for himself.
“Hey, man,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder. “Do you mind if I ask why all of you guys are dressed up tonight?”
He turned around slowly and glared me down.
“It’s the Marine Corps’ birthday,” he said, shaking his head. The Marine handed us our beers and left.
“Dude,” Sean said. “It’s Veterans Day on Monday.” My face dropped. I looked back at the Marine who stood at the front, watching the band by himself.
The band was rocking, but we drank our beers in silence. As we set the empty glasses onto the table, I told Sean to hang on. I leaned over the bar and asked the bartender for a Bacardi and diet.
After he poured it, I weaved through the crowd toward the Marine.
“Hey, man,” I said, calling for his attention. “I wanted to buy you this, thank you so much for your ser—”
He turned to look at me. Both of his hands held full rum and cokes, with a third drink sitting on the high top next to him.
I looked down at my offering and put it on the table next to the other.
“Thank you for your service,” I said. He smiled, said thank you, and turned back toward the band.
At a glance, The Shaskeen may be intimidating because there usually are a dozen or so grim-looking smokers that crowd around the bar’s patio area. Once inside, however, the place is electric. We walked to the back of the room, where Happy Just To See You was setting up. The members of the band introduced themselves to the audience and talked about the songs they had written, a nice change of pace from the cover bands.
I ordered a round for Sean and myself and turned to see the band. I recognized the lead singer from somewhere, a large dude with glasses and a Red Sox cap. I wasn’t quite sure, so I turned back to the bartender.
“Hey, I don’t suppose you know the name of the lead singer, do you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “He was just playing with a band called Oddfellows, though,” she said.
I nodded. “I used to go see them when I lived up on the Seacoast.”
“Yeah,” she said. “He got hit recently by someone who was driving on heroin. Pinned him against a tree on Canal Street.”
My face dropped. I turned back to the singer. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen him. We didn’t know each other well, but he had been a really nice guy the few times I had met him when his band was playing art spaces in Dover and Portsmouth. Looking at him on stage now, there was a confidence in him. No indication that he’d been in mortal danger.
The second he struck his first chord, the band erupted into jangly, indie rock. The crowd of 20- and 30-somethings started nodding their heads. For the first time all night, I focused on the music.
The Night Winds Down
We got back to my apartment around 12:15. Sean had to work a race the next morning at 5 a.m., but because I’m a conscientious objector to exercise on Sundays, I grabbed another beer.
“That was fun,” Sean slurred before hitting the couch. “I would never have gone to some of those places if you hadn’t been doing this thing. I don’t go out in Manchester enough.”
I paused for a melancholic moment before walking toward my bedroom. I thought of all the times I cowered and kept my head low, walking to get a six-pack from the corner store, or getting late-night food for my fiancee, and not paying attention to what was around me. All the nights I snuffed out my impulse for adventure and succumbed to a feeling worse than fear of the unknown; fear of what I thought I knew.
Perhaps reputation inherently supersedes everything, but sometimes seeking these moments out provides pleasant surprises behind the doors we dare to enter.
I grabbed Sean’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “We’ll do it more, bud,” I said, cracking open the can. “To be honest, I’m a stranger here myself.”