In Session: Jonathan Newell

HUDSON FALLS – Perhaps somewhat surprising to folks that are not from around here, is the fact that the Capital Region has quite a bit to offer in the way of music, and the arts as a whole. There’re gems abounding in various areas, as long as you know where to look, and once you find them, you’re going to want to keep going to them. One such gem is the Strand Theatre, an old, renovated theater being run under Hudson River Music Hall Productions, with the pioneering leadership of local musician, Jonathan Newell. Newell, whose music resume is quite accomplished on its own merit, has really crafted something special for local and international acts, alike.

I had the chance to sit down with Jonathan last week. What follows is our conversation.

Jonathan Newell

Lucas Garrett: Thank you for taking the time to chat today! What have you been up to lately?

Jonathan Newell: We’re setting up for a show. Starting last week on the 8th, we have eleven nights of music in a row. Trying to get everything organized and a bit more PR out there; we have five big shows this week. Lobby concerts, open mics – something for everybody.

LG: If someone could only see one, what one would you recommend?

JN: That’s hard to say around here because we try to do different music all the time. Last Thursday, we had a choral concert – it was a holiday singalong. We had lyrics of the holiday songs on the big screen above and the choir is going to lead the audience. I’d like to do this every year so eventually we can get 400 people all singing along. We had a Bluegrass Christmas with the Bluebillies on the 10th, and Sunday we had a fifty-piece concert band.

Last night we had Tim Reynolds from Dave Matthews Band. We have an Irish Christmas with the McKrells on Thursday, and then three days in a row of Tony DeSare, who’s an international jazz star from Hudson Falls. He’s a brilliant pianist, singer, and composer. He’ll be standards, Sinatra, and classic holiday favorites.

It’s a great way to end the year, for us. This is our last run of shows before we shut down for a couple weeks. We won’t be back until the first week of January.

LG: Now, you opened the Strand Theatre six years ago, already!

JN: Yep! October 7th, 2016, is when we closed on the building.

LG: I’ve been playing there off and on throughout the years, and I can tell you how wonderful it has been, but it’s been amazing to see what it was, and what it is now, and what it will be. What made you say, “I want to take this on?” What started all that?

JN: I remember how this all got started – really, it’s still a nonprofit called Hudson River Music Hall Productions. We started twelve years ago, and the goal was to help rehabilitate old buildings of Hudson Falls. We all thought this was a beautiful old village; a little slice of American history that’s seen some hard times. We thought if we put a concert production business in town that you’d hear positive things coming out of the community every week. It’d be positive publicity; a light shined on the village, and hopefully to inspire investment and more community involvement, too.

Our goal was to put concerts on in these old buildings and help renovate them. This is our third building. Plus, we did an amphitheater – we partnered with the village and we created an amphitheater by this beautiful duck pond that’s eventually going to be like a Central Park. There’s talk of getting back on that project, too.

So, it’s really a production company that’s twelve years old, and we happened to stumble on this building. We didn’t know it even existed when we started the company. I’d heard about the Strand Theatre growing up, but I thought they’d torn it down. I was pretty shocked to find out there was still a theater in this town.

Before we stumbled on it, we had bought a building on the other side of the business district, and we had concerts there for a long time. Right after we purchased it, we found Strand Theatre. It took five years to get to purchase it; it was still being used as a town hall. We had to convince them to move out, and that we were capable of running it as a performing arts center.

The first six years of our company were a good training ground for how to put on shows. In that time, we learned about theaters, and what you really need for a theater; the practicalities of what you need for that type of space. I was teaching music business at a local college, so I already had an idea about genres and demographics. The goal was to try to bring in as much variety as we could so we weren’t tapping in to the same audience, and that audiences would discover new kinds of music. The interesting thing is: what’s going to happen down the road?

LG: You’ve had amazing people come through there – international people come through there.

JN: Yeah, we’ve been really lucky. It’s a beautiful room – you know it’s a beautiful sounding room. But I think it’s that spirit of community development and making accessibility for different kinds of things and listeners. There’re many different levels of participation: we have many nights that are free concerts that are either funded by a local sponsor or people playing for other people. As you mentioned, we have international acts like founding members of Jethro Tull, founding members of KISS, and a collaborator of Dave Matthews this past Tuesday. They bring in audiences from all over the northeast. For Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), we had people from Florida, Montreal, Boston, and Buffalo. In a way, we’re a little bit of a bullseye for the southern Adirondacks: equidistant from New York to Montreal to Boston.

It started out as being this community, energizing force, but now it’s become this other thing. It’s a one-hundred-year-old theater.

LG: Did you reach out to these artists, or did they catch wind of the theater?

JN: It started with Martin Barre, the original guitarist of Jethro Tull. He was our first act that had that sort of “reach.” He was just starting his own band because he’d been split from Jethro Tull. He started his own band and then I was contacted by his agent. They look around and see what size venue you are, and I think also, they were testing the waters to see if there was interest for Martin to do Jethro Tull and his own music. It was a fortunate connection of Martin’s agent and us. We worked hard to put our best foot forward and put on an enjoyable experience for them. It sold out, and it was a great start. Once that started, other agents started paying attention. As soon as his name was out there, other agents and other acts started paying attention.

So, I think that’s where it started. Then, he regrouped with other Jethro Tull people, and they rented this place for a week, putting on a couple shows before they took off for their North American tour. You get a few of these acts, and I think the word gets around. If it’s the right fit, it works well. People aren’t afraid to come to this little town to hear music.

We have a great sound system, a big stage, a good lighting system, good staff, and an experienced crew. It’s a good combination of factors that makes it work.

LG: Is there something on the horizon that you’d like to see, development wise, at the theater?

JN: For building projects, we’re hoping to add a deck to the front roof. In terms of the appeal and the draw of the building, it’s such a cool building. There’s lots of little spaces in it to develop: there’s box seats by the stage, we’d like to put more seating in the auditorium. So, that’s being looked at. We’re trying to develop our coffee shop in the front of the building. There’s a tiny backyard that we want to develop into a tiny café backstage that the performers could take advantage of. That’s some really exciting stuff in terms of the building.

In terms of programming, we keep trying to find who’s a unique act that we haven’t had. Who’d be good for the north country. We have Molly Hatchet coming in March on St. Patrick’s Day. We might be the only place in town where the St. Patrick’s Day party isn’t on the day – we’re moving it to the 18th with the McKrells. We have different promoters that bring in different genres. You find different combinations of things and then it becomes this network: everyone’s supporting each other; supporting the acts; supporting the venue; supporting the village. It’s an interesting system and you never know what to expect. It’s still pretty fun.

LG: Have you seen – all the great work you’re doing at the Strand – have you seen that spill into the village at all?

JN: I think so. They had a great capital project through the village. They redid all the streets and sidewalks. The village looks great. I see more foot traffic; different people coming into the village. There’re great restaurants right around us. There’s a music store that moved in across the street. There’s a great used book store in town. There’s an arts’ center now. I think the Strand has had a big impact, but I think having our nonprofit production company doing 12 years of concerts… it adds up. I know there’s an economic impact. People come into town for concerts, and they hit the restaurants; the shops; the convenient stores and things.

I think Hudson Falls is on the map as a venue and concert town for those types of productions.

LG: How many shows do you do a year?

JN: Probably 150 or 200. We had 22 shows in November! It was crazy! We do movies; we have dance companies come up from New York (City). We have six to ten weekends of dance, and probably four weekends of theatrical performances. Quite a bit of next year is booked already. I think a lot of the appeal is that a lot of acts tell us they don’t enjoy playing in bigger cities as much: there’s a certain excitement to it, but there’re a lot of hassles as well. When they come here, it’s so laid back.

We’ve had the Levin Brothers quite a few times, and Peter Asher a few times. Albert Lee is coming back in January; he’s been here eight or nine times. These guys are playing major venues across the world, but now we’re on their twice-a-year stop! I think they like that’s a little off the beaten path. It’s more relaxing for them. I love that acts come out and hang out in the lobby with people after shows. It’s a very comfortable spot.

LG: Yeah, it’s amazing.

JN: We hoped it’d feel like your living room; your mom’s kitchen that just so happens to have a major sound system and nine-foot Steinway.

LG: It’s a terrific piano.

JN: The things people can do with that piano, now, and the sounds that will happen in the room because of that machine.

LG: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I may have missed?

JN: I want to point out that we’re still a nonprofit. Everything we create or make goes back into the business. We always need help bringing acts, keeping the lights on… we teach music lessons here, too, so it’s a constant awareness type of campaign. “This is what we’re doing here. This is how arts impact the community and affect people’s lives.” It’s not so much about the dollar part of it, but it just enhances the region. Enhances why we’d want to live up here, because the winters are long.

LG: Where can someone donate to the nonprofit?

JN: If you go to the Strand Theatre website, there’s a button for GoFundMe and PayPal. There’s also an address where you can mail a check. It helps us maintain our activities, which are bringing live performing arts events to the region. It helps keep the lights on; helps pay for staff. We have so many shows now.

LG: Thanks, Jonathan! I’m glad we could sit down to talk about this!

JN: Thanks for getting me on here!

LG: Have a very Merry Christmas!

JN: Same to you.

1 Comment
  1. Matt Smith says

    Great article , The Strand Theatre in am amazing venue . The acoustics are incredible. There isn’t a bad seat in the house . My band Psychomanteum will be releasing our cd on 1.27.23 at The Strand opening up for Sin – The Nine Inch Nails Tribute.

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