(Restaurant guru Sean Pepe recently closed The Boathouse Live, Newport News’ best live music venue)
By Craig Wynne, Guest Writer
This morning, I woke up to a Facebook posting from Gary. This posting, taken from the Hampton Daily Press, read “Newport News Concert Venue Boathouse Live Closes.” It was from the Hampton Daily Press, so I knew it wasn’t a hoax. During my run around City Center, I saw the signs on the window and the door, which read:
The Landlord has taken possession of these Premises and any entry by unauthorized persons is unlawful. Persons unlawfully entering the Premises will be considered Trespassers and will be prosecuted.
It was only a year and a half, but that venue held fond memories for me. One such memory was that it was literally a two-minute walk from my City Center apartment. If I felt I need alone time during the set break (the plight of the introvert), I could simply walk back to my apartment and chill with my cat/son Chester for 20 minutes before heading back to the venue. But the best ones were with my show family.
My first time at the Boathouse was a few weeks after it opened, on January 6, 2018. Mark, Beth, Trip, Johnny Mac, Kim, and I rocked out to Last Fair Deal, a local Grateful Dead tribute. This was less than a week after I had done two Phish shows and two String Cheese Incident tours in New York over the four nights leading up to New Year’s Eve 2017-18. Those four simply weren’t enough.
Two months later, the fine folks at Dead and Company provided a video cast of their show at Orlando’s Amway Center on February 27, 2018. Maggie and I went, and I remember going crazy when they opened with her favorite, “St. Stephen.” I remember going home at set break to doze, coming back for the second set, Maggie leaving, and me staying until the end. Some nice young man treated everybody to their pizza, which was quite good (and I’m from New York, so that’s saying something). And then I got up to go to work the next morning.
On April 20 of that year, Sonya and I split a plate of meatballs as an appetizer, and I enjoyed a half-pound burger. We worked off our food by dancing to Skydog, an Allman Brothers tribute with Dean, Dave, and Martin.
Nine months passed. During that time, nobody was playing whom I was really interested in seeing. And then, on January 5, 2019, Eyes of the Nile, an Iron Maiden tribute, played. I couldn’t get anybody else to go, but I’m comfortable enough in my skin where I can go to a show solo. So, I walked over in the cold to see them play a bunch of classics. They played a bunch of their classics. This crowd was markedly different from the Dead/Allmans tribe I had seen at previous shows. These metalheads were actually pretty mellow, and not a lot of body movement went on. Just a bunch of headbanging. But I had seen Phish at the Garden a week prior, so a change of pace was welcome.
A month later, on February 1, the Marcus King Band came to town. Pre-show, Maggie, Drew, Gary, and I chowed down on some sushi at Hayashi, and the Special Guest joke was born. I had purchased my ticket a couple of months earlier, and it read “Marcus King Band with Special Guest.” So, the dialogue ensued. “I’ve heard great things about Special Guest,” Gary said. “Yeah,” I replied. “I hear they play instruments.” “Yeah, and they have vocals too,” Drew said. Ever since then, it’s been a running joke in our circle. “Special Guest is opening for such-and-such group,” is a common line. Gary will invite me to a show on Facebook and add the signature line “Special Guest!” when the band has a Special Guest. The show itself was packed to the gills; I could barely move. Apparently, the band got the memo, because they’re playing at the NorVa, a much larger venue, in July. A good move.
Three weeks later, Roosterfoot took the stage. Dave, who had been to Colorado the previous summer to see Widespread Panic, guided me on some cool local attractions to see. That was also the night I talked to an inebriated mother, out for a night away from her kids. She yelled, “I have two teenagers! Having kids changes you like nothing else! And I have it easy, my friend here has five!” I was feeling a little cheeky, so I said, “Yeah, I feel you. I have a son at home.” My son is a cat named Chester, so I wasn’t lying. And I was trying to get Maggie, a fellow Childfree by Choicer, to join me in the joke.
On April 4, North Mississippi Allstars came to town. It was a work night, but habnabit, I was seeing them. And with a cold. I don’t let a little thing like a cold keep me from boogieing down. Gary and Dean kept trying to get me to go out the following Tuesday to see the Allman Betts Band, but one weekday per six months of battling through the post-show blues is about all I can stomach these days. It didn’t stop Gary from posting, “I know where you live. You will be abducted and taken to Allman Betts whether you like it or not.” I’m grateful to have such good friends.
The finale was Skydog, on April 20. I had just taken a four-hour bus ride from Washington, DC that day, and I had seen two concerts over the previous three nights (and presented an academic paper at the National Popular Culture Association Conference), so I was pretty beat. But, I wasn’t missing this show. The whole crowd came. Shannon, Maggie, Lee, Dean, Dave, Beth, Rusty. They brought out a new guitarist, Willie Williams, who will definitely go far with them. By the end, though, I was “danced out,” and I recall hitting my pillow at 1 a.m.
As I write, the sadness is present in me. Owner Sean Pepe wasn’t making enough money and didn’t have much experience running a live music venue, according to the article. Both are valid reasons, and I give him props for trying. And even though it only lasted a year and a half, I definitely wouldn’t consider it a failure. Mr. Pepe, your venue gave me some good memories, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful. You made City Center rock, and for that, I salute you.