World Class Music in the Western Maine Foothills

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Flag of United States  , Maine
Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review of Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield, Maine

Type of Attraction: Musical Performance Venue
Reviewer: Kreg Ettenger
Date of Visit: November 2, 2012

Many first-time visitors to the Stone Mountain Arts Center share a common experience just before they arrive--they think they must be lost. The Center, known by regulars and locals as SMAC, is out in the middle of nowhere, at least by many peoples' standards. Surrounded by mountains and well beyond the nearest town or traffic light, SMAC is an island of warmth, food, and music in the rustic countryside of Brownfield, Maine.

Even the SMAC website tells visitors not to follow their GPS devices or online maps, warning that "Some of the old roads they will send you on are NOT passable!" Dugway Road, where the Center resides, is dirt for most of its length, and SMAC owner Carol Noonan warns people that it's not always well-plowed in the winter months. Fortunately, there is a paved route that takes visitors within a hundred yards or so of the SMAC parking lot. According to Noonan, a town offer to pave that last little stretch was turned down for two reasons: she didn't want to make her neighbors jealous, and she wanted to give visitors a little taste of Maine dirt roads.

Assuming you follow the directions on the website, you can reach SMAC in about an hour from Portland, Maine, taking the scenic route 113 (also known as the Pequawket Trail, a state scenic byway) from Standish to "downtown" Brownfield. From there it's a short ten minutes on back roads that pass by a few remaining old farmhouses (many were burned down in the great fire of 1947), meadows and fields, and magnificent stone walls. There are impressive views of the White Mountain foothills, including nearby Burnt Meadow Mountain and Stone Mountain, from which the Center gets its name.

While many SMAC customers come from Maine, others come from nearby New Hampshire (the Center is close to the border), and as far away as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. Noonan says they also get a fair number of Canadian visitors, especially in the summer months when the route from Quebec to the Maine coast is filled with Canadian license plates. Many visitors from outside the region spend their weekends in nearby Conway, NH, or along the Maine coast, traveling to SMAC as part of their getaway.

Pulling into SMAC's parking lot, you get little sense of the performance space that awaits inside. The dirt lot, and another down the road, sit beside a small white farmhouse and two connected barns. The first is called the Quisisana Barn, and holds a bar and ticket counter, plus tables where patrons sit while waiting to be seated in the main performance area. The Quisisana Barn (the name comes from a resort in nearby Lovell Maine) was the original barn to the farmhouse, and was dismantled when Carol and her husband Jeff decided to build a new timber frame barn behind their house. The old barn was rebuilt in 2010 and now hosts smaller concerts in addition to being a lobby, bar and sales counter for the Center.

Coming into the barn, visitors are directed by signs to the back of the room, where they pick up their numbered tickets. As lower numbers mean better seats, patrons begin to arrive as early as 5:00 pm, which is when the Quisisana normally opens its doors (most concerts begin at 8:00). Guests tend to stay in their own groups, sitting at tables, the bar, and in old theater seats placed around the perimeter of the room. Guests can select from a small list of wines (served by the glass or bottle), a similarly small list of beers (including three on tap), and occasionally hard cider, as well as soft drinks and sparking water. There is no food served in the Quisisana Barn except for those evenings when concerts are held in this room. The drink prices are on the high side--$9 for a glass of house wine--which reflects the fact that SMAC covers its expenses mainly from food and drink sales, rather than ticket prices.

Around 6:00 pm, one of the SMAC staff will begin to call numbers for seating in the main room. This is done in blocks of five groups at a time, with patrons whose numbers are called (each group has the same number on their ticket) lining up at a door near the ticket counter. From there they are led across a short, unheated walkway to the main barn, which houses the dining area and stage. Diners can tell the hostess Marlies where they prefer to sit, such as up close by the stage, farther back at a few higher tables, or up in the balcony. Tables range in size from four seats to larger 8-10 seat tables; small groups are often placed together, so should be prepared to make conversation with strangers!

The main barn at SMAC is a warm, open and inviting space, with exposed beams and tasteful decorations, including stunning tall windows behind the stage with framing that mimics the branches of painted trees on the back wall, and real trees beyond. The barn was built by Andy Buck, a master timber frame builder from Naples, Maine. Originally it was to be used by Carol's husband Jeff, a commercial fishing net maker, but when that business dried up (no pun intended), they made the decision to turn it into something else--a performance space that met Carol's dreams of a community center where both locals and outsiders come together to hear great music and enjoy great food. Carol, a folk singer and songwriter who had been touring since the early 1970s, was inspired by a trip to the Sangerville Grange, a place where local residents gathered to both listen to and play music and hold other community events. Despite a lack of formal business training, any real start-up funds, or even a business plan, Carol and Jeff went ahead with their plans to create a world-class music venue out in the country.

We visited the Center on November 2, 2012, to hear the acclaimed duo of Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas. A group of four of us was placed at a table for six on the left side of the hall, near the front. We were told that we might have to share with others, but in the end had the table to ourselves. Almost as soon as we were seated our waitress appeared, asking us if we wanted anything to drink. She took our order and said she'd be back shortly, as the tables filled in and the place became louder. We saw that folks who had been seated just ten or 15 minutes before were already being served their dinners. Everything at SMAC is set up for one big "dinner rush" between about 6:00 and 7:00. After that most people are seated and have been served their meals, and are just waiting for the show to begin at 8:00. 

The hour or so it takes for all the meals to be served is a time of controlled chaos, with waitresses skillfully navigating between tightly packed tables and guests still being seated. Most of the wait staff has been with the Center since its opening in 2005, and come from Brownfield and nearby towns. According to Noonan, the staff is an integral part of SMAC, and she makes efforts to ensure that there is work for them to do even in slow times of year. Often larger acts are booked on weeknights, not only to get them at a more affordable rate between their bigger shows, but to give the staff work throughout the week. There is a strong sense of family among the staff, and regular customers are treated with a smile of recognition and several hellos.

The menu is limited, with several standards (like pizzas, salads, and vegetarian chili) supplemented by two or three special dishes. Our group ordered two dinner salads, one pizza, and one entree, a pork tenderloin with garlic mashed potatoes. The dinner salads, priced at around $19, come in large bowls and are often shared by two or more diners. Chicken or salmon can be added for another $9. The greens are fresh, and toppings like fresh blueberries, dried cranberries, and maple-glazed pecans are a nice touch. SMAC makes its own maple balsamic vinaigrette that complements the ingredients well. Pizzas, also around $19, are large enough for two people as well. There are usually two or three types to choose from, including a vegetarian option. They have been a staple at SMAC since it opened, and are a favorite of many diners.

Dinner entrees include regulars like vegetarian chili (the menu boasts that country superstar Marty Stuart liked it so much he took some home with him!), as well as occasional features like the pork tenderloin we had. The meat was tender and the sauce, which we had on the side, sweet and flavorful, with smoky hints of bacon and onions. The garlic mashed potatoes had a nice texture and were not overpowering; they were a nice complement to the sweetness of the gravy. No vegetables were served with the entree, but our salad provided plenty of roughage. None of us had their dessert, which this night was an apple crisp; at other times they feature brownie sundaes, blueberry cobbler, and other season-appropriate dishes. 

As with most shows at SMAC, there was no warm-up act, and Alasdair and Natalie took the stage at about 8:15. They immediately began with a medley that combined a traditional Scottish tune with one of Alasdair's own compositions. What followed was two hours of traditional and contemporary Celtic tunes combined with some slower and up-tempo tunes penned by Fraser. His commentary between songs provided glimpses into both his humor and his knowledge and love of traditional Scottish, Irish, Canadian and Appalachian fiddle music. He also shared several humorous stories involving travel to many parts of the world, where he performs, runs fiddle schools, and teaches about Scottish music and history.

The crowd, as at many SMAC shows, tended toward the greyer side of the spectrum. According to owner Noonan, she tends to pick musicians she herself wants to hear, and this often includes performers in their 50s and older. Aging icons like Taj Mahal, Robert Cray, and Judy Collins have graced the SMAC stage, along with seasoned road warriors like Greg Brown, Steve Earle, John Gorka, and Nanci Griffith. At the same time, SMAC often books newer acts like the Wailin’ Jennys, Crooked Still, Red Molly, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, along with up-and-coming performers like April Verch, often as part of a free concert series called "Waltzings for Dreamers" (the title of a Noonan song and CD).

One problem Noonan has found with booking, vintage acts is that they sometimes need their monitors to be turned so loud that the sound is too much for the small space. Staff even put out bowls of foam earplugs at certain "full sound" shows, with a warning sign to patrons. This was the case at a recent show, when the musician had his own sound engineer who was clearly used to larger and noisier spaces. In most cases, however, the sound quality at the shows is exceptional, with SMAC's skilled sound man filling the space and bringing out the best in performers without driving customers to reach for the ear plugs.

Unlike many small venues that feature local acts with an occasional headliner, most of the performers at SMAC are nationally known, whether within the singer-songwriter genre or crossover stars like Bruce Hornsby, Lyle Lovett and the Indigo Girls. Prices for these stars are understandably high, often ranging from $100 to as much as $200 for the chance to see them "Up Close and Personal," as SMAC bills these shows. Noonan bases ticket pricing on what will cover the cost of the performers, and the bigger the act (or larger the band), the more expensive the ticket. The Center only seats 200, and performers used to playing in venues that seat several times this number are used to having bigger paychecks. Many play at SMAC for less than their usual fees, in part because Noonan books them between larger gigs, and in part because they love the venue, as well as Noonan and her staff.

Other than these big acts, most ticket prices at SMAC are under $50, and there are many for $25 and less. This makes it a reasonable night out for many people. However, the food and drink prices are on the high side, and most patrons have dinner there, meaning that an evening for four can easily cost $200 or more. Our total bill for four tickets, drinks and meals was around $250. One way that SMAC could be more affordable would be to have smaller portion sizes, such as demi salads and pizza by the slice. Many patrons would be satisfied by a smaller meal that costs under $20 or even $15, even if it meant not taking home leftovers. Another suggestion would be to accept credit cards onsite, something that SMAC can do but discourages due to the fees. Most people these days carry plastic rather than cash or checks, and first-time visitors especially may be upset when they learn that credit cards are discouraged. Also, it could help sales of CDs, t-shirts and other items if people could put those on credit cards as well. Most people don’t carry hundreds of dollars around, and once they pay for their dinners there is often little left.
SMAC has developed a reputation among touring players as a beautiful, warm, inviting space that treats performers like royalty, letting them unwind before and after shows in a vast "green room" under the barn that is (according to legend) filled with a huge vinyl record collection, a pool table and other games, and a lavish spread of food and drinks. Each performer also gets a customized "Maine loves..." cake prepared by a local baker, as well as other treats. Many performers gush on stage about what a wonderful place SMAC is and how well it treats musicians, something that obviously comes from Noonan's own years of playing small clubs and auditoriums throughout the country. On the SMAC website Noonan relates a story of country legend Marty Stuart coming to SMAC in 2005 shortly after it opened and calling it "the best stop on the tour." He has come back nearly every year. A number of other musicians have also made SMAC a regular stop, and have told other performers about it, making it a bit easier for Noonan to entice these musicians with their tour buses and tight schedules to come and play her charming, out of the way venue.

For the first-time visitor, the Stone Mountain Arts Center is a revelation, standing out in the Maine woods and inviting guests like a cozy cottage in a Thomas Kinkade painting. Its unassuming exterior, full of rustic Maine charm, belies its gracious and polished interior--a bit like host Carol Noonan herself. In tourism these days people talk about "authenticity," and how travelers are looking for attractions that are honest reflections of a place and its people. The foothills of western Maine, lying between the tourist meccas of the Maine coast and New Hampshire's White Mountains, are about as authentic as Maine gets--beautiful, relatively undeveloped, with small towns of people who don't mince words but are always ready to lend a hand. The Stone Mountain Arts Center is a reflection of this side of Maine: part individual vision and part community effort; part dream and part sweat; part local gathering place and part international performance space. For my money, it's well worth the trip.

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