Rock Hall FallFest, the annual street fair that celebrates live music and the “return” of the oyster, along with The Mainstay, the town’s iconic music venue at the heart of Main Street, have always been linked by both the history of their foundings, and the spirit of their founder, Tom McHugh.
It’s fitting that this year, the silver anniversary for both FallFest and The Mainstay, the two are even more closely intertwined, as a large portion of proceeds from the non-profit festival on Sat., Oct. 8, will be donated to the venue to help fund exciting new projects and performances.
FallFest visitors won’t just get to sample great food and drink, explore artisan craft offerings, and enjoy day-long live music, they will know their fun is going to aid in polishing one of the finest jewels in the historic bayside town known as the Pearl of the Chesapeake.
“This award will help enable us to continue with our primary mission of bringing exceptional live music to the Kent County area and to continue making it available to our audiences at a reasonable price,” said Mainstay executive director Matt Mielnick. “The Mainstay does not realize much profit from our music shows. These days especially, musicians make their livings on just a few performing dates each week, and, as such, are charging much higher artist fees. We rely on other sources of incomes, such as this award, to continue our work.”
Mielnick and The Mainstay booked all the performers for FallFest, which will have live music for the 10 a.m.-4 p.m. length of the event, which is free to the public, with plenty of free parking available as well.
The diverse range of acts reflects the mission of The Mainstay itself, which is to present top quality music from a wide variety of genres. That was the mission and the passion of McHugh, the legendary local educator, performer and organizer who got things rolling in 1997 for both FallFest and The Mainstay.
Appearing at FallFest will be: The Blake Thompson Band, led by the rocking guitar virtuoso from Kent County; the Eastman String Band, specializing in acoustic bluegrass and Americana; the Dixie Power Trio, a mathematically-challenged quartet the swings through the worlds of swamp rock, Zydeco, and Dixieland; Unknown Legends, a great classic rock cover band; The Heather Pierson Trio, which slides between Appalachian fok and New Orleans blues; and the ever-popular Catonsville High School Steel Band, which uses the traditional steel pans of Trinidad to explore many genres of music. Additionally, The Chestertown Ukulele Group, and the Rock Hall Elementary School Kazoo Band (also first organized by Tom McHugh) will have their moments on the two Main Street stages.
The show times for each group, along with a complete listing of the FallFest offerings, including the 6,000 oysters on the half-shell, along with directions and other information, can be found at www.rockhallfallfest.org. For those who need to work up an appetite for the day’s festivities, there is also registration information for the 9 a.m. Run for Character 5K.
The music that will keep Rock Hall and its visitors dancing on Oct. 8 is a way of taking the special character of The Mainstay out onto the street. The cozy, funky concert space that seats 125 in its mismatched couches and chairs serves as Rock Hall’s “living room” for nearly 100 performances every year that, over its lifetime, have welcomed many thousands of patrons. This year, the indoor venue was joined by an outdoor pavilion stage behind The Mainstay that seats 150 and expands the ability to put on many different shows.
Audiences love The Mainstay, but maybe not even as much as the performers themselves.
“Playing The Mainstay is kind of like going to your own hometown and having an intimate concert with all your old friends,” said Zack Smith, leader of The Dixie Power Trio, which will also play at 7 p.m. indoor show the evening of FallFest. “There are few places where we go and can recognize half the people in the audience, and they all come up to talk and catch up since the last time we were there.”
“There’s no place like it,” said vocalist Sue Matthews, who will play a Nov. 19 date of standards along with piano accompanist Robert Redd. “The great thing is the audience is so gracious because of the size of the room. There’s a beautiful feeling of comfort there. Musicians who are incredibly popular and successful from all over the United States and even overseas, and have played fabulous venues, they all say that this is one of their favorites.”
Aside from the intimacy and warmth of the room, The Mainstay is also known for having great acoustics that carry the music to every corner. Some of that is happy accident. The building was many things over the years – from video rental store, to dress shop, to dry goods emporium – but it was never a music venue. The space works for performance, however, and a lot of that isn’t luck, but came from careful work on the sound system, the layout of the room, and all the sonic improvements that make for a good music hall.
“It is the physical space, but also the space created by the energy that has built up over all these years,” said pianist Joe Holt, who has played hundreds of shows at The Mainstay, including the current First Friday series with various artists. “That energy was cultivated by Tom McHugh, and you feel that love immediately. It’s like an Olympic flame that never goes out.”
Singer and songwriter Barbara Parker, who has appeared at The Mainstay with Holt and others, agrees that there’s no mistaking where the venue got its soul.
“I was friends with Tom for 40 years, so I know part of that space in imbued with his passion and his vision,” said Parker, also a member of the venue’s board of directors. “With the short height of the stage, you are in the audience and the audience feels no separation, so you get a lot of give and take, a lot of interaction, and it’s marvelous.
“There have been some acoustic changes made, and various things done, but it’s not like we had a whole bunch of engineers come in and figure it out. That relatively low ceiling, and where the stage was placed, have made it warm and welcoming, and people who have never played there before get that. They get on stage and then they want to come back.”
Proceeds that will come from the FallFest donation will help The Mainstay in a number of ways, according to executive director Mielnick and board member Parker. Chairs for the new outdoor stage are being purchased, and there are additional sound equipment investments, video-streaming capability upgrades, and funding for an expanded range of talent bookings that will result.
“We’ve kept our promise to offer the Eastern Shore a chance to enjoy the very best musicians we could arrange every weekend,” said Mielnick, who was hired as executive director in Oct., 2021. “We’ve also renewed our pledge to offer a balanced variety of musical genres…and tested the water with new programs like our recent outdoor movie night, and a return of programs featuring speakers on topics of local interest and history.”
Twenty-five years after its inception, The Mainstay is still thriving, and the same is true of Rock Hall FallFest, which will once again fill Main Street with shuckers and pluckers, along with a wide array of fun and surprises.
FallFest visitors will have a great time at the silver anniversary celebration of our special one-day street fair on Oct. 8, but will also get to support The Mainstay, the town’s musical heart every single day of the year.
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