The technical high point in Newmarket, New Hampshire, may be Bald Hill but the cultural high point of Newmarket is the Stone Church. On top of its own hill, the Stone Church has been a Seacoast musical institution since the 1970s. Starting at the post office, I walk up the hill perpendicular to the Lamprey River, pass the aptly named Rock Street and up the wooden steps to the sanctuary of good tunes that is the Stone Church. One is immediately struck by the positive vibes.
The actual building has been around since the 1830s and has been everything from an actual church to even a shoe factory. A fire destroyed this shoe factory in 1968.
“This is remnants of that fire,” Mike Hoffman, co-owner of the venue along with his wife, said. “I often say that’s what gave birth to the Stone Church. Otherwise, who knows what it would be?”
Hoffman and his wife obtained stewardship of the Stone Church about three years ago. “We were shooting for Jerry’s birthday,” Hoffman said. Unfortunately, due to some technical issues, they had to wait until the day after, “but the day after Jerry’s birthday is okay.”
“It’s more powerful than any of us,” Hoffman said, and relaying what a cook once told him during a rather energetic evening, “It’s always gonna be one of those nights.”
The Stone Church is not only a music venue, but also an important community institution where lives are celebrated and connections are made. “There are so many stories about people that met their spouses here,” Hoffman said. “Crazy stories just happen all the time here.”
The Stone Church has been around a while but the big hullabaloo now is that 2020 is the 50th anniversary of when the Stone Church first opened its doors to provide Newmarket and the students of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) a place to come together in music.
“It’s gonna go, hopefully, another 50 years, and then some,” Hoffman said. “We’re so glad we’re so close to UNH and we’re surprised how many people there don’t know about us or haven’t come down.”
There’s an impressive list of famous acts that have crossed the stage here as well.
“We’ve had a number of the members of the Dead play here,” Hoffman said. Powerful performers like Bonnie Raitt, Hot Tuna, and Phish are just to name a few. A whole list can be found on their website. It takes all kinds though, and such an attitude has even conjured the performances of artists like the Bare Ass Bureaucrat of Boogie who lived up to his name. Unfortunately, he didn’t make the online list.
“We do have an eclectic mix here,” Hoffman said. “A wide variety of souls. That’s one of our mantras, ‘All are welcome here.’”
One reason the Stone Church is so popular is because they actually pay the musicians that come to play on their stage. For those not familiar with the music industry, there are countless stories of bands being ripped off or not paid at all by unscrupulous promoters and shady venues. Other venues shamefully force musicians to pay for their own time by making them purchase tickets ahead of time to sell. This is known as “Pay to Play” and is a practice that Mike and the Stone Church strongly disavow. Ninety percent of ticket sales go to the artist.
“We both want a full house,” he said. “Nothing worse than having an unbelievable musician here from Nashville or New Orleans, and nobody here to view the artistry.”
“Last night was a slow night and we gave the band 100 percent because we felt bad for them,” Hoffman said. This is a man that truly cares about the community and the Stone Church.
“I put my heart and soul into this building,” he said. It certainly is felt by the various community members that come from all walks of life who frequent this wondrous place. “I don’t know if it’s keeping me young or making me old,” he said.
Hoffman is hoping to build a pergola on the patio overlooking the Lamprey River for the summer. “You can take that water all the way out to Brighton, England,” he said.
This quality of management stretches over to the entirety of the Stone Church, including the menu.
“We have the best beer selection of any church in this area,” Hoffman said, and he is absolutely right. Besides the beer, which Throwback Brewery created a 50th anniversary golden ale for the venue titled, “Take Me to Church,” the menu is phenomenal with tasty choices for people with any dietary restriction. The name is also a sentiment held by those who desire to live in Newmarket.
“A lot of people move to this town because of the Stone Church,” Hoffman said. He reminisced on the Stone Church and how he hoped that more and more people experience, “that cool little honky-tonk up in New Hampshire.”
Sunday through Thursday night the Stone Church provides free shows and even 18-plus shows on occasion. All the performances consist of every and any type of genre one could Google or think up. Once a month they are doing a 50th anniversary show as a celebration. Next month will be Percy Hill on March 14. There are also some super-secret special guests that will be coming to play the venue.
“There are some names we can’t even mention,” Hoffman said.
The Stone Church is one of the best venues that I’ve ever encountered. One of the reasons being that everyone is invited; it is one of the most generationally diverse venues. The Stone Church is special. Its motto is “Radiate positive vibes.”
“A lot of soul,” exists in the building, Hoffman said. “We talk about these stones in this stone church and they’ve absorbed a lot of acoustic vibes. They might be saturated with good energy, but they’re not satiated.”