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When Music Came to Main Street in Hanover

David Greenfield of South Strafford, Vt., plays a set at Canoe Club in Hanover, N.H., on April 13, 2014. "Sometimes people are very attentive and other times they're focused on their meals, whereas if you play in a tavern it tends to be a lot noisier," said Greenfield, who has been playing at the restaurant off and on for over ten years. (Valley News - Will Parson)

David Greenfield of South Strafford, Vt., plays a set at Canoe Club in Hanover, N.H., on April 13, 2014. "Sometimes people are very attentive and other times they're focused on their meals, whereas if you play in a tavern it tends to be a lot noisier," said Greenfield, who has been playing at the restaurant off and on for over ten years. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

The Canoe Club, in its decade on Hanover’s Main Street, has hosted somewhere around 3,600 nights of live music, often jazzy and Americana guitarists and pianists playing to an audience of restaurant-goers.

It’s an atmosphere that has been in place since the restaurant opened in late 2003: Food forward. Music back. If a Dartmouth alum is meeting a Dartmouth friend for the first time in decades, said Canoe Club owner John Chapin, the two of them shouldn’t be a captive audience.

His vision has held sway. The restaurant has become a main character in downtown Hanover’s nightlife scene, and Chapin plans to continue the live music, even if the restaurant’s gastronomic side is its focus.

His bookings may be tweaked slightly. Though Chapin delights in espousing the positives of mainstays such as The Putnam-Pirozzoli Guitar Duo (“they’ve probably performed here 30 times over the past 10 years”) and Keith Bush (“I think he just starts channeling artists” in improvised sets), he’s kept one eye focused on slightly different acts.

“John is an experience,” said Bob Lucier, a frequent performer and Orford resident. “John periodically catches you and says, ‘Let’s set up some dates.’ ”

As for different acts, Chapin brought in Spencer Lewis, who loops guitar tracks until he has set up a solo symphony, a few months ago. And he’s looking into bring larger acts for special monthly performances. Shannon McNally (who had been signed to Capitol Records when young) and Burlington-based Brett Hughes kicked that series off in mid-March.

Those sorts of artists and higher-profile shows will serve as an attraction in addition to the regular performers, Chapin said, and as such don’t signify an overhaul of the Canoe Club’s live music slate.

“It wasn’t a course correction, it was a general note to self: Keep it fresh,” Chapin said.

All that would be moot, of course, if the Canoe Club had never opened. And thanks to a Hanover zoning ordinance that blocked live music performances in the downtown area, that was a distinct possibility.

After Chapin closed a deal in August 2003 to move into the building, Hanover residents began to come out in support of having live music in town. Though the Hanover Inn occasionally offered music — and had for many years — it technically wasn’t allowed.

There were worries about the potential creep of sound from indoors to outdoors, the amplified music rumbling reaching cars or distracting pedestrians walking outside. And there were worries that a music-focused club could have other, less-desirable effects.

“In a college town, those can sometimes take on lives on their own,” Town Manager Julia Griffin said. “That was the concern, and hence the desire to get it right.”

For his part, Chapin stuck with his original vision: Food forward. Music back. The noise, he said, wouldn’t blanket Main Street. The instruments would be acoustic.

The controversy came to a head at a Zoning Board meeting the next month, when the board overturned a decision by the town’s zoning administrator, thereby allowing Chapin to host music at the venue. About 50 people showed up to support him.

“It was very heartening to have the town and people, including strangers, speak out on my behalf,” Chapin said.

Griffin remembered telling Chapin to keep trying to break the zoning mold, as the change could usher in more vibrancy downtown. That’s been happening in recent years, she said, noting various outdoor restaurant seating areas cropping up. She said she hopes that the next step, going forward, will be more walk-through outdoor social spaces similar to the courtyard adjacent to the Black Family Visual Arts Center. Maybe those spaces, too, will have music.

“The Canoe Club was the trailblazer that required that we think outside the zoning ordinance box,” Griffin said.

It also led to a slightly more musical Hanover. Several years after the Canoe Club opened, the Salt hill Pub opened up its location in town. Restaurants such as 3 Guys Basement BBQ have also hosted occasional performances.

For those who lobbied for the Canoe Club back in 2003, it’s a welcome change to the downtown landscape. Though Don Glasgo, a vocal proponent of the club, said he’d still like to see a dedicated music venue in town, he said in an interview that he appreciated what Chapin accomplished.

“I think they had some, ‘Let’s keep things as they are, as they were 10 years ago,’ ” said Glasgo, a Norwich resident, of the zoning board at the time. “And I think that was very positive that the Canoe Club broke through that.”

“This is so much better than it was 10 years ago. It’s vastly improved,” said Lucier, and chuckled. “We take what we can get as musicians.”