Hartford Music Scene
Lauren Wells | May 21, 2014
Home to the fourth oldest orchestra in the U.S. (the New Haven Symphony Orchestra), Connecticut boasts a humble yet lively music scene. Hartford is home to the Connecticut Opera, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, the Hartford Chorale, and the Hartford Conservatory, all of which strongly promote music education. Lyricist Ray Gilbert hailed from Hartford, and his Oscar winning lyrics to the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” put him on the music map during the 1940s. The 1960s saw the successes of Hartford born Gene Pitney, a rock and roll singer-songwriter whose hits have seen chart-topping positions. 1970s band Toto features a lineup that includes the Porcaro brothers (Steve, Jeff, and Mike), all of whom have contributed to the band’s progressive rock sound over the years. Hip hop group The Skinny Boys kicked off the 1980s with their song “Jockbox,” now the theme song of Comedy Central’s popular TV series Workaholics. Power metal band Sacred Oath, and Sugar Ray’s lead singer Mark McGrath also emerged from Connecticut in the mid 1980s. During the 1990s, alternative rock band Guster’s drummer, Brian Rosenworcel, gained popularity as the band churned out catchy tunes. Also during this time, Chris Carrabba made a name for himself as he fronted alternative bands such as Dashboard Confessional, Further Seems Forever, and Twin Forks. Grammy Award winning recording artist and producer John Mayer also called Connecticut home before creating mellow, blues-infused songs such as “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Waiting on the World to Change.” The millenium introduced psychedelic rock duo MGMT, known for their hits “Time to Pretend” and “Kids.” The indie roots rock band Bronze Radio Return also got their start during the millenium, going on to work with acts like Grace Potter, John Mayer, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Pete Francis, Blues Traveler, Buddy Guy, and Sugar Ray.
The 1,200-capacity Webster Theater in Hartford opened in 1937 as a family-owned movie theater. During its early years, the theater even hosted a weekly “dish night,” where attendees would receive a free dish. Although attendance waned throughout the 1960s, the Webster introduced a live music component after a brief stint as an adult film theater. 1986 brought a substantial renovation to the theater, where it now serves as a performing arts space that has hosted talent such as 311, Incubus, No Doubt, Staind, Keller Williams, Robert Randolph, Tim Reynolds, and Deftones. Primarily a hard rock venue, the Webster is a Connecticut live music mainstay.
The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, formerly known at Bushnell Memorial Hall, was built in 1930 as a memorial to Reverend Dr. Horace Bushnell. Mortensen Hall, a 2,800-seat area of the performing arts center, features hand-painted murals from 1929 and an impressive art deco interior, in addition to hosting performances by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The Georgian Revival exterior of the building encloses an adjacent 90,000-square-foot, 907-capacity Belding Theater in addition to a cafe, gift shop, dining space, and classroom area. Broadway musicals like Beauty and the Beast and performances from musicians like Joe Bonamassa take place at the Bushnell Center.
Opened in 1995, the Xfinity Theatre is owned and operated by Live Nation. The 30,000-capacity indoor/outdoor amphitheatre accommodates 7,500 people indoors and 22,500 people outdoors. Acts like Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Jason Aldean, Dave Matthews Band, Florida Georgia Line, Keith Urban, Tyler Farr, and Brett Eldredge perform at the venue. One of the largest amphitheatres in the country, the Xfinity Theatre even hosted Beyonce as she practiced for her “I Am… Tour.”
A sporting and entertainment complex, the XL Center is home to the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, and the NCAA’s UConn Huskies. Designed by Kling and Associates, the XL Center is owned by the City of Hartford and opened in 1974. The XL Center houses two facilities: the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the Exhibition Center. The Coliseum is the part-time home of the NCAA’s UConn Huskies men’s and women’s teams and also accommodates events such as Monster Jam, circuses, concerts, ice skating shows, and graduation ceremonies. The 16,606-capacity venue has hosted concerts by The Grateful Dead and Diana Ross, events for the Professional Bull Riders association, and wrestling matches. The 68,855-square-foot Exhibition Center hosts trade shows, conventions, banquets, meetings, and other events.
Hosting acts like The Band Perry, Daughtry, Steely Dan, Cage the Elephant, Jackson Browne, 311, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Yes, Lana Del Rey, Ray Lamontagne, Goo Goo Dolls, and Neon Trees, the Oakdale Theatre was built in 1954 on an alfalfa field. The 4,600-seat theatre’s proscenium stage has hosted performances from Alan Jackson, Britney Spears, Drake, the Jonas Brothers, John Mayer, Maroon 5, Clint Black, Dolly Parton, Liberace, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Who, Brooks & Dunn, and Cream in the past. Broadway shows such as “Riverdance,” “42nd St,” “Grease,” “The Producers,” and “Movin’ Out” have been performed at the venue as well. The family-friendly theater also hosts live productions from Rugrats to Dora the Explorer.
Gathering of the Vibes, held at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, has a lineup that includes acts like John Fogerty, Widespread Panic, The Disco Biscuits with Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, Ziggy Marley, Slightly Stoopid, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Maceo Parker, Dark Star Orchestra, and Rodrigo y Gabriela. Going strong for over 19 years, the Gathering of the Vibes festival is a four-day arts and music event that encourages camping. Past performers have included Allman Brothers Band, Elvis Costello, Grateful Dead, Gov’t Mule, and Buddy Guy, among others. The Greater Hartford Irish Music Festival offers traditional Irish music, dancing, vendors, and cultural tents. The Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, held in July, was formed by jazz bassist and music educator Paul Brown. Going strong for over 26 years, the jazz festival is a free event for concert goers. Past performers have included the McCoy Tyner Big Band, the George Shearing Quintet, Dave Brubeck, Marion Meadows, Gerald Albright, and Herbie Mann, among many others. At the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival, regional and local acoustic musicians perform for Hebron, CT locals. With camping, vendors, and family-friendly activities, the music festival hosts performers such as Lonesome River Band, Dale Ann Bradley, Dailey & Vincent, Kathy Mattea, The Grascals, and Spinney Brothers. In Essex, the Hot Steamed Jazz Festival offers up a summer weekend full of quality jazz music. Formed in 1992, the June festival is renowned for booking acts such as Galvanized Jazz Band, Heartbeat Jazz Band, Festival All-Stars, Jazz Jesters, Jeff Barnhart, Wolverine Jazz Band, and Route 17 Stompers. The Mystic Blues Festival is held at the Mystic Shipyard in June, where artists like Easybaby, Spin Doctors, Johnny Winter, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, James Cotton Superharp, and Ryan Hartt & the Blue Hearts perform. The Hartford New Music Festival features artists like Georges Aperghis, John Cage, Martin Iddon, Robert Ashley, Michael Gordon, Andie Springer, Lauretta Pope, and Ryan Ford. In Norfolk, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival is one of the oldest summer music festivals in North America. Having hosted the Tokyo String Quartet, Percy Grainger, Fritz Kreisler, Pinchas Zukerman, Dave Brubeck, Jean Sibelius, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, the festival is held at the Yale School of Music.