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Matt James of Blacktop Mojo sings a little Phil Collins during an expected break from onstage rocking at Woodbury Brewing Company (photo by Will Siss)

(A version of this column was published on Aug. 23, 2019, in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American.)

I sat behind the keyboard along with the band and took in the gathering crowd. It wasn’t Wembley Stadium by any stretch, but for me, the tasting room at Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford represented something much cooler and personal. It was a space to merge my love of beer with my love of music.

Our six-piece band, South Road, specializes in 60s and 70s rock and R&B, and is not the kind of music I would have expected to hear at a brewery even five years ago.

But along with the expansion of breweries in the state has come a surge in the variety of live music. On any given weekend you could year bluegrass at Little Red Barn in Winsted, rap at Still Hill in Rocky Hill, blues at Stony Creek in Branford, folk at Kinsman in Southington and acoustic harmonies from established groups and open mics pretty much everywhere else.

The big stage

In preparation for my band’s brewery debut, I wanted to absorb as much live music at breweries as I could, and the spot most known for its sound is Woodbury Brewing Company. The reason why it’s become such a music destination has a lot to do with co-owner and booker Allan Cetrone.

While some folks might screw together a bunch of wooden pallets, Cetrone created an antique wood stage, acoustically balanced with sand and insulation beneath it, that’s large enough for nine musicians. And he hired local legend Gary Fulton to run a professional sound board.

“The music brings the energy and we have a room that helps support that energy and an intimate patron experience,” Cetrone said. “There’s no limit to what we can do here. The bands realize it’s a big venue in a little space.”

With inspiration and guidance from producer and musician Polo Jones, Cetrone centered and revised his plans for the stage and overall sound approach. Unlike many breweries, where the hard surfaces and high ceilings send sound ping-ponging around the audience, Woodbury’s room invites a warm tone, even at high volume.

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Mattson (photo by Will Siss)

One more Sunday night

Cetrone books all kinds of acts, from local songwriters to national rock acts. On a recent Sunday night, I was able to see both, with Middlebury guitarist and singer Greg Mattson opening up for Athens, Georgia-based Lullwater and headliner Blacktop Mojo from Palestine, Texas.

Mattson took the stage as part of a trio, brandishing a white Fender Stratocaster in the pursuit of some righteous licks and a smooth groove. His originals had hints of John Mayer, but he effortlessly wandered off to some space rock and r&b.

Mattson is setting his sights on California as he builds his musical career, and he’s appreciative of venues like Connecticut breweries to give him a place to gig out.

“The music scene in Connecticut is not that great, but thanks to the breweries, it’s kind of gotten a lot better,” Mattson said after his nonstop 45-minute set, punctuated between songs by prerecorded electronic dance music breaks.

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John Strickland of Lullwater (photo by Will Siss)

Second band Lullwater turned up the volume. The high-energy quartet is fronted by lead singer John Strickland, whose voice can bellow and strain with equal force. Their set, in support of their album “Voodoo,” was tight, and included a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Release.”

As if the power of rock was too much for even Woodbury Brewing, the power went out in the middle of Lullwater’s “Holy Water.” (In fact, it was planned a transformer repair that cut off power for part of the town.)

“It was blasphemy,” Strickland joked afterwards in the brewery’s backyard picnic area. “You can’t play that song on a Sunday.”

Stickland said he enjoys playing breweries, like Create Comforts Brewing in Athens. “If a brewery comes in with a good sound system, like this one, it’s a good time,” he said. “When you have the people who just want to drink and you have this loud rock band there, they’re like, ‘I do not want to deal with this music right now.’ But sometimes you’re able to get a good crowd involved and the ones that don’t want us to be there, we’re like, ‘Sorry: we didn’t book the show.’”

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Matt James of Blacktop Mojo works the crowd (photo by Will Siss)

Mojo Risin

Many of the dozens of people at Woodbury that Sunday purchased tickets and were there specifically to see Blacktop Mojo, whose album “Under the Sun” comes out September 13.

After a VIP acoustic set and meet-and-greet with ticket-holders before the show, lead singer Matt James and guitarist Ryan Keifer returned to back Woodbury Brewing’s back garden for a  few impromptu songs while the power was out.

The band then took the stage and ripped out a bombastic, joyful set. They brought things down while James climbed onto the bar and bassist Matt Curtis played an acoustic version of “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.

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Blacktop Mojo bassist Matt Curtis is rock and roll (photo by Will Siss)

James said he was amazed at the sound quality at the band’s first brewery.

“Of course you’d always like (the acoustics to be perfect), but it’s live music,” James said prior to taking the stage. “It’s all about the energy and having a good time.”

Next week, find out what happens with my band’s experience and learn about other breweries and the musicians who play them.

Until next time, sip well.

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