From the home of Colt’s Patent Firearms, Mark Twain and America’s insurance industry — Hartford, CT — comes an intimate Sunday afternoon bluegrass club experience at the award-winning Firebox Restaurant. Located at 539 Broad Street, in the shadow of the gold-domed state capitol, The Firebox is the old boiler room section of the 19th century Billings Forge metal-working complex which occupies a full city block.
Hosted by genial Nick Novia, the Sunday Night Firebox Bluegrass Series has been growing since October 2008. Some might be surprised to even think of bluegrass in New England, but from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. most Sundays, Nick presents a variety of bluegrass bands in the cozy non-smoking bar section of the Firebox with NO COVER CHARGE! Once during each of the two sets by the featured band, Nick “passes the boot” asking tips from the audience “if you think the band is worthy.”
Back in 2008, the new Firebox Restaurant was enjoying some success with a midweek jazz night. They wanted added traffic on Sundays for the bar business, but also to expose more folks to their rave-reviewed upscale American cuisine. Chef Jason Collins had experienced the bluegrass vibe at the Cantab Lounge in Boston, and hoped he could find some bluegrass music for Hartford. An on-line search led him to Nick Novia from Bridgeport.
Nick was fronting a couple of local bands — Big Apple’achia in the NYC area, and TrueGrassCT in Connecticut. The Series premiered Oct. 12, 2008 featuring Nick (guitar) and his buddies Joe Delillo (bass fiddle), Kevin Lynch (mandolin) and Casey Henry (banjo) who had all played the Bernie Caouette Memorial Festival benefit in Massachusetts earlier that day. They drew 6 customers, to the delight of the bar staff who said “that’s 6 more than we ordinarily get!” Nick kept plugging away Sunday after Sunday, with local musicians, until the regular crowd got up to a reliable 35+.
After months building the Bluegrass Series’ reputation, Nick convinced the Billings Forge Board to come up with a modest cash guarantee that allowed him to book touring bands occasionally. That was a nerve-wracking step for all! But Nick is proud that he is now able to offer all bands a “decent stipend” for their work.
Since 2008, word has gotten around that bands heading north into New England, upstate New York or Canada, or homeward-bound, can book an early evening gig in Hartford to help with travel expenses. Hartford fans have welcomed up close and personal performances by: David Davis & the Warrior River Boys, The Karl Shifflet & Big Country Show, Gibson Brothers, Mike Compton, Eddie Adcock/Tom Gray, Larry Gillis Band, Spinney Brothers, April Verch, Whiskey Boys (Celtic/bluegrass/old time), The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, River Wheel, Reunion Band, Girl Howdy (for a honky-tonk change up), Rani Arbo, Lake Street Dive, Rowan Brothers, Banjo Dan, Town Mountain, Mason Porter, Red June, Chris Brashear Band, Acoustic Blue, Hot Mustard, Honey Dewdrops, String Fingers, Travers Chandler & Avery County, The Case Brothers – Martin & Gibson Reunion, and Darren Beachley. It’s typically standing room only for the touring name bands. The Billings Forge Board and the Firebox management couldn’t be happier.
Regional bands share the rest of the calendar, including Nick’s TrueGrassCT, Big Apple’achia, Cornfed Dogs, Shoregrass, Hoe, Old Country Road, Bear Bridge Band, Chasing Blue, Grass Routes, The Old Time Bluegrass Singers, Tony Watt & Southeast Expressway and a number of Berklee School of Music students from Boston. Often, regional bluegrass pickers throw together a one time only show mixing familiar faces who normally don’t appear together.
The Firebox opens at 4:30 p.m., and Nick introduces the band and starts the show at 5:00. Patrons are seated on barstools or at bar tables and booths, amid the mighty beams, wrought iron, planked cathedral ceiling and red brick architecture of old time American manufacturing. With the assistance of the friendly staff, fans enjoy a tasty bar menu. The full restaurant menu is also available in the bar for those who enjoy fine dining with their bluegrass music.
Nick always features an Appalachian Pals open mike jam from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m.. Local pickers troop up to the mike and wing it. A number of budding bluegrass stars have been honing their presentation as Appalachian Pals, learning to make do and improvise on the fly with whatever bass player, fiddler, guitar picker, etc. happens to be there that night. Some of the featured bands’ members can’t stand to miss the fun, and join in to everyone’s delight. The late Martin Hollis, who helped form one of the earliest bluegrass bands in England, made his home in Hartford in recent years and was always ready to grab a guitar and offer up his baritone vocals.
At 7:00 p.m. the featured band returns. The evening closes at 8:00 with the band, Nick and all the patrons bellowing out Jimmy Martin’s Drink Up and Go Home. The King of Bluegrass would surely approve. Everyone has to be out by 8:30 so the staff can close up the bar. On summer evenings the ride home is in sunlight! Everybody’s home at a decent hour for work Monday morning.
The Firebox bar atmosphere can only be described as convivial, as bluegrass friends shake and howdy and catch up on the latest news. The bar crowd on Sundays comprises 100% bluegrass fans. The regulars critically evaluate each band, and also observe and welcome each week’s crop of new fans. Occasionally kids come along with Mom and Dad — hey, it’s a nice place! The touring bands enjoy the opportunity to sell a few more CDs and make new fans.
It’s always a treat to see decked out fine diners at the maître d’s desk, craning their necks to check out the bluegrass music going on right over their shoulders in the bar! Some of these folks return on subsequent Sundays to join the bluegrass audience. Nick has a phenomenal memory for names and faces, and he spots each newcomer and signs them up for his e-mails. Many of the Bluegrass Series patrons return to the Firebox for a fine dinner on other days of the week.
If you’re in Connecticut on a Sunday afternoon, join Nick and his Applachian Pals and featured bands at the Firebox Restaurant. It’s a rare Sunday when there’s no show scheduled but Nick has learned that the crowd is weak on Mother’s Day or on major bluegrass festival weekends!
You can check the schedule online.
New England bluegrass fans need to have the Sunday Night Firebox Bluegrass Series on their Favorites or Friends lists and GPS!