Before she bought her roadhouse tavern in Weare, Mary Ellen Robinson-Montplaisir hadn’t even thought about running a bar. When it was Palmer’s, she’d gone there to socialize and sometimes complain about the weekly karaoke that passed for entertainment.
“Finally, the owner said if I thought I could do better, I should try,” she recalled. “It was an offer I couldn’t walk away from, and a challenge. I wanted people to see this isn’t just a small town.”
Boondocks Tavern & Country Grill opened two years ago last August. Along with the smoked, sauced and seared “triple threat” wings were live rock, blues and country.
“Who doesn’t love music?” she thought.
Solo acoustic Thursdays gave way to bands on the weekend; in October, a weekly blues jam launched.
The cozy tavern has a porch just off the stage scattered with rocking chairs where patrons can grab a smoke or relax with a beverage when the weather is warm. The music includes regional favorites ranging from Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson to country rocker Tom Dixon, who played one of the final sets with his band, and continues to perform solo when visiting from Nashville.
On a recent Saturday, power trio Tore Down House satisfied a packed house with covers from ZZ Top, Pink Floyd, Traffic and a few originals.
Erik Gustafson walked into this milieu — well, wandered is probably a better word. Last winter, he visited New Hampshire from Montana, his home for three decades, and fell right into the music scene. As Erik “Fingers” Ray, the veteran guitarist, had put himself through college playing Missoula bars; on New Year’s Eve, he jammed with bluesman Willie J. Laws at Tamworth’s Brass Heart Inn.
Laws’ bass player Mickey McGuire told him about Boondocks. Gustafson moved here midsummer to take a teaching job at Bishop Brady School. Upon arrival, he checked it out and became instantly enamored. “All the roadhouses I played in Montana have closed,” he said. “This reminds me so much of the old honky-tonks I used to play … salt-of-the-earth people and good times.”
Looking to quickly establish his bona fides, Gustafson entered the Granite State Blues Challenge last month. He won, with a performance that had the earmarks of a ringer. He arrived the moment he was to go on stage and took five minutes getting in tune, but he still beat former champs Arthur James and Dave Keller.
“They’re both very talented bluesmen,” he said, “and they were extremely welcoming and nice to me.”
On a recent Wednesday at Boondocks, he displayed the talent that won the judges over and earned him a spot at the world championships in Memphis next January.
“They call me ‘Fingers’ — it’s an adjective, not a verb,” he said, launching into a set of acoustic blues beginning with the bouncy “I’m Just a Bump In Your Road.”
He followed that original tune with John Lee Hooker’s “Daddy Was a Jockey” and “Pony Blues,” a song by Delta master Charley Patton.
“I had a ranch in Montana, so I know a lot of songs about horses,” Gustafson laughed.
He closed with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” turned into a swampy shuffle with deft slide guitar work. The English band drew the ire of blues purists for plagiarizing players like Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters without compensation.
“I’m stealing that song back,” said Gustafson with a laugh.
Erik “Fingers” Ray is booked to host Acoustic Thursday on Dec. 5, and effusively sang the praises of both Boondocks and its owner.
“She’s a great lady and is really trying to promote live music,” he said. “It’s an authentic roadhouse and I’m looking forward to finding my niche there.”