Our first order of business here is clerical. It is to be called Colony now, not the Colony Café, as we have long been conditioned to think of it: that stylish, on-again off-again hotel/restaurant/venue that has been standing there all cool and Euro on Rock City Road just past the Green in Woodstock since 1929. New owner Neil Howard, who, in every other respect seems easygoing, open and boyishly enthused about everything, is strict on this point, going so far as to remove the word “café” from the subject line of my e-mail to him. “No one seems to register this part no matter how much I say it: IT IS NOT CALLED THE COLONY CAFÉ,” he e-shouts.
It is Colony, then, and you won’t have to tell me again. Among musicians and the local press, excitement has been building for almost two years over the restoration of this venerable venue and its reopening in May. New owners Howard and his wife, Alexia, have lived in Woodstock for a decade and are thus intimately familiar with the area’s disproportionate wealth of artistic talent and its incongruous lack of enduring anchor venues. Both are artists: Neil a songwriter, playwright and actor, Lex an actor “with one of those ‘career’ things I’d heard about,” Howard jokes.
Woodstock, we should continually remind ourselves, was cool and culturally relevant long before the big concert in Bethel 60 miles away. With a history that dates back to the days of the actual Woodstock arts colonies – when the Maverick was a hotbed of radical 20th-century art, music and thought and Byrdcliffe built its rustic campus on the hill – this room has always been one of the vibeyest in the region, a favorite among musicians and performers even as its use has been sporadic and it was hard to get a drink at the bar. Howard wants to reconnect Colony to that pre-Counterculture legacy. “[That part of] Woodstock has been a little overshadowed and overwhelmed by the late-‘60s nostalgia, and I’m hoping Colony can cut through that a bit – be the place that predates that stuff, as the building does.”
The Howards have been realistic about the challenge. Woodstock, for all its world-class talent hiding out in every other cottage, does not exactly enjoy a hopping nightlife. Its facilities have been unstable, its crowds largely unmobilized. In a savvy and forward-looking strategy, Howard put on a series of secret house concerts over the last year, to begin to develop an audience and to introduce that audience to the level of care that they are bringing both to the physical space itself and to the curation of talent. These shows were wildly successful, featuring a variety of the region’s most compelling resident pros, including Chris Maxwell, the Duke McVinnie Band, legendary alt/folkie Michael Hurley and many others.
Meanwhile, the Colony has been undergoing a loving and conscious restoration, directed by the Howards and executed by John Hornbeck and Neal Mathews of JH Construction (and by Nick Brown, the bar-builder). “Every time I went to the Colony to see music or comedy, I always pictured the ballroom as how ‘I’d do it this way,’ as I now know many people have,” Howard recalls. “Never did I think it would actually come to pass, that we’d be the ones to do it, so it’s a little wild. I just wanted Colony to be the world-class joint it was meant to be: timeless like the Dome in Paris or Tosca in San Francisco. The hope was to make the place feel old and eternal and like it’s always been there, unchanged but well-loved since 1929.”
The restoration includes a completely new kitchen, wheelchair access ramp and new ground-floor bathrooms, completely renovated upstairs bathroom suites and state-of-the-art sound and light systems. “I hope everyone will be surprised and delighted at the many personal touches we’ve added to Colony, from the custom-built bar and stage to the fully equipped kitchen and beautifully tiled restrooms,” adds Alexia. “Neil and I truly feel this space can only thrive on community, not committee, which is why we didn’t take any investors. Colony will always be a business owned by locals, run by locals for the local community.”
The Howards are quick to deflect attention to their dream team of collaborators: general manager and “all-round life-saver” Jean Michel; well-connected production manager Jim Friskel; talent buyer Kali Quinn, who has had all ten fingers involved in local booking since her days as the not-yet-legal founder of Route 32 Productions, a wildly successful live-music event promoter in New Paltz at the turn of the decade; mix engineer Manny Yupa, whose other gigs include BSP, the Mercury Lounge and numerous other prestigious New York City venues; lighting rig designer Dani MacCallum; audio consultant Pete Caigan from Flymax Studio; and, most recently on the kitchen front, Peter Cantine, late of the Bear Café in Bearsville.
What kind of music booking can we expect? If Howard, whose own excellent songs and records tend toward a stylish and modernized noir, had his pure druthers, the vibe would be pre-rock, equal parts elegance and grit, with smoke imported from a Cole Porter past. “I’ve often said I want us to be the Casablanca of Woodstock – even though my inner movie geek wants to say Rick’s Café Americain, of course. That said, it won’t be all 1940s music all the time, no matter how much I’d like that. We will have a piano; we will probably sing the ‘Marseillaise’ once in a while; but I promise there will be other cool stuff.”
By design, the venue is hardly for music alone. There will be Sunday play-readings, children’s shows on weekends, monthly events like salsa and swing dancing. How about the food? “We are going for a delicious hybrid of American diner and English pub: sliders, chicken tenders, hotdogs, French fries and onion rings, nachos, soups and salads, fish-and-chips, bangers-and-mash. Very classic and basic, but very good and rock ‘n’ roll-ready, served in baskets, meant for small tables in a darkened venue – that sort of thing. Falutin’-free.”
Colony is located at 22 Rock City Road in Woodstock. It opens in early May and is solidly booked several months down the road. Check out www.facebook.com/colonywoodstockny for more information. I, for one, am beyond psyched.