The quirky, cheerful, contagious allure of Rock Hall’s music house

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Shall we go hear jazz and blues this week, or zydeco next time? Why not both?

Every week brings a high caliber of live music to The Mainstay, a 110-seat venue disguised as a storefront on Main Street of Rock Hall, Md.

“It’s a quirky place. I think about ten of the chairs match,” quipped Matt Mielnick, executive director of the nonprofit stage, which opened in 1997. The stage is only a few feet up and away from the floor. That close, the musicians can really speak directly to the audience, and get a response. “The locals and the visitors ate it up, they loved it.”

The Mainstay is a listening room, which means the experience is centered around watching the performers (usually not chatting or even dancing).

“Unlike a barroom, … it’s rapt silence. They’re hanging on the performer’s every note, hanging on the singer’s slightest intonation, and honestly, at the end of every show — they jump up and cheer,” Mielnick said. “And it’s intoxicating, it’s contagious.”

Mielnick lived in Utica, N.Y., when he read the job listing for “this odd little place [that] hit all the right buttons,” Mielnick said.

“I’ve been here for about six months. I’m pretty much amazed. Rock Hall is a very small harbor town that happens to be situated on the Eastern Shore … and I’m told that within a few weeks we can expect thousands of visitors who either spend their summers or their weekends here.”

When it comes to performance spaces, Kent County has some gems, but The Mainstay is one of the few venues offering live music on a regular basis, year-round. And it’s an impressive lineup of high-caliber musicians who perform, often at the international level. Shows are performed weekly, including jazz, bluegrass, folk, zydeco, gospel, Celtic, classical, American songbook and more.

“This room has enjoyed visits by some of the many of the world’s impressive musicians … giants in the jazz, American, bluegrass genres, and they’re all coming to little Rock Hall, Md., and giving these wonderful performances,” Mielnick said.

“And they all ask the same question: ‘Can I come back next year?’

Rock Hall is located off a two-lane country road, between Chestertown and a peninsula surrounded by the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay.

Some 2022 summer highlights include vintage jazz vocalist Hilary Gardner, Mark Hummel and the Blues Survivors on Father’s Day; acoustic duo The Black Feathers; first Fridays with pianist Joe Holt; Open Mic Night on second Wednesdays; and The Mainstay’s 25th Anniversary Gala featuring The Annapolis Jazztet.

Now, take that indoor magic, and put it under the stars: this summer, a backyard amphitheater will finish construction for summer 2022.

“It’s this lovely covered stage with a fanned out seating area in front of it. We could comfortably seat 200. That will open up all kinds of fun options for more bands and outdoor movies,” Mielnick said.

This idea resulted from COVID’s push toward outdoor recreation. Also, when people couldn’t gather for indoor concerts, The Mainstay live-streamed their concerts online, so at least the music wouldn’t stop.

This quirky small-town venue originated as a pet project and a labor of love by the late Tom Hugh. This former college professor returned to Rock Hall and began to stage informal concerts, using his own musical knowledge and experience. His project found its permanent home when a local real estate mogul offered free use of a vacant storefront in 1997.

The Mainstay name refers to “that part on a sailing vessel which supports the whole superstructure and holds things together. That is the work The Mainstay has chosen to do — to support, serve and inspire the great arts communities of Rock Hall, the greater Kent County area and our appreciative neighbors along the Chesapeake Bay,” their website states.

And indeed, community has built around this musical spot. After every performance, at least one person tells Mieknick, “This is my first time here, and it won’t be my last.” And some of the volunteers have been working there for years. They feel that connection, too.

“These concerts really have this amazing power to capture people’s attention … once they’ve experienced one of the shows there, I think it’ll be a long time before they forget it,” Mielnick said. “They’ll make a point of returning not just to Rock Hall, but to The Mainstay.”

Adult beverages are available on-site. Make it a full night out with Rock Hall’s downtown and regional restaurants.

The Mainstay is located at 5753 N. Main Street, Rock Hall, Md. For more information, call (410) 639-9133 or visit mainstayrockhall.org. Tickets can be purchased online or reserved by phone.