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Given the quality and variety of clubs, bands and shows over the much-splendored history of the local music scene, it's hard to single out any one highlight.
But most would agree that the original incarnation of the Blue Collar Happy Hour, which kicked off in 2007 at the Bank Street Cafe, was a tremendous live music series. For one thing, it crystalized the burgeoning Americana movement in the area. For another, it provided quality live music at a much earlier timeslot than the usual 10 p.m. headliner sets.
Finally, partly by design and partly by providence, the gatherings also became must-attend social gatherings wherein a tremendous cross-section of musicians and fans from all demographics began to show up on a regular basis for music AND conversation.
"That first year, we had some phenomenal times," says Ken Atkins, who co-founded the Blue Collar Happy Hour with Preston Frantz and found a home for the series in the Bank Street Cafe. "It was exactly what you'd want it to be: good music, not too loud, and a lot of coming together of a lot of different people. The main focus was to attract folks and have them gather together under the broad tent of Americana music."
Over time and for a variety of reasons, the Blue Collar Happy Hour moved to Burke's Tavern in Niantic and then the Side Pocket Cafe in Groton, until that club closed its doors and brought the series to a halt.
On Friday, though, in New London's Six String Cafe - appropriately located in the old Bank Street Cafe building - Atkins and Franz are restarting the series. Each Friday from 6 to 10 p.m., the Six String Cafe will feature live Americana music with food and drink specials, no cover charge - and will hopefully serve once again as a great social melting pot for New London.
"We just figured it was about time to rekindle the fire and get it going again," says Atkins, whose band the Honky Tonk Kind will perform at the inaugural show. "A lot of people had been asking Preston and me when we were going to do it. Frankly, we weren't sure. It takes a lot of energy and commitment. But the more we thought about it, the more we got excited."
The deal was sealed when Frantz and Atkins introduced themselves to Joe and Patty Sumera, the owners of the Six String Cafe. They opened the club at the end of 2013 and were at once committed to the idea of a place where folks would feel comfortable with the food and ambience - and with plenty of live music.
"We weren't totally aware of the extent of New London's music scene when we moved here," Joe Sumera said earlier this year, "but we'd heard good things and have been very impressed. And several people mentioned the old Blue Collar Happy Hour. It made us interested."
"Joe and Patty were all for it," Atkins says. "It seems like a good fit, and it was so rewarding to see how passionate they are and committed to music."
Frantz and Atkins were particularly delighted that the new Happy Hour will take place in the same building as the original version.
"I think there's a sort of magic to the place," Atkins says. "It's got a definite vibe and history. A lot of good times and good music happened there."
Acts performing at the Blue Collar Happy Hour will again run the gamut of Americana - from roots rock to singer-songwriter to country and even retro-soul. Occasional headlining acts will supplement the local talent.
"One big change is that we're going to aggressively support the idea of tipping the bands and the bar staff," Atkins says. "Cities like Austin have been doing this a long time. It takes some of the overhead stress off the club owners and guarantees the musicians get paid. It's a different way of doing live music, because these are very different times. Plus, it fits in with the communal spirit of the whole thing. Probably 50 percent of our crowds are musicians, and the other 50 percent are people who love music. They all get it."
Blue Collar Happy Hour, 6-10 p.m. Friday (band starts at 7 p.m.), 639 Bank St., New London; Ken Atkins and the Honky Tonk Kind; free, tipping encouraged; (860) 444-1444, six-string-cafe.com.