There’s perhaps no greater champion of local music in New Hampshire than Rob Azevedo. Host of Granite State of Mind on WKXL and WMNH, Rob’s a veritable local celebrity and a tireless torch-bearer. Radio host, writer, director, and now author of his own book, Notes From The Last Breath Farm, he wears a lot of hats. The biggest of which, by his own admission, may very well be music fan.
We chatted with Rob and conducted an interview to the man who’s interviewed hundreds of musicians.
Folk New Hampshire: How long have you been in the state?
Rob Azevedo: Over 20 years total. Graduated from Plymouth State College in 1994, then lived in Holderness for a stint, moved further north and worked in Lincoln for a few more years, moved home to Mass. for seven years then bought a house in Manchester and have been here for the last 16 years.
FolkNH: What was your first radio gig and what inspired you to start your own show?
RA: That would be WNHN out of Concord, 94.7 FM. And it all came about from a nice basement puff session one night when I said to myself, “Hey, I think I want to be a DJ.” So, I reached out to the bosses at the very small local station, WNHN, and they had me come in to pitch my idea for a show and they liked it. They gave me a three-show tryout with my then co-host, Dave Cummings, and now about eight years later I’m still doing Granite State of Mind, today at WKXL in Concord and WMNH out of Manchester.
FolkNH: You’ve pretty much single-handedly created a hub for the local music community in Granite State of Mind. Did you consciously set out to help local artists in such a big way or was that a happy side effect from following your own pursuits?
RA: Consciously, absolutely not. And thank you. I simply had one artist play a couple songs on the air one night, I think it was Dusty Gray or Delanie Pickering, Walker Smith or Jasmine Mann. One of them. I knew none of them. Never heard any of their music before. But, I figured out after the show aired that the program worked much better as a “less of me, more of them” format. Since then, I probably have had on about 300-400 different artists perform on the show. No joke. Without the artists and their musical pursuits, well, there would be no GSM. So, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
FolkNH: Being a local musician, I can see firsthand the positive impact you’ve had on the NH music community. Have you, yourself, been able to realize and really appreciate the impact you’ve had on the community?
RA: I don’t ever focus on that. I’m just a fan, really. In truth, I do it for selfish reasons. I’m a music junkie! And what better way to spend a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night than having incredible music performed a few feet in front of you in such an intimate setting? What I did was bring the old format of radio back when DJ’s played music they loved from their own personal vaults that wasn’t programmed for them. You know, unlike the fast food music being played on every other station, basically, around the dial. I went old school and provided “live” in-studio performances with extended air time and interview time. It’s been a win-win for everyone. But, if I went off the air this week, never to return, the music scene wouldn’t miss a beat. That’s for sure. But my absolute favorite thing to witness is when I have a couple different bands in studio on a given night, and neither have ever met, but they sit and watch and listen to each other play and before you know it, I find out that those two bands have recorded a whole album together, or booked a gig together, or are simply cutting a song together. I get giddy off that shit.
FolkNH: The tribute shows that you’ve been putting on at New England College’s performance space in Concord, and recently at the Shaskeen in Manchester, seem to be a resounding success. What’s been some of your takeaways from putting on these shows?
RA: Thank you. They have really taken off. And, when I start something, like the tribute shows, I have no clue how it’s going to go or if anyone is going to show up. But, I work with the artists and figure out who they want to pay homage too and run with it. The song list is made, usually, within a few days after I post the show on Facebook, and that gives the bands and singers a month to lock down the songs they have chosen. Everyone has their favorite songs they want to sing and I like to get at least 15 songs covered, at the very least. And the performances are so damn good, so connected to the audience. It’s a wonder to watch at times. Now, again, none of this happens without the bosses (Jeff Weber) at New England College providing us with a place to rip it up. And the new shows at the Shaskeen are a big party. Louder, a bit more raucous than NEC, but that dinner time hour (the 5:30pm showtimes) has really been the key. People love hearing music at that hour. Who would have known?
FolkNH: Any plans for a Granite State of Mind festival?
RA: No plans for a GSM Music Festival, but I’m pretty close to taking it one step further (actually more than one step, more like 10 steps) and opening a music hall in Manchester where it won’t just be a one day GSM music festival. It will be a 365-day GSM Music Festival! Stay tuned. But, just think of GSM on steroids!
FolkNH: That sounds amazing. Who’s your all-time favorite New Hampshire artist (of any genre)? If you can’t settle on one, give us your top five.
RA: Ok, The Rippin’ E Brakes are my all-time favorite NH rock band. There’s this band called Green Heron that I absolutely love for folk. A wonderful duo that really, really brings the goods every single time they perform. Just pros. Dusty Gray is the best performer I have seen in the state. The dude is relentlessly good. He has that thing, that stage presence. Jasmine Mann, Holly Furlone and Jen Whit I would take a bullet for just to hear them sing. The band “Who Knows What” out of Manchester is the best bar band around. Well, them and Miketon and the Nightblinders. I loved Yankee Cockfight when they were a band. Crunch blues at its finest. Walker Smith is my dude and his voice is ridiculously smooth and his writing is off the charts. But the best of the best, the numero-uno singer in the whole state, in my opinion, is Jerry Richardson of Beechwood. He’s part of that family of Route 89 musicians that remain under the radar, but kicks ass up and down the state. He’s incredible to hear sing.
FolkNH: Coming from Massachusetts, have you noticed any differences between the local music scene there and the scene here?
RA: I don’t know that scene. I doubt I could pull it off down there. Nothing against Massachusetts, but this works up here for a couple reasons. First, it’s attitude free. I don’t have to deal with anyone’s bullshit. In Mass, there’s a lot of edge. Not a bad thing, but not my jam either, not anymore. No one up here brings their baggage to the show. And up here, it’s really an “all for one, one for all” approach to the music. I’m not sure it would be the same down there. Maybe it is. Probably is. But I stick to my wheelhouse.
FolkNH: Any Massachusetts artists that stand out to you?
RA: Yes, the Green Sisters from western Mass. They are “wicked” good. And they can bust a DJ’s balls like no other act I’ve ever had in the studio. Sarah Borges is fantastic. So isn’t Ward Hayden and the Outliers. Incredible waltzy, swinging, Hank Williams-ish, country music. Also, Matt Byrnes, he’s out of Quincy. He’s damn good. Newburyport has a cluster of musicians that I really love. They do it right in that town. Lots of love for many of those cats.
FolkNH: You’ve got a book coming out very soon, your first in fact, called, Notes From The Last Breath Farm. What can readers expect from it?
RA: Well, they can expect to read about my own musical influences and how they have shaped my life. That’s one part. Music has been by my side since the first time I saw a picture of Elvis, two days after he died, when I was eight. But, it’s basically a very conversational book about chasing the dream, getting discouraged, then getting back up and doing the work until the job gets done. I think one of the reasons why GSM has worked is because, as a writer, a radio guy, and sometimes hack filmmaker, I know what it’s like to be on a “quest to be heard.” I’m on that same quest as all the musicians, but instead of chords and singing, I write, shoot and talk. Basically, it all comes back to my mother and needing to impress her, which took me years and years to accomplish. That kind of jive.
FolkNH: So music played a fairly big role in your writing the book? What otherwise did you find most influential to you when writing it?
RA: Indeed, it did. There would be no book had GSM not happened. I can tell you that. Had I not written my weekly column in the Concord Monitor for a couple years, I don’t think I would have closed the deal with my publisher, George Geers at Plaidswede Publishing. The column gave me readers, many who reached out weekly after reading something I wrote, saying they dug my style. That gave me the confidence to reach out to George and ask him to meet me for coffee. Then, I pitched him my idea for a book, just like I did at WNHN years back, and soon after he said, “Go for it. Write your book.” So, I did. And I loved doing it. I’m ready to do it again.
FolkNH: You’ll be having a pair of release parties: one at New England College in Concord on April 20th and the other at The Bookery in Manchester on May 24th. Word is that, in true Granite State of Mind fashion, you’ve invited some of the state’s best music acts to perform. Can you give us some details?
RA: Word is true! Well, if you’ve ever been to a book reading, they can be dreadfully boring. Nobody wants to watch me read for an hour or so. Trust me. I have a slight lisp. I have a rough Boston accent. So, I will read a portion of a chapter on Motown and Will Hatch will then sing a Motown tune. My chapter on Elvis will be followed up by Dusty Gray covering The King. Springsteen was an enormous influence on my life, so I wrote about it, and Dean Harlem will sing the Boss after I read some. Eric Ober will take on Dylan and my girl Jazzy Mann will close out the show. Figured, mix it up some, and not only celebrate the book, but bring out some of the people that have helped it all come to fruition along the way. I love those people.
FolkNH: Aside from the release parties, where can people pick up their copy?
RA: All the local bookstores and all the online sites, like Amazon. Plus, I’ll be selling them out of the trunk of my car, so, we can meet in an alley downtown Manchester and do the deal right there. Cash only! Kidding. Pretty much anywhere you will be able to get the book.
FolkNH: Lastly, is there anything about the local music scene in New Hampshire that you’d change or improve? What do we do right here and what would you change if you could wave a magic wand and have things your way?
RA: Nothing. Not as far as the music is concerned. The music I hear played weekly is still just as mind altering to witness as it was when GSM started. I stand star-struck nearly every time I see someone perform – solo, duo, trio, band. Rock, folk, hip hop, jazz, blues, country. All of it. And NH is still just getting started as far as live music is concerned. I think. Really, look around — Concord is cooking, Manchester is on fire, the Lakes Region Mafia, led by Jim Tyrrell, has a huge following, and as mentioned, Route 89 has a crazy great music scene, same as the coast, right down to the border.
We’re all just getting warmed up, baby!