Backbeat: Capitol Theatre Debuts With Sold-Out Bob Dylan Concert After Lavish Restoration
Backbeat: Capitol Theatre Debuts With Sold-Out Bob Dylan Concert After Lavish Restoration

capitol The renovated Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York on opening night. (Photo: Jem Aswad)

One of the more welcome developments in the concert industry over the past several years has been the revival of many classic theaters, ranging from the United Palace Theatre in Manhattan to suburban venues like the Wellmont in Montclair, New Jersey. But perhaps none of them have been as ambitious as the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, approximately 35 miles north of NYC and located just 100 yards from the town's commuter train station.

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The theater opened in 1926 and enjoyed a rock heyday during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Famed for its acoustics, the venue hosted legendary shows by the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Santana, Black Sabbath and many others before a 1976 village ordinance banning music after 1 a.m. put it out of commission. The building went derelict before being restored in the early 1980s and reborn as a bar mitzvah and wedding hall that also hosted corporate events, occasional concerts (the last were televised specials for David Bowie and the Rolling Stones in the mid 1990s) and tour rehearsals (for Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and others).

marvin Marvin Ravikoff, who first renovated the Capitol: "When I bought it in 1983, it didn't have any roof, the windows were on the floor, there was no electricity or plumbing, it was flooded all the way up to the doors, and there were thousands of pigeons living here." (Photo: Jem Aswad)

And last night, after a multi-year, multi-million dollar renovation, the theater reopened in ambitious fashion with a concert from Bob Dylan, and a stellar schedule that over the next few months will host shows from artists ranging from Fiona Apple to Buddy Guy, from the Dirty Projectors to Lyle Lovett, My Morning Jacket to the Roots, from Al Green to moe. -- several of them playing multiple-night stands. But with an opening-night headliner like Dylan, the pressure was on, and the Capitol's staff delivered.

shapiro Bowery Presents' Anthony Makes, left, poses with the Capitol's Peter Shapiro (photo: Carrie Tolles)

"It was a good one, huh?" said Brooklyn Bowl founder Peter Shapiro, who helmed the Capitol's revival, in a phone conversation the morning after. "When you do an opening night you usually do a soft open, to get yourself together. But when you open with Bob Dylan, these days with social media you CAN'T do a soft open -- you're in a situation where you're doing everything for the first time on a night that sold out in not more than one or two minutes, with Bob Dylan! It's a lot of pressure, a lot of press, and a lot of stress. But now that we've done it, I'm feeling really good for what's ahead. There weren't that many issues, and a lot of things can go wrong."

dindas Capitol Theatre production manager Jon Dindas. (Photo: Jem Aswad)

The lavishly decorated theater -- filled with mirrors, chandeliers and painstakingly restored detail -- looks absolutely stunning, and sounds even better, with a d&b audiotechnik V-Series line array sound system (the first install of its kind in the country). There is also a full house projection system featuring ten HD cinema-quality projectors; content created by Mark Brickman (Pink Floyd, Roger Waters' 'The Wall' Tour) and the New York-based team of Batwin and Robin, although the visuals weren't on full display last night, at Dylan's request.

lobby The newly renovated lobby of the Capitol Theatre. (Photo: Jem Aswad)

There is even special wallpaper featuring pictures of many of the artists -- Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Ozzy Osbourne and others -- who performed at the venue during its psychedelic-era heyday. But perhaps most importantly, it's a great place to see a show, with multiple bars, great sightlines, seating for those who want it and plenty of room to walk around for those who don't. I was also able to slip into the balcony, even though my ticket said "floor."

interior The Capitol's balcony, part of the more than $2 million revamping of the famed theatre. (Photo: Jem Aswad)

"That's not solely a coincidence -- we kept it a little loose," said Shapiro. "I'd like to run this place a little more… genteel, friendlier than some theaters, you know? We can dial that up or down, we can make adjustments. A lot of people commented on that -- it was crowded but not too crowded, the audience was moving around a lot, people were hanging out. We'll see how that goes in the future, we can't always allow it, but it certainly boded well. It's a club atmosphere in one of the most beautiful theaters in America."

squirrels The golden squirrel motif, part of the building's original design, has not yet been satisfactorily explained. (Photo: Jem Aswad)

And while Dylan played a not-uncharacteristic set -- featuring radical rearrangements of many of his best-known songs, often sung in a rapid-fire style that almost seemed designed to discourage sing-alongs -- he was uncharacteristically cheerful: smiling a lot, tweaking lyrics, and singing a couple of songs unencumbered by an instrument. (For a highly informed review of the show, see Jon Pareles' article in the New York Times.) He even -- sort of -- danced.

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"Did you see those last couple of songs?" Shapiro laughed. "He was like, doing a jig!" And while he didn't hear it from the man himself, "We know that Dylan had a great time."

dylan Bob Dylan and his band ran through a series of hits from his extensive catalog. (Photo: Jem Aswad)

Spotted in the crowd were the Roots' ?uestlove (who chuckled when asked if he was scoping out the venue before the first of several special Roots shows there -- this Friday a benefit with ex-Grateful Dead member Bob Weir for the Headcount organization that will also feature guests Warren Haynes, Grace Potter and others), Anthony Makes and John Moore from Bowery Presents (which co-books the venue), legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and a few others. But "per Dylan's request, we were limited in what we had for tickets, so it wasn't a big celebrity thing," Shapiro said. "He wanted them to go to the fans."

Tickets were all $65, although they probably won't be a uniform price for most shows. "Occasionally, or maybe they'll be priced like general admission for most of the balcony but the loge will be differently priced," Shapiro said. "But it'll be show by show, it won't be one rule."

plaques An unfinished room off of the lobby that will soon be a full-service bar features photos from classic performances at the venue, including Chicago, Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter. (Photo: Jem Aswad)

As for the ambitious diversity of the shows in the coming months, production manager Jon Dindas -- a local boy who saw Phish and Blues Traveler at the Capitol in 1990 -- said, "We talked about it forever, and what we decided was to get a lineup that talked to what we wanted to do -- some jam bands, some R&B, some rock, progressive blues. What we hope with these first shows is to have something for everybody, and once they see the venue we hope they'll come back. There are millions of people who live outside of New York who don't want to go into the city every night for their entertainment, and drawing from some people from the city, up north Connecticut and west of here, there isn't a room like this anywhere in the area."

night The Capitol at night, complete with spotlights. (Photo: Jem Aswad)

And the cost? "The number that's been out there is $2 million, and all I'll say is, it was more than that," Shapiro said. "Let's just say it was a multi-million dollar operation."

Asked if there was anything about opening night that he wasn't really satisfied with, Shapiro paused a few beats and replied, "I thought the lighting in lobby 3, where the stairs are, was a little too bright…"