Rick Omonte and Carlos Wells inside The State House

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The State House feels like a place where almost anything creative could happen. That’s the way co-owner Carlos Wells and talent buyer Rick Omonte like it.

The new music venue on State Street (hence the name) is inconspicuous on the outside, a low brick building “hiding in plain sight,” as Omonte describes it, squatting at the rear of a parking lot. But when the double metal doors open and the music hits the street, it’s harder to miss.

“‘Is that door open?’” Omonte says he hopes people will wonder, to which he responds: “Then come on inside.”

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An “everyone’s welcome” ethos is evident from the eclectic list of music offerings coming up to the “Gender Neutral Bathroom” signs on the upstairs restrooms to the crowd that showed up last Monday night for Middletown-based Afrobeat opener The Lost Tribe followed by the big, bright sounds of Puerto Rican salsa band Orquesta el Macabeo. The 75 or so clubgoers ranged in age from teens to elders in a cultural mélange, bobbing heads or salsa dancing on the original pine floor, leaning in thought against the wall, eating Latin food from pop-up Feliz, talking, clapping, singing. “Every now and then these things happen in this room, and… my heart swells with pride, and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, it’s coming together. People are interacting,’” Wells says.

It’s just the start of programming that Omonte promises will be “across the board… We’re trying to do our own thing…, and I think that there’s plenty of room to do that.” Wells agrees. The State House’s mission he says, is to “get together the events… that kind of cater towards the diversity of this town… There’s a lot of people that would love to go out more, but they just don’t because there’s not a salsa band playing, there’s not an Afro-beat playing, there’s no reggae happening, and they just kind of feel left out.”

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These guys know New Haven’s music scene. Omonte ran a concert series at BAR for eight years and has booked talent for Cafe Nine, Lyric Hall and “a bunch of underground spots in New Haven.” He also plays electric bass in two bands—Headroom and Mountain Movers. That experience means he knows how to make a venue home not just to its concertgoers but to its talent. Wells has been putting out records since the early 2000s and booked bands for the old Rudy’s (now Three Sheets) and Cafe Nine as well as working with Omonte on some shows at BAR.

But the State House feels like something a little different, with a layout that emphasizes the music. A small bar in the back corner serves beer, wine, sake cocktails, hard cider, Red Bull and soda (and ear plugs), but front and center is a full-sized stage backed by a large projection screen. A Midas sound board is hard-wired in (no cables to trip over). And the refinished pine floor turns the whole place into a dance space.

Wells and co-owner Slate Ballard have kept the decor simple. Black-painted sheetrock walls give way to the original cement structure, sealed to preserve its gritty appearance. A giant archway, now sealed up, hints at one of the building’s previous lives; Wells suspects it was the loading dock for the Horowitz Brothers dry goods store at 760 Chapel Street (now The Grove and Dollar General). Wells says he and Ballard and Omonte continue to “dial in” the details. More acoustic panels are coming to smooth the corrugated steel ceiling, though Wells says they’ve been lucky with the sound so far: “Without any treatment on the ceilings it sounds amazing in here.” The bar will eventually have 10 taps, eight for local brews and two more for wine. Omonte has his sights set on a shower and washer/dryer for bands on the road.

While most of the current fall lineup is music—including indie rock, hardcore, “bedroom pop,” folk banjo, hip hop, gypsy rock, a surf band and good old rock ‘n’ roll—Omonte says the State House isn’t meant to be solely a concert venue. “We also want it to be… a house for spoken word and readings and a movie screening,” he says.

If last Monday night’s joyous show is any indication, New Haven is already watching.

The State House
310 State St, New Haven (map)
Website | Grand Opening Event (Friday 10/19)

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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