Music scenes don’t just happen. People create them. Personalities create them. Musicians, artists, fans, club owners and impresario. It actually takes a village—but it’s usually one or two personalities that infuse the community with a particular vibe.
“I like to create environments that I want to be in,” said Vincent Hemmeter recently on a cold, clear blue day in the kitchen of his 1800’s manse high in the hills of Worcester, Massachusetts. And as I looked around at this lovingly and meticulously restored home with his eclectic collection of antiques, that one statement encapsulated the essence of Vincent’s success. The trick for me, as an interloper, was to define what “environment” means in the context of Vincent in the role of impresario of entertainment and authentic bohemian chic.
Most purveyors of the New England music scene would know of Vincent through his decades-long association with and ownership of Ralph’s Chadwick Square Diner, a longtime hip Worcester hotspot for barflies, music aficionados and scene-shaping bands like Alice in Chains, the Smithereens, Black Flag, the Neighborhoods and Living Colour. Some might know of him through his namesake bar, Vincent’s, the former Pignataro’s, which now bears the neon sign, “Vincent,” and hosts New England’s best roots, country and Americana music, thanks to an early defining Wednesday residency with a post-Push Push Dennis Brennan. Others still might know Vincent as the momentum behind Nick’s, another lovingly-restored Worcester bar which features cabaret and comedy along with more conventional music offerings. Longtime scenesters remember Vincent as the bartender and manager of Ralph’s in the ‘80’s, and some true locals remember Vincent’s first turn as a promoter at his family homestead in Dudley, MA, which in the aftermath “resembled Woodstock,” caused ordinance changes and, as Vincent slyly points out, broke even.
With his triumvirate of cool music and entertainment venues, Vincent’s personality is fused into the atmosphere of night life in Worcester. But why do people gravitate to Vincent’s establishments? Some of the answer is the quality of the music, of course, but most of the music is performed by local artists, not “the big names.”
I was telling a friend about Vincent’s renovation of Pignataro’s in 1997 and my friend said, “You mean it wasn’t always that way?” For those of you who haven’t seen Vincent’s, it hosts a beautiful antique barback, wooden ceilings and floors, neon signs, miscellaneous taxidermy (including a cat named Paulie), an antique photo booth and a personally-curated jukebox. And that’s just inside. Outside, just beyond the tented “smoking area,” is a log cabin with a tin roof and rocking chairs on the front porch. Add to this Vincent’s renowned meatball sandwiches and who WOULDN’T want to hang out in a place like this?
This all started at Ralph’s, where, as fortune would have it, Vincent observed owner Ralph Moberly’s predilection for the placement of antique objects in a nightclub environment. The difference being that Vincent had at one time seriously considered a career as a fine artist. After working at Ralph’s as a manager and bartender for several years, Vincent convinced Ralph and his wife Carol to allow him to keep the diner section of the club open on weekends during the normally-closed six weeks between January 1st and mid-February while Ralph and Carol were in Florida. After two years of successful runs, Ralph and Carol then gave Vincent the latitude to “transform” the diner, which he did, with his own artistic sensibilities. The diner became a nightclub unto itself (still adjacent to the upstairs performance club), with its own music bookings, and it was here Vincent defined his personal style.
From here Vincent knew he would strike out on his own, and thus Vincent’s came into being. A side note about the “Vincent” sign, which speaks volumes about Vincent’s knack for personal infusion: At one time there was a “Vincent Jewelers” on south Main Street in Worcester. The owners’ daughters used to hang out at Ralph’s. Vincent found out there was a neon sign underneath the existing sign and asked the daughters if he could have the sign. He was told by the owner he could have it if he removed it, and remove it he did, along with a flashing neon diamond. Later, when he bought Pignataro’s, he had a friend refurbish the neon, turn the diamond into a martini glass and, voila, “Vincent” was born. Vincent mentioned that the only people who ever comment on the singular vs the possessive of the sign are musicians, and that Dennis Brennan used to say ”Welcome to Vincent” whenever he played.
Nick’s was an even more ambitious endeavor, transforming the old “Stony O’Brien’s” (the former “Uncle Tom’s Café”) from a Holy Cross sports bar hangout to a cabaret-infused restaurant and bar in 2007. With his now-practiced eye toward the aesthetic, Vincent saw the original tin ceiling in this old Milbury Street saloon and spent months renovating– two months on the ceiling alone– while starting to develop the cabaret concept which became more pronounced through his girlfriend’s theatrical background with the Foothills Theatre Company. And thus, because of Nicole, as well as the bar “Nick’s” in one of their favorite films, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Nick’s came into being. In another twist of the creative and personal early on in Nick’s launch, Vincent and Nicole ran an ad for Nick’s in a gay pride magazine and a pianist from the former Golden Lamb restaurant came in and became part of the early and eclectic imprint of Nick’s.
Is there anything else that explains Vincent’s success? Well, he’s a true music lover, of course. His father saw to that by constantly playing music of all kinds for Vincent and his sister, saying, “Listen to this!” And Vincent’s aunt clinched the deal by playing the Beatles, Harry Belafonte, Mel Tormé for a very young and impressionable Vincent. Vincent became a trumpet player in the marching band in (ironically) Temperance, Ohio, as an elementary school student, but when the family moved to Dudley, MA, for some reason Vincent wasn’t enrolled in band again. Maybe the absence of music opened the door to Vincent’s interest in the visual arts- painting, sculpture and film—but his engineer father prevented the pursuit of the fine arts and Vincent began to drift. Early on, Vincent spent five months seeing Europe on a saved-up shoestring, only to return to the States and the necessity to earn a living. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention and the eclectic aspects of Vincent’s interests and character combined with a vigorous work ethic and charismatic personality enabled him to bring it all together in his “created” profession of impresario. The reality is that Vincent is an artist.
Musicians recognize these art-friendly places from the “vibe” of Vincent’s establishments. These environments, created as “places I would want to be,” resonate with musicians as places that THEY want to be—and want to play. Those with an interest in music and the arts are drawn to these environments in the same way. And each of these environments, while different, has the same “energy.”
There are people who have this “magic touch,” which is really a combination of artistic, aesthetic and personal qualities that give a place “atmosphere.” It’s something born, not made, and in the case of music, it’s very rare. By proxy, Vincent has been an underpinning of the Massachusetts music scene since the 1980’s. He continues to provide places “I’d want to be” and musicians want to play, and deserves to be recognized as one of the vital and treasured benefactors of music and arts in Massachusetts.
Vincent fun facts:
- Grew up in Temperance, Ohio and now owns 3 bars
- Earned his own way without help from his family
- Bought Ralph’s from Ralph and Carol as they were splitting up in 2002
- Sang in the rock band Perceptional Eclipse in high school
- Favorite band from Ralph’s – Rash of Stabbings
- Vincent’s is across from the David Clark Company which, fittingly, manufactures space suits
- The bar rail at Vincent’s is a railing from Quinsigamond High School
- In 2017 celebrated 10, 15 and 20 years of ownership of Nick’s, Ralph’s and Vincent’s, respectively
(by John Cate)