Neil Howard and his wife Alexia run Colony, the storied music and performance venue in Woodstock, newly rejuvenated and thriving under their ownership.
Since its beginnings in 1929, the Colony has been through several iterations — as a hotel, a restaurant, and (most recently) as the venerable Colony Café performance space.
In 2015, it was bought by Neil and Alexis Howard, ten-year residents of Woodstock and artists in their own right. After a two-year renovation, the venue reopened its doors as the Colony (no more “Café”), and since then has played host to a cavalcade of notable musicians, comedians, and performers.
In addition to being co-owner of the Colony, Neil is a songwriter, musician, and actor with lots of thoughts on the local music scene, the future of the esteemed venue, and life in the Hudson Valley.
Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?
I grew up in the Bay Area, in a town called Lafayette, about 40 minutes outside San Francisco. My parents met in Toronto after each had emigrated from their native lands; Mom from Ireland and Dad from Australia. Somehow they ended up in the East Bay with three sons.
I grew up doing theatre and falling in love with all things old-fashioned… clothes, cars, music, movies of course… Then I got into writing and playing music as well, so for me it’s always been creativity and the arts, and always to a certain extent reaching back into the past.
I always felt very at home in old diners, vintage venues and small theaters, so I suppose it only makes sense that I would end up trying to create one.
How did you discover the Hudson Valley?
Once my wife’s career brought us to NYC, and then we drove our car out from CA a year or two later, we started taking day trips upstate. I lived in Berkeley for years, and Woodstock was a very familiar and comfortable concept to me. Of course, it was the first trip we took, and we bought a cool old renovated barn near town shortly after that first trip.
Walk us through a typical day.
Ha! Not sure if there are typical days anymore, I often say I’m always surfing between excitement and exhaustion.
In a general sense, the day starts at Colony meeting vendors, contractors and salespeople, changing and updating all the posters and show signage around the place, adding new info to the website… then it’s staff and production meetings, job interviews and menu testing, and putting out a fire or three before the bands arrive for soundcheck. Then, ideally, it’s smooth sailing, everyone has fun and we don’t stay up all night. Then it starts the next day again.
What are some of your favorite shows that performed at The Colony?
There have been so many; it’s really hard to keep track. I’m a huge rockabilly fanatic, so those nights always stand out for me: The Reverend Horton Heat, the Blasters, Big Sandy, Robert Gordon, Deke Dickerson, Bloodshot Bill, Lara Hope, the Legendary Shack Shakers… can’t get enough of it.
Where are your favorite places to spend time in the Hudson Valley?
When I have time I try to get out and enjoy the obvious outdoors just outside my window. Hiking Guardian or Overlook, checking out Kaaterskill Falls… the truth is I spend way too much time at the Colony and need to get out there more often.
During the winter, I just love our back porch, staring out into those quiet snowfalls.
Where do you do your best creative work?
Probably just at my desk, soon after rising for the day, with Mt. Guardian outside my window. Preferably raining loudly…
How has the Hudson Valley influenced or impacted your creative work?
As a songwriter, I’m definitely more immersed in the Hudson sound, so to speak. I’d been a big Dylan fan already but now much more familiar with the Band, Paul Butterfield, John Sebastian and so many others.
On the acting side, I love that there is a vibrant regional theater scene up here and many strong companies to see and support and to work with. There really is a massive creative population up here, of all kinds. It’s very cool.
What’s surprised you most about living and working in the Hudson Valley?
I really appreciate the feeling of community, not even just in Woodstock, but the whole region. There’s a sense of how we’re all here now to be part of something, and how we all can and should and do contribute, and it just creates this familial feeling.
Of course, there are always some cranky Uncles you’ll avoid at the picnic, but all in all, it feels like home and family in the best way.
Are you part of any local groups or communities you’d like to mention?
We try to support as many groups as we can, but I found I can’t contribute enough to all. I just hope there are enough awareness and support of theatre groups like Performing Arts of Woodstock, Voice Theatre, Rhinebeck Center for the Performing Arts, Phoenicia Playhouse… and the Woodstock Film Festival, Family of Woodstock, the Chamber of Commerce and Volunteer’s Day, the list goes on.
Anything you want to plug or promote?
Oh, just check our calendar and come see a show. Lots of very cool shows coming up. We’ll be throwing the Colony a 90th Birthday Party in September so look out for that too.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.