Connecticut Public Television's "Infinity Hall Live" has not only grown into one of the nation's most widely distributed music programs, it's also outgrown Infinity itself.
While most shows are still filmed at the shiny new facility in Hartford or the original 19th-century former opera house in Norfolk, a couple of larger names have had to play the Warner Theatre in Torrington to accommodate fans. That's where the Melissa Etheridge show was taped last month for an episode to be broadcast that will close the series season Aug. 26 on CPTV.
Already a new song from that performance, written just days after the massacre in Orlando, has gone viral, named after the site of the tragedy, "Pulse."
"Infinity Hall Live" has been a showcase for popular artists with a catalog of older songs to perform, but it's also been a place where newer names get the spotlight.
So the fifth season, which includes British singer Joss Stone July 22 performing before 300 in Norfolk and Ani DiFranco from Hartford Aug. 12, will include the emerging band Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds on July 29.
The season begins Friday, July 8, with the broadcast (10 p.m. PBS 24) of Rhiannon Giddens, the former Carolina Chocolate Drops singer who was on the Bob Dylan project "The New Basement Tapes," and will feature Galactic July 15.
Some 92 percent of the country, including the Top 25 markets, can see the music series from Connecticut distributed by American Public Television, according to producer Jennifer Boyd. What's more, "over this quarter alone, we've had more than 1 million people viewing our content online, and sharing and tweeting about it," she says. "And that's huge for us."
By now, there are also enough episodes of "Infinity Hall Live" to warrant anthology episodes that put together highlights from various shows. One on Aug. 5 will feature Los Lonely Boys, Tori Amos, Deer Tick, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Dawes and Rubblebucket as well as highlights from this season's shows by Stone and DiFranco.
An all-covers episode Aug. 19 will feature Joan Osborne covering Al Green, and Wilson Phillips doing the Mamas and the Papas, among others.
As a way to thank Infinity fans who have been depicted in the stands anonymously cheering in each episode over five seasons, "Infinity Hall Live" will open its live tapings free to the public, beginning July 21 with the New Orleans band The Revivalists (one must enter for a chance to win a pair of tickets).
CPTV is turning the free shows into events, too, with face painting and photo booths to further involve the community.
"We've been building and building for five years," Boyd says. "People coming from other parts of country saying, 'Hey I've seen your show online, we've seen it on television,' but a lot of people In Connecticut don't actually know we do this.
"So for us the next step in creating this multi-platform property is to now start to offer concerts for free for general public, and make them an experience, give back something to the community, have them be a celebration in what we do."
All six episodes next season will be the free shows from Hartford; two others will be compilations.
For all the apparent success of Infinity series in putting Connecticut on the map for music performance on public television, CPTV CEO Jerry Franklin says, "I have to be honest, we struggle with funding for 'Infinity Hall.'"
The coverage of the show across so much of the country helps promote underwriters who are mentioned, but because each public television station can program the show at a different time and day, it's tough to do national promotion.
In that sense, "The Kate," a series that began in January with cabaret and Broadway-style performances from the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, and shows in more than 60 percent of the country, has more secure funding.
That's because 75 percent of the costs for its first three seasons are underwritten by Sonny Whelen, a board president at The Kate and owner of Whelen Engineering.
Though it's just been seen this year, Brett Elliott, executive director of The Kate, says it's already raised the profile of the 250-seat former town hall, which opened for performances in 2008.
"When it went national last spring we certainly know that it shined a little bit of a light on The Kate and Old Saybrook," Elliott says. "We occasionally hear from people from other states from customer service emails who watched and say how great is that?"
The show has also brought some big name talent, including Jane Lynch, of "Glee" fame, who taped a show for season two of "The Kate" June 28. Upcoming shows to be taped for the series include tap dancer Maurice Hines July 26 and Darlene Love Aug. 3, with more scheduled in the fall.
The Infinity Hall show "developed a good name recognition for us, maybe faster than we otherwise would have," says Dan Hincks, Infinity Hall owner and CEO. "We've had artists come in that might not have otherwise been able to come in because they're so big."
Tori Amos, for example, flew in special to play Norfolk in 2012 after spending the year touring Europe, Hincks says. "This was the only show she did in the U.S. all year, and the reason she came in was to do the TV taping."
Having begun the TV series "Infinity Hall Live" at Norfolk informed the design of the Hartford location, where the bulk of tapings occur. "Fortunately folks at CPTV consulted with us and helped us in our design phase," Hincks says, including lighting and sight lines.
Hincks says he hasn't heard from a lot of people who specifically visit Hartford because they saw "Infinity Hall Live" on their public TV stations. But he's heard from a lot of Hartford fans who are more appreciative of the venue after seeing the show when they travel to other cities — and from people who visit the club while in town for other reasons, such as conventions.
Overall, he says, the club — and its promotion through the show — "adds to the whole arts scene and the impression people have of music and the arts in the state."
Which might be a big thing as well. "Hartford/New Haven — we're not known as a music mecca," says Franklin. "We're not 'Austin City Limits.' Although, we have the potential of doing something quite nice."
"INFINITY HALL LIVE" begins its fifth season Friday, July 8, at 10 p.m. on CPTV with a performance by Rhiannon Giddens. The full episode is already available online at ihlive.org.