Category Archives: Cultural Critiques

Cage Uncaged at Nick’s

Written by Matt Robert
From the September 12, 2013 issue of Worcester Magazine.

My Facebook news feed inundates me with an infinite stream of event listings, highinterest news bytes, memes and photos of, well, everything from a friend’s breakfast to a sustained injury to, well, everything. After a while, I stop noticing anything.

Two weeks ago, however, my eye stopped on a post by a local musician, Michael Thibodeau, who sought a few volunteers for an upcoming show.

Nothing unusual, right?

Except, in this case, he needed 12 people to perform on AM/ FM radios.

Ah, John Cage is back in town, I thought.

The late John Cage is on a short list of 20th century composers – or inventor, as he referred to himself – that embodies everything many love or hate about modern art. The piece in question, “Imaginary Landscape no. 4 (March no. 2 for Twelve Radios),” is just one of hundreds that challenges our old-fashioned notions of what music can or should be. It is also one of four Cage pieces being staged for a centennial celebration of the artist by the Cage and Cardew Society, a Clark University group headed by Thibodeau and Clark Music professor, Matthew Malsky, on Wednesday, September 18 at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant.

The Cage and Cardew Society came together about a decade ago, when Thibodeau and Malsky, his advisor, staged the first “Living Room Concert” (named for the Cage piece performed at that first concert) that featured performances of student compositions by other students as well as avant-garde works, in a “supportive” environment in which to present their “‘outside’ musical ideas,” says Malsky.

The teacher and mentor stayed in touch after graduation, often organizing programs. One recent night, over beers at Nick’s, says Thibodeau, the two began imagining Cage’s works in the intimate, ambient room. “Nick’s is a favorite watering hole and a great supporter of local music,” says Malsky. “It offers the kind of laid-back environment we’re looking for.”

The result is a four selection program, consisting of “Living Room Music” (a multi-movement piece for a percussion and speech quartet that involves making instruments of common household objects), the self-explanatory “Music for Amplifi ed Toy Piano,” the aforementioned “Imaginary Landscape no. 4” and the legendary “4’33”,” a work that has been the object of widespread scorn and ridicule and, for some, living proof of the scam that modern art represents. In fact, the audience howled and jeered at Cage after the inaugural performance of the piece in 1952.

I won’t spoil the fun or surprise for the uninitiated by describing the work (or by attempting to defend it). Another Cage piece currently being performed (yes, currently being performed) helps to suggest the creative world he inhabited. The 1985 “Organ 2/ASLSP” (“As Slow As Possible”) is underway in a chapel in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance, begun on September 5, 2001 (Cage’s 89th birthday), will continue for 639 years and is expected to continue until the year 2640. The first 17 months, for example, represented the opening rest prior to the first tone and a website allows the curious to hear the current tone.

It all probably sounds like hokum to the skeptical, but Cage’s work was rooted in his study of Buddhism and the I Ching, and he devoted himself to the revolutionary concept of incorporating chance into musical composition and performance. Further, in the years since his compositions sent classical audiences into fits, tectonic shifts in the scope of even the most mainstream and bland popular music has meant the adopting and embracing of much that was once avant-garde, like making instruments out of things like turntables, water drops, closed and prepared (manipulated) piano, and even elements of silence and sounds inherent in the performance space and among the crowd.

Malsky says that he and Thibodeau will be involved in every performance and “they may have to play a chair or a radio or something,” but, though “they may be challenging for the audience,” the works are “fairly standard for the performer.”

If this all sounds heady and uptight and overly serious, it isn’t. Thibodeau and Malsky are planning on a night of fun. When asked what we might expect from the show, Thibodeau shrugs off the question and says, “I think we’re all wondering that.” Malsky adds that the format, modeled after Cardew’s 1960’s London “Scratch Orchestra,” intends to bring together “‘musicians’ and those who wouldn’t usually call themselves musicians.”

“The personnel is always open,” Malsky adds. “We’ll fi nd a way for anyone who’s interested to participate. Michael and I are merely instigators.”

I clicked “Going.”

See the Cage and Cardew Society performance at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant, 124 Millbury St., Worcester on Wednesday, September 18 at 8 p.m.

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The Days of Knight: Becker College Exhibit Illustrates the life of local artist, Jacob Knight

http://media.worcestermag.com/images/470*247/COVER_JacobKnight_byStephenDiRado.jpg

by Matt Robert / photo above by Stephen DiRado
Originally appeared in the May 8, 2013 issue of Worcester Magazine.

Becker College will celebrate its 225th Commencement on Saturday, May 11, and stage a one-night exhibit of Jacob Knight (born Roger Jaskoviak), the prominent local folk artist and the alumnus of the former Leicester Junior College (now the Leicester campus of Becker College), on Friday, May 10, from 6-9 p.m., as part if the College’s Commencement activities.

Though not exactly a household name, Jacob has a powerful cadre of acolytes and a number of avid collectors, who continue to bear the torch which illuminates this legendary character’s work. Combine this with the newfound attention from Jacob’s alma mater, in general, and its archivist, in particular, and then add a well-timed landmark in the college’s long history, and you just might have the catalyst to grow this accomplished artist’s status in the art world.

THE TASK

“First of all,” says Becker preservation archivist Nancy Richards, “we just really started putting this thing together in March. I had learned through my work in the archives that Jacob Knight had gone to school here, to Leicester Junior Academy, as Roger Jaskoviak, his birth name. He graduated in ’61.”

Jaskoviak, says Jonathan Cook and Kirk Jaskoviak’s biography assembled for the exhibit, had graduated from Spencer’s David Prouty High School, where he was a four-year class president, a dominant baseball and basketball player and track athlete, while also cartoonist for school publications, a drummer and drama club member. This last pursuit led him to Hollywood after graduation, where he appeared as an extra in several fi lms and acquired an acting contract, which he declined, choosing instead to return to the east coast. It sounds like a lot of details about Knight, but Richards says it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“One thing we’ve discovered is that there is no book,” says Richards. “There’s no complete listing of all of his works, and my coming at it with some experience as a librarian is that sense of completeness is very important.

“And going online you don’t find tons of things, and so there are still lots of holes. Exactly where is that original? Does anybody own this? Does it still exist? What’s the year of that? What’s the exact medium? So, we have a lot of research ahead of us, because my hope is that we can continue working on trying to get a full listing of everything he did, where it is today, that sort of thing.”

Richard’s challenge is exacerbated by the fact of the still spotty catalogue of this artist, who, by all accounts, made art out of everything, at every chance. He painted commercial and uncommissioned works; he sculpted, he made figures, collages, and still life arrangements from detritus scavenged from the town dump; he played guitar, bass, and drums; and he wrote poetry. And since no one person knows entirely what he made or where all of it might have ended up, the quickly assembled collection is anything but complete.

But it is as good a place as any to start.

THE EXHIBIT

“I began thinking,” says Richards, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have an exhibit or do something?” The result is the Jacob Knight Art Exhibit, which Richards hopes will break the ground for a permanent collection at the college. “As part of the college archives, which we really just established last fall,” Richards says, “there’s going to be a Jacob Knight special collection. We’ve already received some donations for that. We’ll have biographical information as well as, references to, or copies of, or original pieces, and photographs and [ephemera] if people want to donate those.”

And start it has. Documents, reproductions, and originals, as well as letters and posters and catalogues, have begun pouring in from friends, acquaintances, and contemporaries of Knight.

And this is how it begins: The art community expresses excitement, art enthusiasts collect the work and drive up its value, and groups, like colleges and universities, research and compile information that helps to complete the picture, while scholars continue to explore the meanings and historical value of the artist and works.

“One of the things that has been very interesting,” says Richards, “is that all of the people who knew Jacob as friends or relatives or classmates, going back to childhood, have been surprised at what other people have brought in or have talked about. So, even among those closest to him, no one seems to know everything that he ever produced. So, there’s been a lot of discovery going on, even among his closest friends.”

This is the beginning, perhaps, the birth of a bright light in art while his friends and family are still around to tell the story, warts and all.

The exhibit, she says, is for the purpose of “bringing together various pieces of his work to renew interest in him” and “to introduce people, who might not have heard of him to the diversity of his work.”

To this end, Richards has gathered a pretty representative sampling of Knight’s work. “Not everything is an original. We do have giclees [digital copies made on inkjet printers with a pseudo-original texture] of most, or I think all, of [Knight’s] community scenes.”

Richards has gathered several original pieces, including a morose head sculpted from wood and dressed with metal and nails that once hung outside Knight’s front door on Wigwam Hill in West Brookfield, where he made a living museum of his Colonial-era home. She also has clean, detailed folk scenes painted onto old door panels, and a rusty piece of duct work, beaten flat when Knight found it en route to the Brookfield Elementary School where he volunteered in art classes, and identified by the students as looking like a cat. Then, there is the wide wood panel adorned with old leather boot scraps that look like cuddling animals.

Knight saw the potential art in everything.

THE ART

Richards has collected photos by B.A. “Tony” King of the artist himself and his zany domain, beautiful black and whites of the artist at rest amid his imagination manifested as a home. Others chronicle the day that Knight built a towering sculpture of old bikes – right in the road.

Then, there are the album covers done by Knight, for The London Philharmonic and Corky Laing, the poster of “Carly Simon on Her Lion,” the Martex Linens catalogue for its funky 1970s “Home Is Where the Art Is” collection, for which Knight designed a set of beddings; magazine covers, and event flyers (including one for a poetry reading at Worcester’s former Coffee Kingdom, for which Union Music’s Carl Kamp was an opening act).

And, of course, the exhibit will feature the works for which Knight is perhaps best known: his classically nostalgic mural-like paintings commemorating the southern New England towns around which he grew up, like Palmer and the Brookfields. “The one he did of Palmer fills the back wall of their community room – it’s huge,” says Richards.

Others mark milestones of area businesses, like Ware’s Mary Lane Hospital’s 75th anniversary and Worcester’s Coughlin Electric’s 100th; and yet others simply mark milestones, like the Boston Common’s birthday, and the 1991 Sturbridge Harvest Festival (for which Knight always donated an outsized, outrageous scarecrow).

“He worked in acrylic or oil on canvas,” says Richards. “One of the pieces actually appears to be oil on drapery fabric. He did a lot of pieces that are what you would call ‘found objects’ or ‘bris-collage.’ He and some of his friends would make runs to the dump in West Brookfield to collect shoes, dolls, bottles, pans – almost anything you could think of,” says Richards, “and then create works from those.

“It’s a fairly common technique,” she says, “but Knight makes it distinctive. Many of the pieces he created were larger than life size.” One well known example, documented in one of the exhibit’s photographs, is a gigantic figure made entirely out of white enamel pots and pans that stood guard in his yard.

Knight excelled on canvas, too, creating meticulous, miniature worlds full of stories rooted in keen observation of geographic and cultural details, and, like Norman Rockwell, clues suggesting identities, including his own, in the works. “His works are also very personal. [In] the community scenes people can identify themselves and many times he’d work his friends in, even on album covers,” Richards says.

One such album cover, for Corky Laing’s 1977 album, “Makin’ it on the Street,” shows Jacob’s friend, the late Worcester familiar, Paul “Tiny” Stacey, who can be recognized by the blue plate he holds, signifying the Holden bar with which he is associated. An art blog features posts by “Sue Edling” discussing a painting of Knight’s that included several friends. Edling was disappointed at her omission, until Knight explained that she was a butterfly tucked safely under a boat at the bottom of the work.

“Knight excelled at both creating worlds and representing the world around him,” says Richards, “wherever that might be – Wigwam Hill, Martha’s Vineyard, Spencer or Palmer, Mass. and he did so with intelligence, ingenuity, insight, whimsy, and charm.”

So, despite the often biographical, literal nature of his folk paintings, he deemed his work “fantasy.” The term is fitting, as peculiar abstract elements often compete with otherwise documentary landscapes, such as a painting loaned to Becker by Frank and Patti White of West Brookfield, which naively depicts a small town and a disproportionately large white cat looming over the night horizon.

“It’s whimsical fantasy/folk art,” Richards says. “He had a great sense of color; and there is a real balance between human and animal life, and in many cases the animal life and nature predominate over the human images.”

THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST BY YOUNG ARTISTS

The house on Wigwam Road, where for decades, Jacob laid low and made art and friends (and perhaps a few disgruntled enemies among his neighbors), and which became in time something of a mecca for young artists who were drawn into his ever growing sphere of influence, bears little trace of the surrealism of his painted woodpiles and rock walls, his looming tin pan scarecrows, and the carved faces that emerged from trees throughout the surrounding woods. (The house remains, though the barn leans precariously to the ground.) The memories among some young artists transformed by Jacob Knight’s vision, however, burn bright as ever.

Stephen DiRado, a noted photographer based in Worcester, and an arts faculty member at Clark University, tells stories of social comment through his work. In the early ’80s, he shot a series at Worcester’s Bell Pond and another at the Galleria Shopping Mall.

He says that he met Jacob “in 1985 through a mutual artist friend, [realist, surrealist] Bryan Davagian.” Jacob, he says, had asked Bryan to drive him out to Knight’s home on Wigwam Road in West Brookfield, “to become acquainted and talk about life and art.” This led to a series of photos, at Wigwam Road, beginning in April of 1987, later published in DiRado’s book “Jacob’s House: Photographs 1987- 1994.” DiRado set up a makeshift studio in Jacob’s barn, where he made painstaking prints of the artist’s collections, and occasionally photographed the artist, too.

PHOTO: Portrait of Jacob Knight at his home by friend and fellow artist Stephen DiRado.

“My, or anybody’s, first visit to Jacob’s house is overwhelming,” says DiRado. “His environment makes any hardcore hoarder jealous. The only difference is that there was a sense of an aesthetic placement of everything collected about in his acres of yard, barn and house. It was a visual feast, and bewildering to the mind to comprehend the sanity of an individual who self-proclaims to be the caretaker of so much chaos.

“As a visual artist and one who documents community, I was hooked,” DiRado says. “Not only for what Jacob achieved with his collection, but [because] Jacob himself was an enormously charismatic individual that was impossible to neatly define. If you were willing to hold on and go for the ride, Jacob became a magician in front of your eyes, relentlessly performing his magic to an individual or willing audience.”

Beauty, though, rests in the eyes of the beholder, they say, and DiRado says Jacob was no exception. “To others, he was toxic and a recluse that was perceived to lack any sort of sophistication. Jacob was a bohemian to the bone.”

To DiRado, though, Jacob Knight was tonic not toxic. “It didn’t take me long – after a few visits – to love, respect and cherish a visionary that somehow, against all odds, in his early 50s, held onto the idealistic child within him,” he says. “Contrast this with a man that is well over 6 feet tall and looks like a lumberjack, sporting a prominent gold tooth when smiling.

“I was one of many artists that frequently drove down Wigwam Road, an old country road (at that time), to Jacob’s. We were all ears, like kids, hearing bedtime stories about his life.”

These stories are now the stuff of legend: “He was a baseball star in high school,” says DiRado, “worked briefly as an extra in Hollywood, and then moved to NYC to become a janitor at NYU in the art department. There he pulled out of the trash discarded canvases that he reworked to develop his own primitive maturing style. The finished paintings he sold out of the back of a van to the likes of Liza Minnelli, (Hungarian photographer) Andre Kertesz, (late folk guitarist) Richie Havens, members of the Rockefeller family and many more. It was hard to connect Jacob to any of these people,” says DiRado, “until he showed me photos of him side by side with all [of them].”

“Kertesz,” says DiRado, “has a portrait of Jacob in his book titled ‘Portraits.’ I was at a Richie Havens concert with Jacob in 1993, that impressed me the most. Havens, at the end of one of his songs looked out into the audience, spotted Jake and acknowledged him. Later, behind the stage, the two of them hugged and talked about old times.”

“Jacob proclaimed to be the keeper of the Brookfield’s dump. Five times a week he would rummage through new deliveries to bring back and archive an array of items. I witnessed him many times over file away books, picture frames, old photographs, toasters, kitchen utensils, and boxes. Boxes full of belongings to a recently deceased, a person’s history collected in a box to be thrown away because they were the end of the family line. Jacob felt somebody owed it to them to remember. I went through many of these boxes and relived many a stranger’s life.

“Over the years, starting in 1987, I made it a point to photograph Jacob in and around his house. Later, by the early ’90s, I invited Jake to stay with me and other friends on Martha’s Vineyard. We picked up our same conversations about life and art wherever we ended up together.”

DiRado recalls, “Upon my first visit, Jacob, now sober for a number of years, told me that his best friend for decades was Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, but it almost killed him. Sadly, with no effective say in the matter, I witnessed Jacob’s return to drinking by early 1993. Jacob died in the fall of 1994.”

For Rhode Island painter Don Cadoret, “My relationship with Jacob Knight began in the early 1980s when I went to photograph him for stories for publication. And, after first meeting him, I immediately became — I don’t know — entranced, transformed, whatever, because we were both painters and of very similar style or look at life, and from that point on, I was at his house two or three times a week photographing him, bringing paintings up and we would work out details and try to solve compositional and story elements. So, I knew him for probably 10 or 12 years.

“He was definitely the attraction,” says Cadoret. “So many people would show up at his door just to visit with Jacob and it could be problematic, because he was trying to get work done, but he never turned anyone away. He loved having visits and talking about art or the way he saw the world.

“I refer to it, I guess, as a childlike sense,” he says. “He was kind of a poet with a paintbrush and I think that’s how I changed my outlook at that point, thinking in more poetical terms, but it was still very childlike, and my work has a similar feel to it. And so I think that connection between us was immediate. He was a story painter, so he would infuse his paintings with story, vibrant colors — it was whimsical and serious at the same time. I really enjoyed that aspect of his work, and his personality matched it perfectly.”

“He kind of was putting this word out, calling it ‘folkism,’” says Cadoret, “but the whole word ‘folk’ sometimes has a negative connotation. ‘Naïve’ style is probably more correct, because he intentionally chose to paint in a naïve style, because I think it was easier to convey the story he wanted to tell and ultimately it became easily accessible for everybody else to pick up what he was saying, be it in an illustration or some of his more magical works before that, in the ’60s and ’70s.

“It’s been an argument in art circles for maybe 30 or 40 years or more about the word ‘folk art’ and how it is applied to artists, either contemporary or artists that have been dead for decades,” he says. “I guess they’re more comfortable with the phrase with long dead artists and folk artists, and when you call someone a contemporary folk artist it’s almost a slur — not really a serious artist, although Jacob really believed he was a serious artist, and he was a serious artist and an illustrator at the same time.”

Cadoret says that “anyone who is totally passionate about it and can’t do anything but that; they’re just obsessed with their painting and creating. To me, that’s a serious artist, whether they get recognized or not. Jacob had his own recognition during his lifetime; not as much since then, although it’s definitely long overdue, because I believe he was definitely a serious artist and, by Becker acknowledging that and really wanting to get behind an important alum that they have, hopefully will bring more of his work out into the forefront.”

THE CODA

Jacob Knight’s works have not yet garnered the auction prices that would make an “Antiques Roadshow” contestant gasp or earn TV news highlights. Several auction websites record sales in the past decade that top out at about $1,200 for one of Knight’s paintings, with several others ranging from $400 to $1,000. Still, the enthusiasm of people like Cadoret and DiRado, who still carry the verve of those whose lives have been altered by the model of another, is a good start. Add to that, the rich anecdotes of a life lived with passion, spontaneity, and vision (Jacob was an untrained artist. It is said that he spent exactly one day at an art school in Boston. The instructor held up a paintbrush and said, “This is a paintbrush.” Jacob quit.) and you have the kernels that may sprout into a posthumous career with legs. In fact, a bulletin board on askart.com teems with posts inquiring about the deceased artist, from former schoolmates relating his sports heroics to those who were inspired by Jacob Knight’s ways, on and off canvas, and many others hoping to contribute to some kind of complete biography of the man.

“We’re just working our way into it,” says Richards at Becker. “[He is a] very interesting man and I think the thing that I’ve noticed most strongly is how beloved he remains almost 30 years after he died. The people who knew him just love him.”

Attend a reception for the Jacob Knight Art Exhibit at Becker College on the Leicester Campus, in the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Campus Center, 964 Main St., Leicester on Friday, May 10 from 6-9 p.m. Those interested in contributing Jacob Knight artwork to the exhibit should call the Becker College Office of Institutional Advancement at 508-373-9531.

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The Play’s the Thing: “Taming of the Shrew” and “Cyrano De Bergerac” featured for Clark University’s Traina Shakespeare Week 2013

By Matt Robert
Originally appeared in the January 10, 2013, Worcester Magazine
Dust off your doublets, corsets and codpieces, it’s Traina Shakespeare Week at Clark University.

“I think this is our fourth go-around,” Clark theater professor Gino DiIorio says of the event, which features two public performances, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 biographical portrait, “Cyrano De Bergerac,” on Tuesday, Jan. 15, and William Shakespeare’s 1590’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” on Wednesday, Jan. 16. Both shows begin at 7:30 p.m.

“We thought, the fact that we could get ‘Taming,’ which is a comedy — it’s lots of fun — and a play like ‘Cyrano,’ which you don’t see performed much anymore, that was really great,” says DiIorio.

“Fortunately we have the Traina Shakespeare Fund, an endowment set up by Dick and Polly Traina,” he says. “Dick was president of Clark University for a long time, and Dick and Polly were great friends of the arts, particularly the theater, but also music.” The fund, DiIorio says, “allows us to bring in a classical theater company, preferably Shakespeare, about every two or three years.” During the weeklong residence, the theater company may “give free performances to the Clark community” and “do shows for the University Park Campus School, so the seventh and eighth graders can come and see Shakespeare — all free of charge.”

Local residents benefit, too, according to DiIorio, as Clark offers the two public performances at a cut-rate ticket price of $10 (free to local college students with a valid I.D.).

The Aquila Theatre Company, which originated in London, but presently operates out of New York City, believes in “theatrical utilitarianism,” whose object is to bring theater to the largest possible audience.

“I think it’s for everybody,” says DiIorio. “We’ve brought in actors from the London stage in the past. They’ve been a great asset to Clark.” The benefit, as DiIorio sees it, extends beyond entertainment, and is fundamental to Clark’s educational goals, at both college, as well as high-school and middle-school levels.

To this end, DiIorio notes, “I would say that they are not traditionalists. They try to make this stuff very modern. They do a lot of theater for young audiences, so they are used to adjusting things, so it speaks to a more modern audience. But they also know the verse, too. Very often it’s modern dress and there’s a lot of technical things. We haven’t seen anyone ‘in the ruffles,’ as I would say, in a long time. We might see that with ‘Cyrano.’ We’ll see.”

“I’m pretty certain that ‘Taming’ is modern,” says DiIorio, “but modern in quotes. It’s not like they’re in their jeans.”

DiIorio estimates this to be the fourth Clark Shakespeare Week under the Traina endowment, during which “we’ve brought actors in from the London stage twice.” He says that, as part of the goal of reaching the kids at Clark as well as the University Park Campus School, a 7-12 grade Worcester school founded in 1997 as part of a larger partnership between Clark University and local community-development organizations to reverse the economic and social decline of the neighborhood, “one of these days I’d really like to bring in a [particular] predominantly black company that [performs] the Greeks, and I think that’s especially good, especially for the kids at a school like University Park Campus, because a lot of time they look at the classics and they think, ‘Well, that’s just something that white kids do,’ and nothing could be further from the truth. So, when they get to see actors of color performing the Greeks, performing Shakespeare, it opens up a world to them – they’re going to spark that, too, so that’s a good thing.”

“The Thursday [a.m.] performance is for the [University Park Campus] high school students.” And though the spring semester has not yet begun, in this case, “sometimes [during the residence] they have class visits… [for] Shakespeare instruction,” during which “they can talk about working with the bard, and iambic pentameter and working with the verse and all of that. Sometimes it’s just what is it like to be a working actor on tour,” he says.

“We might do a meet-and-greet with the young actors. It’s good for the young actors to be able to talk to college kids about to head out and this might be one of their first gigs doing something like this.”

“It’s a win-win. It’s a real great experience for us.”

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Harvey’s Ball: Worcester Magazine’s Janice Harvey’s New Book: Go Figure: 15 Years of Harvey in Worcester Magazine

This article appeared in the Wednesday, November 21, 2012, Worcester Magazine.
by Matt Robert
“My papers are all over the place — in my cellar, everywhere — and I figured, if I drop dead tomorrow, my kids wouldn’t have any kind of a collection of anything I’d ever written,” says Janice Harvey, longtime columnist with Worcester Mag, about the impetus for her new book, “Go Figure: 15 Years of Harvey in Worcester Magazine,” released in September by Lakshmi Books.

Harvey will hold a book signing on December 1 at 1 p.m., at Barnes and Noble, at the Shoppes at Blackstone in Millbury, as a follow-up to her successful signing at Piccolo’s restaurant, on Shrewsbury Street, Worcester, this fall.

“I put it together, mainly because I became a grandparent this year,” she says, adding that this life-defining marker got her “thinking about [her] mortality and how [she] wanted to be remembered.”

“So, I spent the summer doing that,” she says. “It was a fun project actually.”

What Harvey has put together is a greatest-hits package of columns — approximately 45 of them, culled from more than 360 — all written during her long tenure at the local weekly (16 years with her own column and three more writing anonymously in the “First Person” personal-narrative column started by then-editors Paul Della Valle and Walter Crockett), making her, by all estimations, the magazine’s most enduring employee since its inception in 1976.

Her start, you might not guess from the often poignant quality of her column, was not quite so auspicious. “The first thing I sent in, I tried to jump into the mailbox and get it back, because I thought it must be crap. I was just terrified.”

Things got better, though, she says. “They ran a lot of my stuff after that. I was lucky. I didn’t get the sting of rejection right away. That took a little while. I did eventually get it. They were pretty good to me. As a matter of fact, without Walter Crockett and Paul Della Valle, I wouldn’t have anything written.”

Harvey speaks very highly of her first editors, and credits them with teaching her to write. Crockett, in particular, she says, was a critically important mentor, who taught her more than any writing class she ever took. “And I’ve taken a lot of them,” she says.

“Walter,” Harvey says, “was a gentle teacher. He was very respectful of [my] writing. Walter is probably one of the most honest human beings I’ve ever known.”

When it came to sorting the wheat from the chaff, the great columns from the good tries, Harvey says of the difficult culling process, “I tried to think of, what did I enjoy writing and what did I still enjoy reading once I looked it over again. Some stuff I looked at it and said, ‘This is a clunker,’ or ‘Boy, I must have been stretched on this one,’ or ‘this was funny then, but it’s not funny now.’ It was more of a process of elimination on this [book]. Not everything is timeless.”

“Some stuff was still funny, and that’s the stuff that I included, or some stuff was still touching, and I included that. If it still mattered to me when I read it, I thought it might matter to someone else.”

And what is it she’s been writing about all these years, since her scary and tenuous rookie experience under Crockett and Della Valle? The topic every long-term resident becomes an expert in: Worcester itself.

“Worcester,” Harvey says, “is like your mother’s shepherd’s pie, or your favorite slippers: You just can’t throw them out. You just love them in spite of yourself. [Worcester] just trips over itself all the time. I love Worcester, and I can’t really even explain why. It’s that comfortable sweater, I guess.”

She’s also dished out slices (about enough to stock Table Talk Pies) of a life lived in Worcester’s neighborhoods – highlights and lowlights of parents, siblings, extended family, kids, neighbors, and local residents and landmarks.

“The pieces that have had the most impact usually were about other people and the impact that they had on our lives, and those things really generated a big response.”

Harvey’s column isn’t the polarizing polemic that generates water-cooler ranting, like her cross-town rivals Dianne Williamson and Clive McFarlane at the Telegram & Gazette, perhaps due to the more personal, narrative nature of her work.

Except for the occasional one-off about, say, tattooed women.

“That’s the one piece that I — I’m not going to say that I regret writing it, but I definitely — totally! — misjudged my audience on that one and I paid the price on it. I got, I think, the record amount of hate mail on that. I did end up writing a follow-up piece on it, sort of saying that I had made a mistake in not talking to people about tattoos and what the story was. It was a tongue-in-cheek thing. I thought I’d get away with it. Before I ran the thing, I asked two female editors at Worcester Mag, and they both said, ‘It looks fine to me.’ Well, we were all wrong, because that is a sensitive subject. But I did include that, because I have a whole section that’s stuff that got me in trouble.”

While the book is primarily comprised of reprinted columns, one long-form piece, called “Once around the room with Satan,” will be new to readers, and Harvey is quite proud of it. “It’s a very personal, private piece I never published,” she says. “It’s the last one in there. It’s much too long to be a column and it took me about five years to write. It’s about my son’s struggles with drugs. I’m pleased to be able to include it, because it was something readers have never read, either.”

In addition, like a great digitally remastered CD release by your favorite musical artist, Harvey has added copious liner notes. “Everything,” she says, “has an intro on why I wrote it, or what brought it about, or what impact it had.”

“Some of it riled people up,” she says, “some of it touched people. I have a lot of stuff in there that’s serious that people really responded to and really loved.”

“I have people asking me if I want to do another one. They’ve enjoyed it, and they would like to see more,” Harvey says. And though she thinks it’s a bit premature to look forward to the next book, she admits, “I could probably come up with another 40.”

The experience of the past two decades has meant a lot in Harvey’s life, and “columnist,” she laughs, would probably earn a spot high up on her obituary. “Right under teacher, under ‘rebel without a cause,’” she says laughing. “They’re five dollars a line. You can write anything you want!”

Even after nearly two decades, though, she says, “I’ve never taken for granted that I have a place from which to shout.”

“Go Figure: 15 Years of Harvey in Worcester Magazine” is available in print, online through booksellers like Amazon.com, and even in e-book form for Kindle. Meet Janice Harvey in person and have your copy signed on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 1 p.m., at Barnes and Noble at the Millbury Shoppes at Blackstone Mall.

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The Mecca of Metal

The Palladium proves its worth in a niche market 

by Matt Robert 

Photos by Steven King, courtesy of Worcester Magazine

The following is my May 3, 2012, cover story for Worcester Magazine. Click the link to see the original layout.

On a Sunday in April, I drive into downtown Worcester, a day bright but dreary and a light mist falling. The streets are barren. A few cars move leisurely along Main Street, as does an occasional pedestrian, or a small group of them, walking past the plate glass windows and locked doors of dormant businesses.

At north Main Street, what one local impresario calls “the hysterical courthouse district,” crowds appear: mostly black-clad, T-shirted boys and girls, with hands stuffed into jeans pockets, or holding cigarettes, mulling about in front of the Palladium theater, which, in contrast to the overwhelming gray, is lit up warm and bright, with flickering lights, and a large marquee announcing the 14th-annual New England Metal/Hardcore Festival.

I find curbside parking a few blocks away, where I can already hear the large firebrick structure rattling and emitting a steady rhythm of low bass notes. I pass through the mulling crowds out front, through security, and into the Palladium, which is swarming with concertgoers that both confirm and defy the expectations you have by now formed, most moving slowly up or down side staircases that lead below to the main theater and stage, or up the center staircase of the foyer to the smaller bar/stage area, or leaning on a wall or doorway with a blasé expression, texting or talking to a friend.

They are all part of what I will soon learn is a capacity crowd on the busiest day of the three-day festival, and that several of those mulling out front have been sold out of the event. The draw: most specifically, the attraction is a reunion show by Sunday’s headliner, Western Massachusetts metalcore band Killswitch Engage; and, in general, it is the festival, which has become a widely known, oft-celebrated event for metalheads, not citywide, not statewide, not throughout New England, not even throughout the Northeast. This festival now draws fans from…wait for it…the world over.

To Worcester? To a metal show? Yes, and yes.

THE TOWN

“If you’re into metal music anywhere in the world, you know about the Palladium,” says Chris Besaw of Break-Thru Music, a joint business venture of MassConcerts, which exclusively books the Palladium as well as a few dozen other venues throughout southern New England, including Gillette Stadium and The DCU Center, and smaller venues, like Lupo’s, in Providence. “It’s definitely known internationally within that world of the metal and hardcore scene.”

Justin Thomas, 27, agrees. He, along with friend, Jason Gill, 32, drove 500 miles from southern Maryland to attend the event, renting a hotel room in Westboro for the weekend. As Atlanta, Georgia’s, Attila performed, the two watched from an open riser beside the bar in the main theater.

“We had to make the pilgrimage to the Mecca,” Thomas shares. “We paid a shitload of money for the VIP passes,” he says with an air of embarrassment, before quickly shrugging it off and enumerating the perks. (VIP passes cost $175 for all-day, three-day access, plus “swag” and meet-and-greet opportunities with select bands. Standard tickets cost $40, $45 and $40 for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday respectively, or $115 for a three-days pass.)

Thomas and Gill, engineers who do contract work with the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, are both longtime metal fans, and agreed that New England was more fertile soil for the particular brands of heavy metal and hardcore music that the festival showcases, which are decidedly less commercial than some of its distant relatives like Van Halen or Nickelback, for example, who would be headlining a show a block away at the DCU Center a week later to an audience roughly double the size of the crowd that would pass through The Palladium over the weekend.

“We met people from Australia,” raves Scott McLennan, freelance journalist and former music editor with the Worcester Telegram, who covered the event in hour-by-hour dispatches on Tumblr, with photos by his son, Sam, a Boston University film student. “They’re big metal fans and they were like, ‘Coachella [a massive annual California festival] looks cool, but this looks even cooler,’ and he said, ‘I love this music, and you can’t find this music in Australia.’”

“I met people from all over,” continues McLennan, who says he witnessed a couple get married at the New England Metal/Hardcore Festival (NEMF) during a GWAR set, a band from Richmond, Va. The ceremony ended with the bride and groom getting stuffed into the satirical metal/punk band’s meat grinder. “People have a good time!”

Joshua Lovell, three-year tour manager for Worcester-bred hardcore band Four Year Strong, says “Worcester is a good market for almost all bands. They say it every time they come around, and despite the fact that obviously Four Year Strong is getting a better reaction from fans, the other bands are still psyched and still very happy with the energy they get from the kids.”

“The Northeast in general, compared to other parts of the country, is the best market for music,” he says. “But Worcester/Boston is, in my opinion, the best market – period – for underground music.”

“The audience here is amazing in that every time the band plays Worcester, it’s like they’re playing a huge local show,” Lovell adds. “Almost like it’s just every kid that supported them when they used to play small hall shows just comes out in huge numbers. And they bring that same enthusiasm and energy.”

This great hometown support has propelled the band to significant success. Lovell says FYS is still going strong. “I just did a world tour with them. [Four Year Strong] played the UK and Europe, then went right into Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and Australia. Right now, they’re doing some scattered college shows before they get ready to do a small UK run with Blink182, and then it’s right on to Warped Tour for the summer.”

Still, he says that the band “will always be a Worcester band. They all grew up here and they still love it and rep it. They still put [Worcester] on a lot of their merchandise items, which is awesome.”

“Bands like Killswitch Engage, Converge, Shadows Fall, and a ton more have helped build the amazing metal and hardcore scene that we have in Worcester and surrounding areas,” explains Scott Lee, production manager of MassConcerts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE VENUE

Others, however, see the concert hall as part of the magic equation. “A classic venue like the Palladium has a certain pedigree about it,” adds Lee. “A lot of the bands know the history of the place and what kinds of bands have come through here. I feel that a venue that has been around as long as it has and has been successful as long as it has might have something to do with these bands coming back.”

Palladium General Manager Chris Besaw, who has been involved in the development of this scene – one that we can now take for granted – for a long time, agrees. “One of the reasons our metal and hardcore scene is so strong is the venue,” he says. “The Palladium is a great venue. We’re open-floor, general admission, where you don’t have to sit in your seat. You can walk around. People love that. You can see the band from on the floor, from the back of the room; you can go up to the balcony. It’s a very open and free space.”

“You have to have a space that’s big enough,” he says. “But you can’t have a space that’s too big. You go to an arena, you lose that general-admission freeness, and you’re stuck in a certain area – you’re stuck on the floor and you can’t move around.”

“Old theaters happen to be a perfect spot for live music,” he notes.

“They’ve taken care of it,” says McLennan about the old theater, which has operated in Worcester since November 1928. “They constantly tweak it. They don’t fuck with what’s nice about it. They don’t try to pass off dingy as, like, ‘We’re trying to preserve it.’ They clean, and they put new things in, and they make it nice. It’s comfortable.”

As I made my way around the theater on the Sunday of the festival, which I hadn’t done since seeing The Brian Setzer Orchestra in November 1998 (as well as a dozen or so concerts prior to that, and all-day movie festivals when I was in junior high), I observed metal heads, young and old, extreme and average, roaming to one stage or another, looking for a drink or a bite to eat, or simply reclining in any of the theater’s innumerable quiet corners, many low lit and outfitted with padded wraparound booths, and was reminded of what I loved so much about the place in my youth. It’s a great venue, especially if you’re in for the long haul, as any festivalgoer must be. Many, like Thomas and Gill, would be in the building 12 hours a day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE

The theater, though beloved, did not draw in the scene on its own. As is often the case, strange twists of fortune often play a part. McLennan has covered music in the area since the early ’90s, and has followed the metal festival since its inception. Of the ’90s music scene, he notes, “A lot of those touring bands weren’t welcome in Boston. Bands that either had a reputation for mosh pits or crowd surfing – pretty much punk and metal and hardcore – there was just a lot of resistance to booking it. Hardcore bands had a bad reputation in Boston. There was an element of violence, especially with some of the Boston bands. So, places like Avalon, the Orpheum, the Paradise, it was like, ‘you know what, we’re just not ready to deal with this right now,’ especially in the ’90s when indie rock was really taking off and there was a new band from Seattle every week they could book.”

According to McLennan, Lee really had his fingers on the pulse of what was going on with metal, so when John Peters, owner of the Palladium and MassConcerts came in around 2000 and took over, they basically hung a “Metal Welcome Here” sign at the Palladium and brought in all these big touring bands, like the Buffalo, N.Y., death metal band Cannibal Corpse and Auburn, N.Y., heavy metal band Manowar, and GWAR; all underground bands that had pretty big followings, but couldn’t get a shake anywhere in Boston.

McLennan says a ’90s metalcore scene started to take root because of guys like Lee who were managing, promoting and fostering bands like Overcast (who, he says splintered into Springfield metalcore/thrash metal band Shadows Fall and Westfield metalcore band Killswitch Engage). As these bands started to get popular and go out on tour, they’d come back to Massachusetts with their friends and play at the Palladium.

“I started working here in 1997,” Besaw says, explaining how the old theater became the destination for metal bands the world over. “And we were just a dance club. MassConcerts came in and took over in – I want to say it was 2000 – and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve been to all 14 Metal Fests. I was at the first one, and we just finished number 14.”

“Before MassConcerts took over, Don Law used to book some acts in here, and I think they did a few shows in here before we took over,” Besaw says.

Of the building’s recent history, he notes an unlikely start for a would-be metal mecca. “We were one of the biggest dance clubs in the Northeast,” he says, adding that the club booked huge touring DJ acts, like DJ Scribbles, which brought in sizeable crowds – huge crowds – for the little city that could.

“[We’d do] 1,500 people a night, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and then a huge under-21 dance night on Sundays,” he says, suggesting that all-ages shows were always part of the formula.

Eventually, however, he says, the Palladium “transitioned over to doing live music.”

And though he doesn’t think that the focus was (or is) singly metal, he remembers that one of its first shows was California thrash metal band Slayer.

According to Besaw, metal eventually became the niche for MassConcerts and the Palladium, thanks to MassConcerts’ Scott Lee and John Peters who came up with the concept of the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival.

“The first year was definitely a building year,” Besaw recalls. “We did well.”

“It wasn’t our first festival,” he continues, noting the production company’s experience in the field. “We were involved with Warped Tour, and had done some skate festivals.”

McLennan says the scene fostered itself internally, and MassConcert’s timely and continued investment paid off, nodding to the headliners of this week’s metal fest: Winthrop metalcore band Unearth, Springfield metalcore band All That Remains, and Killswitch Engage.

“All of those bands at one point played as early afternoon openers within the first year of their first record. All of those bands have a legacy of playing the festival multiple times, getting bigger and bigger and bigger up to the point where they were headlining. Sunday night, you couldn’t get another body in there, because of that Killswitch Engage reunion with the original singer,” McLennan elaborates.

“I think that it was just very fortuitous that these bands kind of came from Massachusetts and they still do, McLennan continues. “Bands like Unearth and [Boston post-hardcore band] Vanna and [Chicopee heavy metal band] Acacia Strain – these are all bands that over the last 10 years have really become very prominent in the underground metal scene and connected with everyone else and brought them back here, and that kind of explains why the Palladium became such a destination.”

“I remember one time I was hanging out [at the festival] and there was this band,” recalls McLennan, laughing. “I want to say it was [Polish blackened death metal band] Behemoth [who played NEMF in 2007] – and the guitar player walks into the Palladium and he’s like, ‘I can’t believe I’m here; I can’t believe I’m in the Palladium!’ And Mike Hsu [of WAAF] and I were like, ‘This shit hole?’ So, it was like hallowed ground, like ‘Metal Land.’ It was the first place that they brought in bands like [Swedish extreme metal band] Meshuggah from Europe; and they brought in [English power metal band] Dragonforce from Europe.”

Besaw seconded McLennan’s bemused perspective. “A lot of them come through and say that the Palladium is the best venue they’ve ever been to. Or they can’t wait to come back. We take a lot of pride in that,” says Besaw, while noting that the success of the festival and of metal, in general, is not by chance.

“Picking the newer bands,” he states. “That’s the hardest part. Established bands are easy. You know which bands are the bigger bands. It’s trying to pick the up and comers, the people who are going to be big next year; the people who are just starting to break now, the people who are going to break in a year from now. Those are the hard bands to pick.”

Lee adds another facet of the formula: “We like to keep our ticket prices honest and general attendance is what would keep us going. We try to give the best concert experience we can so people want to come back. If the price is right, the fans will come.”

Besaw and the others assert that it isn’t just metal that MassConcerts books into the Palladium. About a year ago, when electronic music started to get big again, with dub step, they booked a lot electronic music shows, such as California electronic music producer Scrillex and English dubstep producer Flux Pavilion.

“We also do really well with groups like [Detroit, Mich., rap/metal duo] Insane Clown Posse,” adds Lee. “They chose to have their New Year’s celebration at the Palladium, when they could have had it anywhere else in the world. Mostly everything works there, though.”

Lee points to “a slew of [metal/hardcore] shows coming up,” including Meshuggah, a sludge metal band out of Savannah, Ga., Baroness, and Behemoth. And McLennan notes that “they have a shitload of heavy shows coming up all summer. Every major heavy tour is going to pass through there—the bands that have no interest in playing Mayhem Fest or any of the sheds.” To wit, he points to a Palladium schedule that is packed with a variety of metal shows, full of bands that would be wholly unfamiliar to any but the most alert, ardent metal fans.

As to whether a similar scene could be cultivated for other kinds of music, such as blues, Cajun, and funk, like Paulie’s annual NOLA Festival, in Worcester, or events at Wachusett Mountain, for example, Besaw was doubtful.

“I just don’t think there are enough people in the area that are into blues [to generate a similar festival]. You have to have enough people that are into a certain type of music to make something this big out of it,” he explains. “MassConcerts has definitely cultivated the Palladium into what it is today by bringing in acts that people have wanted to see, and by knowing our genre and bringing in the acts that people are really interested in. They’ve cultivated it into being kind of the capital of metal around here.”

Killswitch Engage, whose reunion created the most buzz at this year’s festival, originated out of the remains of two earlier, important metalcore bands, Boston’s Overcast and Aftershock. (Overcast, too, would have a reunion at the NEMF in 2006.) Their Wikipedia page lists among their accomplishments slots on tours and festivals such as Ozzfest, The Reading and Leeds (England) Festivals, and Mayhem Festival tour, a 2005 Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance, two albums that have gone gold (500,000 units sold), and one that cracked the top 20 on the Billboard 200. The band’s 2005 DVD “(Set This) World Ablaze” centers around a concert filmed at the Palladium on July 25th of that year. (The DVD has also been certified gold.)

“Worcester is typically a B market, or a secondary market, with a lot of things, but, as far as the metal and hardcore scene, we are defi nitely an A market,” said Besaw. “When bands are routing their tours, they make a point to come through here just so they can play at the Palladium. Bands will even skip over playing Boston to play here, because they know our crowds will be bigger here, and they just love coming back here over and over again.”

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Besaw acknowledges the rewards of fostering a new or overlooked scene, and investing in a niche, but also notes an additional practical benefit, one you might hear discussed at any chamber of commerce roundtable.

“Worcester’s a good location due to the fact that you’re not in the big city. You don’t have the issue of getting in and out of Boston. We’ve got the Mass Pike nearby; 290 runs right through it. You get a lot of people from western Mass. who come up. You get a lot of people from Connecticut that come up, a lot of people from New Hampshire that come down. It’s more the central location of Worcester that just makes it a great market.”

McLennan notes that the staff, too, is part of the Palladium’s equation of success. “The people who work there are kind of fans of music,” he says. “They’re there because they like what they’re doing. A lot of people have been there for a long time or they’ve been to 14 metal festivals, and they get it and they’re fans. Some of the bartenders will rig their shifts to be at the main bar when the bands they want to see are playing. They’re there as much for the music as they are for the work.”

Understanding their customers, says McLennan, sets the Palladium staff and MassConcerts apart. “They don’t let you act like a jerk, but they don’t hassle you unnecessarily, either. They know how to be hands off…They try to make sure that nobody gets hurt, but they’re also not going to incite something by being heavy handed.”

Cory Sargent, a security guard for the event, who, on Sunday was stationed by a side door, reported that he had seen “no problems” despite Sunday being “the most packed” day of the weekend, which he estimated to be capacity at “about 1,800.”

Another effective business strategy seems to be the all-ages show. Even before the metal madness of this generation, the Palladium used this common ploy to fill otherwise slow nights, such as Sunday. Besaw sees the all-ages paradigm as practical. “You can come with your friends that are under 21, with your friends that are under 18,” he says. “Everybody can come here. It’s not age restricted.”

THE ELEMENTS OF METAL

Amidst all this talk of the business end of metal, you’re probably asking, “What is it that the fans are coming to hear?” Or “What’s the appeal of all that screaming and volume?”

“I like to hear some beauty, and it’s good to hear a little bit of melody,” says Thomas. “But no band is going to come out and play an Ozzie tune or anything like that.”

Most of the bands on the extensive bill (approximately 80 bands appeared throughout the festival) would frighten, or at least puzzle, unsuspecting mainstreamers. Attila, for instance, who is labeled on its official Wikipedia page as metalcore/deathcore/party metal, played a typically rapid-fire metal set replete with wailing drums, bass and dual guitars, while lead singer Chris “Fronz” Fronzak provided the obligatory scream/growl lyrics, even, at one point, moving beyond indecipherable toneless lyrics to a long, Guyoto-Monk-style guttural emission that was pure low-register – no melody, no rhythm, no words. None of this evoked to me quite what most would call beauty, melody, or “party” music. This isn’t the comical kids’ stuff of mid-eighties David Lee Roth videos. This festival’s music was, by and large, dark, intense, and sometimes goading or confrontational.

To a newbie like me, the subtleties that contrast one sub-genre or band from the other are lost on me. To the conditioned ear, though, distinctions can be heard.

“Metal is about aggression and anger, but also sorrow,” says Thomas, “the subject matter changes.” Thomas prefers, he says, “bands that preach unity over hate and discontent.”

“Some bands,” he adds, “can be intense, unrelenting, while others can be really cerebral.”

“It’s aggressive and cathartic,” explains McLennan, in an effort to describe the appeal of metal. “They’re all loud, and they’re all aggressive, and they’re all screaming, and they’re all bashing guitars; but you see a band like [Richmond, Va., heavy metal band] Lamb of God for the first time and you just say, ‘Holy shit! I’m seeing something completely revolutionary!’ It’s new and it’s fresh and it’s the way the band connects. I felt that when I saw The Dillinger Escape Plan, [a Morri Plains, N.J. mathcore band], which is very mathematical; it’s thick and it’s knotted, and it’s very dense, but very intricate. You see something like [California metal band] Huntress, and it’s got this flamboyant woman singer and it really hearkens back to Judas Priest, with all that guitar architecture – two or three guitars soaring up in huge-scale solos. They all just have an element of restlessness and aggressiveness and they strive for a ‘not going to take shit from nobody’ sort of attitude. That’s the unifying principal of it. It’s not the kind of music that wallows in its own bad feeling. There’s something gratifying about that.”

“It’s like horror movies,” he adds. “You know you’re going to be scared, you know you’re going to be shocked, but you like it. And I think there’s a very similar element to heavy music. It’s a very extreme music. It pushes your buttons, like a horror movie.”

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?

So, the fans love it and the bands love it. But what’s in it for MassConcerts?

“I don’t know if they look at the dollars and cents over the course of the three days versus what’s the influence and impact of being the place that does this once a year,” says McLennan about the festival and why promoters continue to organize it. “When these bands are on tour and the House of Blues all of a sudden decides, ‘We want you guys,’ their [response] is probably going to be, ‘Well, we’ll stick to the Palladium.’ I think there’s a lot of loyalty.”

“It is [profitable],” assures Besaw. “It’s like everything else: when it comes to concerts it’s a bit of a gamble. I’m sure there have been years along the way that have been a struggle, but it is profitable.”

“Our income comes from a few different aspects,” he explains. “Obviously ticket sales are our number-one generator of income. We have a bar, we do serve alcohol, but we also serve soda, water, energy drinks. Our under-21 crowd is purchasing beverages, too. We do have some sponsors for the metalfest, too. This year, our big sponsor was All In Merchandise. They definitely helped us get the weekend done and paid for.” The show also included sponsorship by major musical instrument manufacturers Tama and Ibanez, and energy drink manufacturer Monster.

“It gets its money the same way that Newport Folk Festival gets its money,” says McLennan. “They probably charge vendors to be there, they get sponsors to be there, ticket sales are robust. I don’t think anyone’s playing necessarily for free, but…”

As for expenses, Besaw enumerated a few. “You always have to pay the big bands; they’re not doing it for free. Our biggest expense is our entertainment, the bands. Sound and lighting is a huge expense. We have a staff of about 75 people over the weekend. We have a lot of help from the police department, EMT’s from the city of Worcester. We hired four police officers that were here all day, all weekend. It’s a pretty big expense, but it’s important to keep it safe for everybody.”

WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE …

So, is this just a blip on Worcester’s economic radar, a feelgood story about a small ray of positive revenue generation? Is it a call for other city businesses, or the city government itself to stand up and take notice?

“There’s definitely a huge economic runoff,” assures Besaw. “We’re bringing in probably, over the course of the weekend, in and out of the building, about 7,000 people. A lot of those people stayed in local hotels. I know some of those hotels were sold out. We allow re-entry during the day. So, these kids were all out in the streets, going to local restaurants, going to local stores across the street. Everybody who’s in the area is benefitting from us bringing these people to the city.”

In the end, though, it comes back to the fans and the entertainment value they perceive.

“That Killswitch Engage reunion,” says McLennan. “It had to happen at the Palladium. That band, reuniting with its original lead singer, in that building, was probably one of the more spectacular things that I’m going to see all year! It was insane energy and everyone just belonged there. It was crazy.”

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The Insistence of Memory

This is an essay I wrote after an episode I witnessed near Washington Square Park, in New York City, on Columbus Day weekend 2007 with my wife and another couple that included a wirter friend of mine. He and I had decided that we would each write our perspective of the event, and then we’d somehow pair them for publication. That never happened. Here, anyway, is my take on the incident. 

“Memory itself is an internal rumour.” – George Santayana

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.” – Aldous Huxley

Walking the streets of New York Cityon a perfect autumn Saturday midday, we glide past shop windows. Thousands of every demographic shop, jog, and ride, darting about like microscopic life. Contentedly bored, we spare moments to wonder where a fellow being is headed. We discuss dinner plans, or a parched throat, or the success of a shop’s window dressings.

Then, all heads within fifty feet snap to a single focal point. The moment passes before the eyes can lock, but memory stores the image: Yellow cab, hood pressed to the ground as brakes are stomped to the floor; cyclist hurled onto the hood and thrown hard to the pavement; twin faces – the cab’s driver and passenger – reared forward, eyes and mouths agape; bicycle punished, tossed aside, bent into scrap metal.

Then, sound, and dizzying activity, all centered on the incident. A thousand to-do lists scrapped. Mental triage: this matter takes precedent. Everybody takes a role; everybody inches closer to the action. A middle-aged man in a tank top pushes voyeurs aside, shouting: “I’m a first responder. Out of the way! I’m a first responder.” Onlookers bemoan the incident, like a Greek chorus, making a refrain of their sorrow and concern. A female vigilante in Che’ Guevara drabs – bottle black hair pulled back, silver piercings on eyelid and lip, a solid blue tattoo over the entire forearm – leaps from her bike with purpose, marches through the crowd, and silently positions herself against the cab’s hood, where she remains for the duration. Another – a Florence Nightingale – moves to the side of the now wailing cab passenger, who expresses guilt about her proximity to the event. Anonymous voices shout instructions from the outer circle, like at a boxing match.

“Don’t move him, don’t move him.”

“Get that Cabbie’s number.”

“Yeah, don’t let him leave.”

“Call 911. Somebody call.”

Of course, everybody is calling. People standing elbow to elbow are yelling identical information into their cellphones.

“Yes, it’s Fifth and…and….What street is this?”

“The woman next to me is reporting this, too, operator. Should I hang up?”

Others are already getting word out to friends and family – in sincere, but salacious tones.

“Hi, it’s me. Yeah, I was coming out of _____ and I just saw this guy….Oh, yes, it’s very bad.”

The rest of us, futilely scanning our minds for some role we might play in this catastrophe, stand awkward and useless, trying to make sense of the scene, to validate our presence. We eye passersby with disdain, as from a funeral procession, wondering why they march forward without respect to our matter.

We put words to that search for purpose, connection.

“I was looking at that sign, when I heard ‘bam’ and I looked over to see the man being hit.”

“You saw him hit? I looked after that, when he hit the ground.”

“Oh, yes, I looked before that. I saw the contact.”

Another person: “I looked, too. Did you see when he hit the windshield?”

“Yes. I saw it all.”

The victim feels this most of all. Face pressed to the dirty street, arm twisted behind and under his body with no regard to bone and joint structure, his one exposed eye scans the scene, looking for someone with a renderable service, puzzled, frantic. He is alert and in tremendous pain. Does he remember the errand that shot him into the busyFifth Avenue intersection? Does he remember what distracted him from the red light? What day it is? His name?

With the assistance of the first responder, who puts the victim’s cell phone to his ear, he, too, makes a call – to a loved one, no doubt.

In time, feeling increasingly awkward, unable to suspend the illusion of altruism and validate purpose, and sensing the atrophying core of the event, one of us nudges the other and our little group moves on.

We piece together the memory – the truth – from our disparate versions, the stories growing more consistent with each retelling, until we each relate the event in basically the same way. Then, the memory is cast, like a bronze statue, to withstand the ages.

Slowly – in direct proportion to our distance from the event – we regain our smiles and move back into the chaotic streams of isolated individuals returned once again to their lists, once again able to complain about bad manicures and the rotten state of the world.

A few moments later, we will resume our discussion of dinner plans and get swept into a new vortex, a more joyous one. A black man with a gold mouth entertains us inWashington Square Park, with comedy, breakdancing, and acrobatics. We fight the smiles. Looking at one another in guilt, we try not to belittle the seriousness of the passing moment, just as we try not to be the first to crack a joke at a funeral reception or a wake.

But the smiles do return as the thoughts and each member of the cast disperses to another place in the vast city. There are new roles to play, new memories to forge.

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Confessions of a Cover Bander

April 24, 2007

“Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right,” Jerry sings, in one of my favorite Dead tunes. Playing music for the past twenty-five years, I’ve found nothing truer.

And nowhere have I felt it deeper and more often than in a band I have been in since the mid ‘90s – an acoustic cover band of the most sordid variety – the type in which we play the villainous pop resuscitated in the karaoke era: “The Gambler,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and “Jesse’s Girl.” We play anything and do so shamelessly.

It all happened one summer, when, while on vacation with a friend, we began running through tunes and writing down any that we could get through. We came up with about a hundred.

We landed a weekly gig at a pub. Soon we were playing a few times per weekend, sometimes more than once in a day. We played until the manager kicked us off the stage. We played at colleges and in seedy bars, on parade floats, in living rooms, at backyard barbecues, on decks overlooking the ocean, at frat parties, on booze cruises, and even at weddings. We played early in the morning and late at night. We played indoors and outdoors, for the elderly and for kids. People had a ball at our shows, responding to our interaction and self-effacing approach with great candor, relaxation, and spontaneity – something sorely missing from years of serious, original gigs.

An evening’s set list included tunes we disliked (wooden nickels, as we called them) as well as those we did (our own list inclusions, from an array of styles, years, and backgrounds). And, you know what? We found that audience tastes covered a broader range than we (musicians, radios programmers, record labels, and bar owners) often give them credit for, and opportunities to perform all kinds of stuff occurred.

Plus, the thousands of hours spent crammed together in tight, smoky spots, with unassuming, unsuspecting audiences created genuine moments of energy and spontaneity that I would guess touring acts never experience. We’d launch into Neil Young’s “Hurricane,” because one of us heard it in the car on the way over. We’d laugh our way through Pete Yorn’s “Strange Condition,” shouting the chords back and forth during the song, despite that it hadn’t been requested (or rehearsed) in years.

There was so much time to explore the songs, and to experiment with sonic and rhythmic roles – us being limited to acoustic guitars – that great epiphanies occurred on many a deep and late night. I found inspiration in the rigid, new wave conventions of the rhythm guitar role on Tommy Tutone’s overplayed “867-5309” or Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” I found new appreciation for swing idioms bashing out the rhythm to the jump tune “Yes, Yes,” or a Louis Jordan tune. I could even have fun comping out the persistent syncopation to the inane (but more fun to play than it is to listen to) “(That was a) Crazy Game of Poker,” by OAR.

We’d still be playing as the crowd filed out at closing, and even to the employees after hours, our voices flat and sore, our fingers pained. And though the crowd more often than not preferred the wooden nickels, they’d stand at attention as we squeezed out heartfelt versions of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” (a personal favorite). One guy used to turn up occasionally and request the Richard Manuel/ Bob Dylan classic “Tears of Rage,” which I gladly obliged.

No one expected much, so we did what we wanted, playing anything, no matter how obscure or ridiculous, at a moment’s notice. We goofed on ancient songs dredged from the recesses of memory (“Come Sail Away” and “Aqualung,” for example), and lampooned one-hit wonders and spurious genre pieces (Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” and George Michael’s “Faith”). In short, we got to play so many songs never available to a musician of any cache.

Playing the music of dozens of artists from across the spectrum of genres forced learning, and demanded a respect for songs that, though trite, or just worn by overexposure, contained germs of genius or at least suggested ideas outside the purview of a single mind. The result was a broadening of taste and appreciation, and subsequent improvement in my own listening, playing, and writing skills. Forced to play first and judge later, I had to surrender ego and deliver on every song – a useful accompaniment, harmony, or lead vocal. I found a cool slide part in Fleetwood Mac’s “Monday Morning” and Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken”; indulged my love for harmony on Paul Simon’s “Cecelia,” CSN’s “Suite:Judy Blue Eyes,” and America’s “Ventura Highway”; and enjoyed my buddy’s plain old kickass acoustic guitar soloing (acoustic guitar!) on marathon jams like “Free Bird,” “Blue Sky,” and “Comfortably Numb.”

Though we played mostly bad music to often tasteless, complacent audiences, I enjoyed some of the most intense performance experiences of my life in those filthy dives, plying my trade to folks whose hearts needed to be stirred up and won over every night.

Best of all, an inverse proportion of our time was spent directly on music. We never had to promote ourselves, or cold call for gigs, and no media outlets had any interest in a cover band, so we inhabited our own world. No one spoke of us in music circles. No one voted us best anything in the press. Maybe I resigned myself to this, maybe I rationalized it away, or maybe I just didn’t care, but either way I was playing a lot of music, some of it pretty good, and having a great time with a good friend – no ego battles, no vying for the spotlight, no success to get between us and spoil things.

Long before age 13, when I started bugging my parents about getting a guitar and launching my rock star dreams, I harbored longings to succeed in music. My initial role was as vocalist for a combo we organized in a friend’s cellar. There, as an extant tape remembers for me, we bashed out horrible versions of “Purple Haze,”  “Wild Thing,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Down by the River.” And, you know what? We had a boatload of fun.

My dreams were simple: stardom – chicks, blinding light and screaming fans, great records, and all that. Little did I know that the dream would be realized, but on small, cramped, hot stages in crowded rooms with guitars and a good friend, and not in front of untold millions on theIsle of Wight. Perhaps the world will never know us, but each night, in a small room, in a small corner of the globe, we’re stars of a sort.

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