By STEVE PFARRER
After another year during which Northampton served as a major locus of the arts — for concerts, art exhibits, films, dance, poetry slams and more — the city is set to do it all again.
In one day, that is.
First Night Northampton, the city’s biggest fête of the year, is set to ring in 2017 with dozens of events in a New Year’s Eve celebration that begins at noon and doesn’t end till midnight, with the traditional ball raising on the roof of the Hotel Northampton.
While music is the top attraction, with more 50 groups and artists performing, there’s no shortage of other entertainment on tap at the 20 venues, including four at Smith College: dance, comedy, theater, opera, and a number of family-friendly shows offering acrobatics, juggling and more.
The performers range from longtime favorites like Henry the Juggler, Lord Russ as Elvis, The Nields, and the A2Z Yo-Yo Team to new acts such as M’bolo, a Sengalese-American band out of Boston that plays a fusion of rock ‘n roll and Afro-pop. And a past performer not seen at First Night for many a year makes a return this New Year’s Eve: ace guitarist and songwriter Brooks Williams, a former Northampton resident.
“We’ve always liked to showcase local talent,” said Penny Burke, director of the Northampton Center of the Arts, the longtime producer of First Night. “It’s a good opportunity for them because they don’t have to travel and there’s an enthusiastic audience.”
At the same time, Burke adds, she likes to keep the show as fresh as possible by seeking out new acts or past performers like Williams who haven’t performed for awhile. With First Night now in its 32nd year — Burke has put together almost half of those shows — it’s important the event not rest on its laurels, she says.
“I also think a lot about scheduling, about putting certain groups in the same venues,” she said.
That kind of “cross-pollination,” she notes, can help set a tone for a specific stage. One example is this year’s back-to-back pairing of two bands, Chris Scanlon & the Other Guys and Carrie Ferguson & the Cherry Street Squad, at First Churches, since the band members are all friends and attract similar audiences.
Though there were questions a few years ago about First Night’s future when the Northampton Center for the Arts lost its old home (and large performance space) on South Street, the biggest challenge this year for Burke has been the need to keep up a robust presence for the event on social media.
“That’s really grown by leaps and bounds,” said Burke, who maintains a small office on Pearl Street (she plans to move to the Northampton Arts Trust building on Hawley Street when construction there is finished).
“[Social media] really pushes up the deadlines for publicity,” she said, while also noting that online purchases of First Night buttons have soared, especially as more and more people check the weather a few days before First Night before buying their passes.
Weather [i.e., blizzards or other calamities] is always a concern for First Night, Burke quipped: “New Year’s Eve comes once a year — we can’t have a rain date!”
Weather aside, here are some highlights from this year’s First Night.
The Academy of Music — The building itself, nice as it is, is not a highlight. But the shows that will be offered there pack variety and punch.
SHOW Circus Studio, which has become a big family favorite at First Night over the last few years, starts things rolling at noon with the first of its two 45-minute sets. The Easthampton circus-training program brings staff and students to the stage to perform a variety of acrobatics, including trapeze acts. Following that, 14 dance troupes — a record number for First Night — will perform short routines during two shows, at 3 and 4 p.m.
After a break between 5:45 and 7, when a downtown fireworks display takes place, the Northamptones, the popular high school a cappella group, take the Academy stage for two shows, the first time the singers have performed twice on First Night. The 7 p.m. show features former members back for a reunion, while the current group of students performs at 8 p.m.
Matt Lorenz, aka The Suitcase Junket, closes the evening with two shows as well. Lorenz has made a growing name for himself with his one-man band of guitar, vocals (throat singing to be specific), and homemade percussion kit that includes things like gas cans and old shoes. Lulu Wiles, a female folk trio from Maine, opens both sets, at 9 and 10 p.m.
Brooks Williams — An acoustic guitarist who was once memorably described as “a fret monster who has to be seen to be believed,” Williams is also a prolific songwriter who moves seamlessly between blues, folk, jazz and acoustic rock. After 20-plus years in the Valley, he moved to England in 2010, but he continues to tour regularly in the U.S.
“He sent me an email that said he was starting a new tour at the end of December, and could he play [at First Night],” Burke said. “And I said ‘Absolutely — we’d love to have you back.’ ”
Williams has released two new albums this year: the rootsy, up-tempo “My Turn Now,” with seven original songs and four covers on which he’s backed by a drummer and bassist, and “Brooks’ Blues,” on which he plays 12 blues covers with just guitar and voice. He’s at The Parlor Room for two sets, 9:15 and 10:15 p.m.
Also rocking The Parlor Room: Colorway, the trio led by guitarist and singer Alex Johnson, at 2 and 3 p.m. (it’s the band’s third time at First Night); The Surly Temple, with guitarist Jim Henry, bassist Guy DeVito and drummer Doug Plavin, at 4 and 5 p.m.; and Fancy Trash, at 7 and 8 p.m.
Welcome Yule — This celebration of winter combines dancing, music and storytelling based on the traditions of different cultures. It’s been a Valley tradition, staged most commonly at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, for more than 30 years, and a modified version of the show will make its first appearance at First Night at 2 p.m. at First Churches.
Winterpills, Evelyn Harris with Miro Sprague — First Night always makes for tough choices about what to see. Between 9 and 11 p.m., though, you can see both “chamber-pop” favorites Winterpills and jazz chanteuse Evelyn Harris, since they’re both doing two sets.
Winterpills, led by songwriter and guitarist Philip Price, has impressed critics for the past decade with its close harmonies, mix of pop, rock and folk and darkly evocative lyrics. The band plays at the Unitarian Society at 9:15 and 10:15 p.m.
Harris has been a vital figure on the Valley’s jazz scene for years. She’s now teamed with pianist Miro Sprague, who first made a name for himself in the Valley as a teen and now, Harris says, has become the kind of accompanist who “thrills and excites, inspires and pushes the envelope." The duo play First Churches at 9:15 and 10:15 p.m.
Paintbox Theater and Valley Light Opera — If you’ve got young kids, no doubt you’ll want to see First Night veteran Henry the Juggler, who this year moves from Edwards Church to the Unitarian Society for shows at 2 and 3 p.m. But you might also consider a visit to Theatre 14 at Smith College during the afternoon.
That’s because Paintbox Theatre will present one of the great folktales (and a famous sports story, too) of all time — "The Great Race of the Tortoise & the Hare," complete with the group’s trademark comic effects. At 1 and 2 p.m.
Then it’s the turn of Valley Light Opera, which at 4 and 5 p.m. offers a “kid-sized” version of another childhood classic, "Hansel and Gretel." The story, in which a brother and sister must outwit a deadly witch, includes VLO members and local students; music is directed by Aldo Fabrizi, bass player for the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional information, including where to purchase First Night buttons, visit www.firstnightnorthampton.org.