First Night Northampton rings in the new year
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For sheer organizational heft, it’s likely Northampton’s signature event: hundreds of performers doing their thing for 12 hours in venues all over downtown, a fireworks display, a kids’ parade, and a midnight gathering at the corner of Main and King streets. For nearly three decades, it’s also been a big regional draw for marking the end of the year.
On Monday, the city will celebrate New Year’s Eve with the 28th annual First Night Northampton, as musicians, yo-yo wizards, storytellers, acrobats and other performers entertain crowds in 20 downtown venues from noon to just before midnight. This year’s lineup brings back some longtime favorites, like The Nields and Ray Mason, while introducing a number of new bands and acts.
This will also be the last First Night put together by the Northampton Center for the Arts, which is stepping down as the main sponsor. City officials and others say they will be meeting after the holidays to come up with a new arrangement to keep the festival going.
Penny Burke, director of the Northampton Center for the Arts, First Night’s primary organizer, says this year’s fete has added more noontime shows for families and children.
As it did last year for the first time, the popular A2Z Yo-Yo Team will perform at the Academy of Music, at noon and 1 p.m. At at noon at the former Dynamite Records space in Thornes Marketplace, Caravan Puppets, the work of veteran puppeteer Jonathan Keezing, will put on a multicultural show called “Timeless Tales.”
The Center for the Arts itself will kick things off at noon with a circus show. Afterward the audience will be invited to join the downtown parade — or “family promenade” — that leaves from Pulaski Park at 1 p.m. and includes the Offbeat Drumming Ensemble, Hooping Harmony and surprise guests.
Burke says she’s particularly excited by a new act, “Valve: Antique Vaudeville Circus,” that will perform twice in the evening at the Academy of Music. The acrobatic troupe, whose performers have ties both to Easthampton’s SHOW Circus Studio and Brattleboro’s New England Center for Circus Arts, pulls out the stops with trapeze tricks, aerial slings and other acrobatics work, all of it set to the music of Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band.
“It’s a funny, very lively show with spectacular events,” said Burke, who hosted the group at the Center for the Arts earlier this year.
Crossing the bridge
Among the performers from Amherst are Henry the Juggler, aka Henry Lappen, whose feats balancing balls, crutches, rings, books and assorted other items have been a First Night staple for years. He does his bit of hilarious juggling magic at The Center for the Arts at 2 and 3 p.m.
Rusty Belle, the rootsy acoustic/electric trio whose music defies easy description, formed in Amherst in 2006. They’re back from a Southern tour earlier this month to play at the Unitarian Society at 9:15 and 10:15.
Musically, both new and old faces will make appearances around town. The Sun Parade, the guitar and mandolin combination of Chris Jennings and Jefferson Lewis, will make its debut First Night appearance in Lyman Hall at First Churches at 2 and 3 p.m. The Northampton folk-rock group, which sometimes plays with a bassist and drummer, has toured the country this year in support of its first album, “Yossis.”
Two other Valley-based acts that have secured a wider audience in recent years will come back to First Night after debuting in the 2011 edition. Jamie Kent & the Options bring their jazz-blues-rock mix to the A.P.E. Gallery at 7 and 8 p.m., while pianist and songwriter Seth Glier, whose 2011 album “Do the Right Thing” won a Grammy nomination, plays at the First Churches sanctuary at 9:15 and 10:15.
Among the musical newcomers are Poor Old Shine, a roots/Americana band out of Storrs, Conn., that Burke says blends bluegrass and something of a rock and roll sensibility. The young band, which has quickly become a fan favorite at bluegrass and folk festivals across southern New England, plays at 9:15 and 10:15 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Burke says one of the struggles with First Night over the years, particularly as the event has expanded, has been finding suitable performance venues. Some spaces, such as the Parish Hall at the former St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street, are no longer available.
But others, like the old Dynamite Records space, have been added, and Burke says Smith College has been a strong supporter of the program, making spaces on campus available over the years. This year, for instance, Smith’s Sweeney Concert Hall will host the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra at 4 and 5 p.m. and arch guitarist Peter Blanchette at 7 and 8 p.m.
One other Valley legend, who has pursued his quirky muse in different bands over the years, will also be part of First Night: Lord Russ, aka Russell Brooks, will take the stage at another Smith College venue, Theatre 14, at 9:15 as the King, Elvis Presley, in his Elvis Encore Tribute Show.
First Night 2013 hosts numerous other musical acts and old favorites: The O-Tones, Trailer Park, Roger Salloom, Duo Fusion, Fancy Trash, the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus and Valley Rock Choir, among others.
“I think we’ve been able to put together a pretty varied lineup,” Burke said.
Northampton’s Business Improvement District will host fireworks at 6:15 p.m. from the roof of the E.J. Gare Parking Garage, and the evening rounds out with the customary raising of the ball at midnight at the Hotel Northampton.
First Night buttons are available in advance at locations around town and in neighboring communities; they can also be purchased at Thornes Marketplace on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and on New Year’s Eve from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Prices range from $8 to $20, based on schedule and attendees’ age. For a full schedule and other information, visit www.firstnightnorthampton.org.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.