First Night Northampton

  • Miss Tess and the Talkbacks will play blues, honky-tonk, jazz and early rock and roll at Edwards Church.

  • Singer-songwriter Heather Maloney, who plays at the Academy of Music, has a new EP out on which she’s joined by Northampton guitarist Ryan Hommel, left.

  • Celtic Heels is one of over a dozen dance companies whose members will perform at the Academy of Music.

  • Blues guitarist Eli Catlin will make his First Night debut this year, at Memorial Hall. 

  • Can a yo-yo really save the earth? Find out at the Yo-Yo Astronaut show at John M. Greene Hall at Smith College. Photo by Terry Casper

  • Dúo Fusión brings the great sound of flute and Spanish guitar to St. John’s Episcopal Church.

  • The Northamptones bring their a capella songs to the Academy of Music.

Staff Writer 
Thursday, December 28, 2017

When the city’s annual New Year’s Eve festival kicks off at noon on Sunday, it will be the first time the Northampton Arts Council has produced the show: The Arts Council has taken over from the event’s longtime organizer, the Northampton Center for the Arts, though both groups say they’ve worked closely to ensure a smooth transition.

For Penny Burke, director of the Center for the Arts, it’s a strange moment. She’s been the point person for First Night for some 15 years, and planning and producing the arts festival — 20 venues, more than 50 artists and performances, a fireworks display, multiple sponsors — takes months of work each year. That’s not something she’s necessarily looked forward to all this time, she said with a laugh.

But what about seeing the crowds downtown on New Year’s Eve, and finishing up the night at the Hotel Northampton with other staff and volunteers who make First Night happen?

“That’s something I’ve always loved, knowing we’d worked hard and put together a good evening,” Burke said. “I’ll miss wrapping it up — that felt so good.”

Burke and Steve Sanderson — he’s the Art Council’s event producer — say they’ve been talking for the last few years, along with city officials including Mayor David Narkewicz, about making this change. In part it’s because Burke and the Northampton Center for the Arts are focused on expanding their programming at their new space in the Community Arts Trust building on Hawley Street.

Sanderson says he’s worked closely with Burke this year to organize the programming and absorb the myriad details that come with running the event, such as getting sponsors, generating publicity and lining up volunteers. He’s been impressed at what she’s accomplished in the past.

“The whole idea was ‘Don’t fix it if it’s not broken,’ ” he said. “We’ve added a few things, but we’ve followed this great model that Penny put together over the years, we’ve used her guidance and knowledge ... we’ve learned it takes about six people to do what one Penny Burke does.”

And Burke said she’s confident this new version of First Night “will take on a life of its own.”

As in past years, First Night begins with a family-friendly show at noon at the Academy of Music, where SHOW Circus Studio of Easthampton will do the first of its two 45-minute sets of acrobatics and other daredevil acts. At 2 p.m., downtown venues begin offering a range of performances until 5:45 p.m. A fireworks show takes places at 6:15 p.m., followed by a new round of performances at the 20 venues from 7 to 11 p.m.

The evening is capped at midnight with the raising of the ball on the roof of the Hotel Northampton.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights of First Night performances, including new faces and special events.

Honoring a friend — Sadly, one longtime familiar face will be missing at First Night 2018. Bluesman Art Steele, who played the festival every year and also supervised First Night’s sound production, died last January in a car crash in Sunderland. 

“He was just the most decent and generous and kind person to work with,” said Burke. “And he was such a talented guitarist and musician — it still seems hard not to have him here.”

Since Steele always did his First Night sets in Memorial Hall, Burke and Sanderson have planned this year’s performances to honor him: It’s a full lineup of blues players, including Valley veterans Mark Nomad and Wildcat O’Halloran and newcomers Eli Catlin and Diane Alvarez. Catlin has appeared several times at The Iron Horse as a supporting act for more established blues performers; Alvarez is a Xicana singer and guitarist, as well as a poet and video artist.

The Academy of Music — In addition the SHOW Circus Studio shows, the Academy is pulling out the stops when it comes to dance performances. In two separate shows at 3 and 4 p.m., members of 13 different dance companies, including Pioneer Valley Ballet, Celtic Heels and the Wofa African Drum and Dance Company, showcase their stuff in short sets.

From 7 to 8:45 p.m., the Northamptones, the high school’s popular a cappella group, take the Academy stage for two shows — just the second time the singers have performed twice on First Night. The 7 p.m. show features former members back for a reunion, while current NHS students perform at 8 p.m. 

And for one show starting at 9:30 p.m., Northampton singer-songwriter Heather Maloney, who has a new EP out, “Just Enough Sun,” wraps up the evening. Maloney’s won numerous accolades in recent years — Spin magazine has called her singing “stunning, breathy and starkly memorable” — and her new disc features minimal production, with backing guitar and voice by Northampton guitarist Ryan Hommel, who also plays with the Sweetback Sisters.

Musical variety — Looking for some rock, pop or a mix of sounds? Consider a visit to The Parlor Room, where Colorway, the hard-hitting but melodic trio led by guitarist and singer F. Alex Johnson, opens the proceedings with shows at 2 and 3 p.m. They’ll be followed by The Johnny Memphis Band, which plays anything from Irish reels to jump blues, at 4 and 5 p.m., while local pop faves The Fawns gig at 7 and 8 p.m.

Or go and see Miss Tess and the Talkbacks, at the Edwards Church at 9:15 and 10:15 p.m., for the band’s fine mix of honky tonk, blues, swing, and early rock and roll. It’s just the second First Night appearance for the Nashville-based group, which has won lots of local fans from some previous gigs at The Parlor Room.

Another option: Dúo Fusión, with Sarah Swersey on flute and Joe Belmont on nylon-string guitar, plays a mix of Spanish-flavored folk as well as jazz and classical music at St. John’s Episcopal Church at 4 and 5 p.m.

Theater for young and old — You can check out some Smith College venues for live drama. In Theatre 14, Paintbox Theatre presents, fittingly enough, “The Box,” based on a picture book of the same name. It’s a story about a boy who, with help from his mom and dad, transforms a cardboard box into a rocket ship and has a series of adventures in outer space. The show, which features projections of dozens of art works created by local children, takes place at noon and 1 p.m.

Theatre 14 also hosts Valley Light Opera’s “Trial by Jury” at 3 and 4 p.m.; the one-act musical comedy looks at what happens when a young man who jilts his bride has to face his ex in court. The Hallie Flanagan Studio Theatre at Smith, meanwhile, showcases Northampton High School’s improv troupe, Funktionlust, which will be whipping up something undoubtedly age-appropriate for family audiences at a noon show.

And if you have any last-minute questions about these or other First Night events, don’t call Penny Burke: With a laugh, she said she’s heading out of town this weekend “on a flight to another time zone.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Additional information on First Night Northampton 2018, such as prices for admission buttons and where the buttons can be purchased, can be found at firstnightnorthampton.org.