Watermelon Wednesdays celebrates 20 years of music in a quirky small-town setting

  • From left, Paula Bradley on guitar, Bruce Molsky on fiddle and Allison de Groot on banjo perform at the Whately Town Hall  in April, marking the first concert of the year for Watermelon Wednesdays. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • From left, Bruce Molsky plays the fiddle and Allison de Groot plays the banjo while Paula Bradley tap dances at the Whately Town Hall April 20 during the first concert of the year for Watermelon Wednesdays. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Paula Bradley and Bruce Molsky perform North Americana music at the Whately Town Hall in April as part of Watermelon Wednesdays’ first concert of the year.

  • From left, Paula Bradley, Brittany Haas, Bruce Molsky, Allison de Groot, Yann Falquet and Natalie Haas perform at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, marking the first concert of the year for Watermelon Wednesdays. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Brittany Haas on fiddle, Natalie Haas on cello and Yann Falquet on guitar perform at the Whately Town Hall in April as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Natalie Haas on cello and Yann Falquet on guitar perform at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Brittany Haas plays the fiddle at the Whately Town Hall in April      as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • West Whately resident Paul Newlin founded the Watermelon Wednesdays concert series in 2000. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Five-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson will perform June 26 at the West Whately Chapel as part of the Watermelon Wednesdays concert series. Contributed photo

  • Honky-tonk band The Sweetback Sisters play Whately Town Hall July 31 as part of the Watermelon Wednesdays concert series. Contributed photo

For the Bulletin
Thursday, May 16, 2019

One thousand watermelons. That’s the number of the juicy summer treats Paul Newlin estimates he’s served at his Watermelon Wednesdays concerts since he founded the series in 2000.

Watermelon Wednesdays presents acoustic music of almost all genres at the West Whately Chapel during the warm weather months. The concerts are favorites with acoustic music fans, offering everything from banjo great Tony Trischka, to Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, to the honky-tonk of The Sweetback Sisters — all presented in a rustic, intimate setting.

“ ‘Watermelon Wednesdays — keeping live music alive,’ that’s my motto for my shows,” said Newlin, the series’ director.

Watermelon Wednesdays celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and last month the milestone was acknowledged with a special show at the newly renovated Whately Town Hall. It was a night of fiery fiddles, crowd sing-alongs and even some dancing when Bruce Molsky (fiddle), Allison de Groot (banjo) and Paula Bradley (guitar) played a lively brand of old-time music, followed by an equally rousing performance by Brittany Haas (fiddle), Natalie Haas (cello) and Yann Falquet (guitar).

These top-flight musicians were clearly having a great time, but the best part was they connected with audience members in a way that guaranteed listeners were having an equally good time. Newlin said this season opener captured the spirit of what Watermelon Wednesdays is all about.

Quirky, but beloved

Twenty years in, Newlin, an adjunct professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says he’s proud to be presenting the popular summer music series. But when he first set his sights on holding events at the historic West Whately Chapel, he wasn’t thinking of music.

The chapel is owned by the Whately Congregational Church and is used for church services in the summer. In the late 1990s, it was also being used for occasional community events, and Newlin, who lives nearby, saw the potential for more.

“I got to thinking that I could do something like David Kaynor was doing at the grange in Montague — book contra dances, theater or poetry readings,” he said.

A passionate music fan who also plays guitar and fiddle, Newlin decided music might work at the church. He connected with a friend, musician Rani Arbo of Middletown, Conn., and invited her band at that time, the bluegrass group Salamander Crossing, to play there.

The chapel, which seats about 90, proved to be a great venue for live music, Newlin says. The acoustics of the small room, built in 1896, are perfect for unplugged ensembles like Salamander Crossing, where every gorgeous note sung and the strumming of strings can be heard crystal clear. The show was a success, fueling Newlin and Arbo’s aspirations.

“I remember thinking that we could really use another place for acoustic music in the Valley,” said Arbo, who laid the groundwork with Newlin for what would become Watermelon Wednesdays.

Launching a concert series is a daunting task in itself, but the chapel presented some serious issues, too. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and while the location is beautiful, West Whately is certainly off the beaten path.

But Arbo and Newlin were willing to give it a go. The idea was to present the finest in local talent, in addition to nationally (and sometimes internationally) known players. Musicians touring between New York and Boston for weekend shows are often looking for gigs during the week. Newlin thought that Wednesday (shows are occasionally held on other days) would be perfect and a less-expensive day to book the artists.

The concert series name was finalized when he and Arbo decided that serving free watermelon outside during intermission might be fun.

“Watermelon Wednesdays in West Whately — it’s very alliterative,” Arbo said.

“It was sort of a branding, although we didn’t use the word ‘branding’ back then,” Newlin said with a laugh. “But we wanted to have a fun, quirky place to have high-quality acoustic shows, and we’ve been on that trajectory ever since.”

Quirky, indeed. What other concert venue has cow pastures nearby or advertises free bat shows, since you can watch the bats that live in the church fly around during the break? Where else do they hand out Ziploc bags of ice to fans during hot days to compensate for the lack of air conditioning? Yes, the West Whately Chapel is quirky, but that’s what makes it special.

Little venue, big names

Watermelon Wednesdays’ first season consisted of five shows, and it has grown over time. By 2009, the series was up to 14 performances, with the season running into September and many shows selling out. Nowadays, advance tickets are strongly recommended.

The list of past performers reads like a Who’s Who of acoustic music: Maura O’Connell, The Bee Eaters, Laurie Lewis, Maeve Gilchrist, Aoife O’Donovan, the St. Petersburg Quartet, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Redbird, Molly Tuttle, Jay Ungar and many, many others.

“I don’t think either of us imagined this would be such a touring stop for national musicians the way that it is now,” Arbo said.

A big part of Watermelon Wednesdays’ success is that the musicians love playing the chapel.

“It’s one of those very special gigs where there’s an alchemy between the room and the history of the room, and the people and the place and you,” said Arbo, who has played the venue many times with her current string band, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem.

“There are certain venues where you go in and you know there is going to be chemistry, and there is always chemistry there,” she said.

Multi-instrumentalist Jim Henry of Shutesbury agrees.

“I can tell you it is a wonderful place to play,” said Henry, who has performed there with acts like Tracy Grammer and 4 Toads in a Basket. “It can be hotter than hell on summer nights, but the heat seems to add to the vibe. It is a kind of ‘we’re-all-in-it-together’ thing.”

“The bats coming out at the break, fresh watermelon, community gathered in a church — it’s a great experience all around,” Henry added. “I think it’s tough to convey the power of the event unless you’ve been a part of it.”

The audience is a huge part of Watermelon Wednesdays’ atmosphere, Arbo said, because of the intimacy of the room.

“It feels like the vibe of a house concert,” she said. “It’s basically Paul’s house concert that he puts on in a church.”

“I can get great musicians all the time, but if they aren’t good entertainers who don’t excite the audience, I don’t want them,” Newlin added. “They have to be able to engage the audiences. That’s what it is about here.”

One thousand watermelons, one thousand more

Newlin says it’s tough to list the most memorable shows the series has hosted, given he’s seen so many. But one that instantly comes to mind for him involved Bulgarian musicians Ivan Milev and Entcho Todorov.

“Ivan plays accordion and Entcho plays fiddle,” Newlin said. “Now, I’m not a big accordion buff, because I got burned by Lawrence Welk. But I’ve never heard anything like this — it was Ivan’s music.”

Tony Trischkaka and Karrin Allyson are also favorites.

Then there were the few that got away.

“I blew it when I didn’t book the Carolina Chocolate Drops when I had the chance, because Rhiannon Giddens ended up getting crazy famous,” Newlin lamented. “And I missed Sarah Jarosz before she signed some big contract.”

The 2019 season features plenty of the old-time traditional folk that has long been a staple of the series. Also on tap are the Cajun band The Revelers (June 6), jazz singer Karrin Allyson (June 26) and self-professed Southern gothic songster Amythyst Kiah (July 3), who has drawn comparisons to Rhiannon Giddens.

Since the recent show at the Whately Town Hall was such a success, Newlin plans to take advantage of that renovated space again for acts that warrant more room, such as The Sweetback Sisters (July 31) and the string band Della Mae (Aug. 30).

But that’s as big as Newlin plans to make the series’ shows. Watermelon Wednesdays did present a show at the Academy of Music in Northampton a few years ago, and it wasn’t a good fit.

“We aren’t interested in getting bigger; it’s not us,” Newlin said. “We are Whately.”

In its first 20 years, Watermelon Wednesdays has become a nonprofit with sponsorship from about 20 local businesses. The chapel now has electricity, a porta-potty, and even a soundboard (although Newlin prefers unamplified music).

“I’m psyched that Paul has kept it going for 20 years,” Arbo said. “What a gift for the community and to the musicians.”

But if you ask Newlin, he’ll say the concert series’ tenure doesn’t completely surprise him.

“I have no desire to go anywhere else, [but] I do want more music,” he explained. “Put them together and maybe we’ll go 30.”

That means he’ll need a lot more watermelon.

“I hope to go through a thousand more,” he said.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.

For more information about Watermelon Wednesdays, and to order tickets, visit watermelonwednesdays.com.