First Night Northampton returns for a 29th season to ring in the new year

Last modified: Monday, January 13, 2014
A year ago, Northampton was readying for its annual First Night celebration with some trepidation. The longtime organizer of the event, the Northampton Center for the Arts, was facing the loss of its home on South Street, and it wasn’t clear if the group would even continue — or who might take over responsibility for First Night in its absence.

Today, though, the Center for the Arts is still kicking, and First Night Northampton 2014 is indeed a go, with a record number of venues and hundreds of performers set to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a downtown party that runs from noon to midnight. New artists, some new venues, and different types of presentations are all in the mix, including a poetry slam, a dance/song troupe specializing in Afro-Cuban music and a number of Americana bands.

The Academy of Music will also feature late-night performances by Northampton singer/songwriter Heather Maloney, who’s making a national name for herself, and Winterpills, the Hadley-based “chamber-pop” quintet whose music has won praise from Rolling Stone magazine and The New York Times. Both will be making their first appearance at First Night, said Center for the Arts Director Penny Burke, the longtime principal organizer of the event.

“I think we’ve put together a little bit of everything, and we’ve changed things ’round a bit with some of the music,” Burke said. “It’s been a while since we featured music at the Academy in the later shows.”

One of the new venues for First Night 2014 is the Parlor Room at Signature Sounds, which features music most weekends but has added six shows for First Night, including local favorites the Salvation Alley String Band and a noted Boston band, Girls Guns and Glory, which plays a mix of country, honky-tonk and early rock ‘n’ roll.

“They were a great collaborator,” Burke said of Signature Sounds. “It’s really nice to have a new venue that’s set up so well for music.”

As in the past, there are also many family-friendly events, particularly for children, offered earlier in the day, including a parade down Main Street at 1 p.m. that will be chaperoned by the sounds of the Offbeat Drumming Ensemble and the Expandable Brass Band. The day’s main kick-off event takes place at noon at the Academy of Music, when members of the SHOW Circus Studio of Easthampton make a return visit with a performance that features acrobatics, trapeze acts and other high-energy events (like traveling in a hot air balloon).

First Night likely wouldn’t be the same without performances by some other long-standing acts. The Young@Heart Chorus takes the stage at John M. Greene Hall at Smith College for one show at 2 p.m., and the A2Z Yo-Yo Team offers a new theme and its usual spellbinding tricks at the Academy of Music, also at 2 p.m. A tough choice to make!

A labor-intensive process

Burke says she’s happy First Night 2014 has come to pass, given the uncertainty surrounding the future of the event last year. Not knowing where the Center of Arts was going to go when it lost its lease in the Sullivan Square building, she noted, “made it seem like there would be so much more pressure to pull this together, to do a good job on it. ... It’s a very labor-intensive process.”

Happily, the arts center found temporary office space on Strong Avenue, and the organization anticipates getting a permanent home in a future community arts center to be built on Hawley Street. This fall, the nonprofit group Northampton Community Arts Trust purchased the former Universal Gym building on Hawley and plans to transform the space for multiple artistic uses and office space; some local groups are already renting rehearsal space there.

Burke also worked with an assistant over the past several months, Barbara Allen, whose duties were dedicated entirely to helping organize First Night. “It made things a little easier because I could delegate specific tasks, like getting publicity and other logistical items.”

The loss of the Sullivan Square building space, unfortunately, meant the loss of the Center for the Arts ballroom as a key First Night performance space. But in addition to adding the Parlor Room, this year’s extravaganza also includes the World War II Club for the first time; the Lonesome Brothers, Trailer Park and The Pangeans will all play there Tuesday.

In addition, Smith College has made available three performance spaces this year: John M. Greene Hall, Sweeney Concert Hall and Theatre 14. The latter venue will, appropriately enough, feature several theatrical groups, including the kid-friendly PaintBox Theatre at 2 and 3 p.m. and the comedy group The Ha-Ha’s at 7 and 8 p.m.

“The college has really been a great partner to us,” Burke said.

The former Dynamite Records Space in Thornes Marketplace features a full day of music, including the swing and blues of the O-Tones, the blues/jazz/soul mix of Jamie Kent & the Options, and the ever-changing style of Lord Russ. At First Night 2013, Lord Russ, aka Russell Brooks, did his patented Elvis Presley impersonation; this year he and his band, the Gorgeous Misfits, will take on the glam-rock and psychedelia of the 1970s with music reminiscent of David Bowie, Roxy Music and Pink Floyd.

Among a number of acts, June & the Bee, a folk trio of recent Amherst Regional High School graduates who have performed at the Iron Horse Music Hall, will make their First Night debut at 8 p.m. at Lyman Hall at First Churches. They’ll be followed at 9:15 and 10:15 p.m. by another first-time act, one with a sense of humor in their music and name: Pale Cowboy, a Northampton indie rock band playing a mix of country-western and early rock ‘n roll.

One other new item: Northampton’s weekly poetry slam, which offers an open mic, a featured poet and judges selected from the audience — and a stated aim of introducing poetry to a wider audience — will be staged in Memorial Hall at 9:15 p.m. and 10:15 p.m.

As the online First Night 2014 performance schedule reminds you, don’t forget to look up after intermission begins at 5:45 p.m., as the traditional fireworks display is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. Burke says financial sponsorship of First Night is up this year, so perhaps one can expect a particularly good series of explosions.

Given the uncertainty surrounding last year’s First Night, the fact the 2014 version has 22 venues — a record number — and a full schedule seems like a very good omen to Burke. “I think we’re in a good place,” she said.

For full details on First Night, including ticket prices, ticket venues, performance schedule and a free app available at the iTunes store, visit www.firstnightnorthampton.org.