Curtain call: Bob Cilman, outgoing director of the Northampton Arts Council, puts together his last ‘Transperformance’ show at Look Park
Bob Cilman, who is retiring in September as director of the Northampton Arts Council, outside his office at Memorial Hall. He will play harmonica with Jim Armenti in the opening act of this year's "Transperformance" at Look Park.
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Bob Cilman, executive director of the Northampton Arts Council
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Late August in Northampton — at the Pines Theater at Look Park, specifically — means it’s time for “Transperformance.”
But this year’s annual musical extravaganza, where local musicians play covers of songs by national and international groups, also marks the end of an era: It will be the last show organized by Bob Cilman, the longtime director of the Northampton Arts Council, who will step down from his position in early September.
The theme for Tuesday’s 23rd “Transperformance” is “Beyond Bob” — bands and musicians who feature a notable Bob, Robert or some variation of that name (like Roberta Anderson, the birth name of folk legend Joni Mitchell).
Among some 23 acts, there’s Philip Price, of the pop quintet Winterpills, who will take a turn as mustachioed crooner Robert Goulet. Michelle Brooks, the Amherst Regional High School graduate who appeared on TV’s “The Voice” last fall, will portray R&B heavyweight R (Robert) Kelly. and the roots-rock/folk trio Rusty Belle will play Bob Dylan.
“Transperformance” is a perennial favorite not just for audiences but for the musicians, who say it’s a great opportunity to catch up with one another. “It’s such a great scene, just to roll in an see everybody,” said Zac Trojano, one of Rusty Belle’s two guitarists. “We’ve always had a blast doing the show.”
With a laugh, Cilman begged off having come up with the “Beyond Bob” theme — “The show’s about the music, not me” — but he said that after other members of the Art Council’s board suggested it, he thought it made sense.
“It’s hard to come up with new themes when you’ve been doing this for so long,” Cilman said. “And it is my last show.”
He noted that he and the board had tossed around other ideas for this year’s concert, such as basing it around the name David (The Dave Clark Five, Davy Jones of the Monkees, the Dave Matthews Band) or places/geography, with groups named after specific locales or regions (Kansas, Boston, Taj Mahal, etc).
“Bob’s not a bad name to build a show around,” he said.
Audience members will get an eclectic lineup playing the music of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, The Cure (lead singer Robert Smith is the reference point), Bob Seger and others. Show tunes will also be on tap as Price, the chief songwriter and singer of Winterpills, performs as Robert Goulet, who made his name in Broadway musicals like “Camelot” and in TV specials.
In an email, Price said he’d been struggling to find a solo role for the show, since his band members have other commitments at the moment.
“Goulet just jumped out at me as something I could actually pull off. ... I studied a little opera in college, so I’m going to be calling on my old chest voice a lot more than usual. Also he’s a baritone, I’m a tenor. ... I’ll be digging deep.”
For his backup, he added, there’s going to be “an orchestra behind the curtain (known as an iPod). I couldn’t get all of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. Besides, I will be focusing on my mustache.”
Then there’s Bobby Darin, played by Eric Olsson, and The Grateful Dead (Bob Weir), who will be portrayed by Dave Houghton (of Fancy Trash) and Friends. Heather Maloney will be Joni “Roberta Anderson” Mitchell, Evelyn Harris will channel Roberta Flack, and the original lineup of The Drunk Stuntmen unites to perform as Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant).
Two groups will take on the music of Dylan, given his extensive catalog. Rusty Belle performs some early Dylan numbers; they’ll be joined by Greenfield singer/songwriter Kris Delmhorst, who’s making her “Transperformance” debut. “When we asked her if she could help out, Kris was really excited,” said Trojano. “She said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this.’ ”
Meanwhie, Cilman’s Young@Heart Chorus will perform some of Dylan’s later songs. “I think Dylan deserves a couple different performers, don’t you?” Cilman said.
And let’s not forget the show’s hosts, all five of whom will take on the personas of various Bobs, such as Julie Waggoner as Bob the Builder, Kelsey Flynn as Bob Barker, and Monte Belmonte as Bob Hope.
It was 23 years ago that the Arts Council, with Cilman in the lead, organized the first “Transperformance,” which actually didn’t use that title. “Woodstock: The Performance Peace,” did prove a big hit, though, both with local audiences and with some further afield: Cilman mailed a video of the show to MTV, which aired the concert.
The format of the first show also differed from the one that’s since been established, with each band playing three songs by the artists they represent. At “Woodstock,” each group played a cover song of its choice, then performed their own music, Cilman said, “and some of them seemed kind of eager to get to their own tunes.”
But more important, he says, was the vibe the show started — a sense of fun and camaraderie, of community, of musical adventure. “Every show has had its special moment, when there’s a real connection between musicians and audience and everything kind of clicks.”
From the start, proceeds from the show have helped fund art programs in Northampton schools, as well as public art grants.
Cilman says there have been any number of memorable moments — some having to do with the vagaries of weather, like the time in 2005 when the remnants of Hurricane Katrina blew through and forced the show indoors. Sometimes bands have arrived late because of traffic or other problems, forcing a shuffling of the schedule or between-music stalling by the hosts.
Cilman has also been a performer at the show: He’s playing again this year (on harmonica) with veteran guitarist Jim Armenti in the blues duo The Self Righteous Brothers, doing songs by Robert Johnson. Cilman figures he might continue playing at the show in the future — maybe with the Young@Heart Chorus, which he will continue to direct — even if he’s no longer organizing it.
“Transperformance,” he said, “will go on”; he noted that the Arts Council board has been interviewing candidates for his position, with the hope that a new director might be hired in time to attend next week’s show to get a firsthand look at what’s involved.
End of an era
Armenti, who’s performed at every “Transperformance,” will do so again this year, both in his blues duet with Cilman and with his band, the Lonesome Brothers, which is teaming up with Trailer Park to portray Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the popular western swing band of the 1940s and e_SSRq50s.
His proximity to Cilman, Armenti says, has given him a good vantage point for seeing just what the outgoing Arts Council director has brought to “Transperformance.” He says Cilman has done a yeoman’s job in putting the shows together, from coming up with the initial concept, arranging for food vendors, lighting and sound and other logistical support, and most of all enlisting musicians in the cause.
“I can tell that you no one has to be dragged into the show,” he said. “[Musicians] want to be there. ... Bob has really put a tremendous amount of energy into reaching out and getting different groups involved year after year, whether it’s a Hispanic band from Holyoke or a gospel or folk singer, someone who doesn’t play the kind of rock or pop music you usually associate with the show.”
For musicians, Armenti adds, the show has long been a great community scene, giving players who often don’t cross paths a chance to hang out, hear each other play and have fun comparing impersonations. As Price puts it, “We get to have Halloween twice around here.”
It’s too early to say if “Transperformance” will be different in the future under someone else’s direction, Armenti notes. But with Cilman moving on, he added, “It’s definitely the end of an era.”
Price, though, suggested the Cilman era might not yet be finished.
“Bob’s a great guy and we’re all going to miss him. But I’m betting after one year off, he’ll come running back — at least as a performer in some capacity.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 23rd “Transperformance” takes place Tuesday from 4 to 9:30 p.m. at Look Park’s Pines Theater in Florence. If rain is predicted for Tuesday, the show moves to Wednesday at the same time. If there’s rain on both days, the show moves to the Northampton High School auditorium on Thursday from 4 to 9:30 p.m.
Tickets cost $8 in advance ($10 at the door); $5 for seniors; $3 for children 12 and under. Advance tickets are available online at www.northamptonartscouncil.org and can also be purchased at State Street Fruit Store in Northampton and Cooper’s Corner in Florence.
No pets, coolers or beverages are permitted at the concert; food is available for sale from vendors from local restaurants.