Back on the Back Porch: Festival returns March 3-6 with multiple performances in Northampton, Greenfield

  • The Back Porch Festival begins March 3 at The Parlor Room in Northampton with a salute by area singers and songwriters to country music legend Dolly Parton. Image courtesy Signature Sounds

  • A new voice on the country music scene, Canadian-born Bella White, plays The Parlor Room on March 6 as part of the Back Porch Festival. Signature Sounds

  • She’s played pop, rock, jazz, R&B and more, and she’s also written a memoir: Rickie Lee Jones joins the Back Porch Festival March 6 at the Academy of Music. Signature Sounds

  • The Back Porch Festival will screen its first-ever film March 5 at the Academy of Music, the music documentary “Learning to Live Together.” Image courtesy Signature Sounds

  • Jon Cleary, left, and his band The Absolute Monster Gentlemen play the Back Porch Festival March 4 at Hawks & Reed in Greenfield. Signature Sounds

  • Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Aoife O’Donovan plays the Academy of Music March 4 as part of the Back Porch Festival. Image courtesy Signature Sounds

  • Rootsy singer-songwriter and guitar picker Jeffrey Foucault comes to The Parlor Room March 5 as part of the Back Porch Festival. Image courtesy Signature Sounds

Staff Writer
Published: 2/24/2022 3:31:21 PM
Modified: 2/24/2022 3:30:59 PM

For the last several years, Signature Sounds has tried to fight the late winter blues by staging its Back Porch Festival, a roots and country music showcase in late February/early March that brings a variety of bands and artists to the region.

What started as a one-day gig in Northampton in 2014 has since expanded to three to four days of music on multiple stages. And after the festival just got in under the COVID wire in late February 2020, and then was switched to a one-day outdoors event last August at Look Park, Back Porch is — well, back for three days and four nights in Northampton and Greenfield, March 3-6.

Jim Olsen, Signature Sounds’ president, says ticket sales for some of the shows have lagged, no doubt because of lingering concerns about COVID-19. But he’s enthusiastic about the lineup, which includes celebrated singer-songwriters Rickie Lee Jones and Aoife O’Donovan, the New Orleans-style jazz and blues of Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentleman, a tribute performance of the music of Dolly Parton, and a first for the festival: a music documentary.

“We thought, ‘Why not do something different this time?’ ” Olsen said about the film, “Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” The documentary will screen at the Academy of Music on Saturday, March 5, at 7 p.m.

It’s a sort of split-screen story that includes highlights of a tour that Joe Cocker, the bluesy English rocker, and about 30 other performers made across the U.S. in 1970, combined with footage of a reunion of surviving tour members playing with blues artists such as the Tedeschi Trucks Band at a Virginia music festival in 2015. Variety calls the film “a serious blast of rock ‘n’ roll love.”

All told, the Back Porch Festival features eight presentations divided between the Academy and The Parlor Room in Northampton and Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. One of those is the festival’s traditional Sunday morning (March 6) live broadcast from The Parlor Room of Olsen’s long-running country-themed radio show on The River/WRSI-FM, along with live performances by guest artists.

Another festival tradition is an opening night gig in which area musicians highlight the songs of a specific artist. This year’s show, March 3 at Hawks & Reed at 7 p.m., is dedicated to country titan Dolly Parton. A house band composed of Chris Brashear, Jim Henry, Paul Kochanski and J.J. O’Connell will back up several guest singers, including Zara Bode, one of the two lead singers of The Sweetback Sisters, along with Kris Delmhorst and Tracy Grammer.

“Zara is a huge Dolly Parton fan,” Olsen said.

Friday, March 4 offers a showcase of singer-songwriters and guitarists at the Academy of Music, with opening sets by Taylor Ashton and Yasmin Williams; the latter is a skilled instrumental fingerstyle guitarist who uses open tunings and percussive taps in the style of players such as Michael Hedges. The headliner is Aoife O’Donovan, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who just released a new album, “Age of Apathy,” last month.

“She’s an amazing songwriter with a great voice,” Olsen said of O’Donovan, noting she’s also been part of a number of other folk/country/bluegrass groups, including Crooked Still and I’m with Her. She and her backing band will be joined by Ashton and Williams for some combined songs at the Academy, Olsen added.

Also on March 4, Jon Cleary will bring his band to Hawks & Reed at 8 p.m. for a Mardi Gras party of jazz and blues. Cleary is actually a native of a small town in England but has made his home in New Orleans for years, where he’s long since established himself as a piano player and singer. Among other gigs, he’s been a longtime pianist for Bonnie Raitt.

“We’ve been trying to get him to play [the Green River Festival] for years, but he usually tours Europe in the summer,” Olsen said. “It’s great that we can finally bring him to the Valley.”

Along with the March 5 documentary film, Back Porch will feature a 7 p.m. concert that evening at The Parlor Room by rootsy singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault, who had been scheduled to play in January but postponed his show due to COVID concerns.

The festival concludes Sunday, March 6 with shows featuring new and veteran performers, respectively. Canadian-born country singer Bella White, who’s just 21, grew up listening to the songs of her Virginia-born father, a bluegrass musician, and she absorbed a lot. Her debut album, “Just Like Leaving,” released in 2021, prompted Rolling Stone to praise White’s songwriting as “sublime Appalachian heartbreak.”

“She has one of those voices that just makes you sit up and take notice,” Olsen said. “She really just kind of burst on the scene in the last year or so.”

White plays The Parlor Room at 3 p.m. March 6. And that evening at 7 p.m., longtime singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, whose music has embraced pop, R&B, jazz, rock and more, wraps up the festival at the Academy of Music.

Olsen says he’s been “a huge fan” of Jones ever since he heard her self-titled debut album in 1979; her appearance at the festival represents the first time Signature Sounds has ever produced a show by her.

“She has a lot of artistic integrity — she’s an original,” said Olsen, who’s also been enjoying Jones’ picaresque memoir, “Last Chance Texaco,” published last year. The New York Times calls the book “as rich and colorful as Jones’ best lyrics.”

Like club owner and managers everywhere, Olsen hopes more people will venture out to hear live music as the worst of the omicron surge fades away and winter gives way to spring. He says audience size seems to correlate to age, with younger audiences coming out in bigger numbers and older ones playing it more cautiously.

“Hopefully we’ll see an increase in ticket sales” for the Back Porch Festival, he said. “I think we’re going to have some good shows.”

More information on Back Porch can be found at signaturesoundspresents.com.

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


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