Ringing in the new year — in person: First Night Northampton returns as a live event

  • Pamela Means brings her powerful vocals and energetic guitar playing to First Night Northampton 2022. PHOTO BY JULIAN PARKER-BURNS

  • Henry the Juggler has been delighting audiences of all ages for years at First Night Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Veteran Valley favorites NRBQ bring their good-time rock and roll to First Night Northampton 2022. IMAGE COURTESY OF FIRST NIGHT NORTHAMPTON

  • Paintbox Theatre will have laughs and more for families and kids at First Night Northampton. IMAGE COURTESY OF FIRST NIGHT NORTHAMPTON

  • CloudBelly, the neo-folk duo of Corey Laitman and Anand Nayak, are now signed to Signature Sounds and will make their First Night Northampton debut this year. IMAGE COURTESY OF FIRST NIGHT NORTHAMPTON

  • The Soul Magnets offer a horn-heavy sound that embraces old-school funk and neo-soul originals, deep covers, and dancefloor favorites. IMAGE COURTESY OF FIRST NIGHT NORTHAMPTON

  • Brooklyn-based singer and Grammy nominee Priya Darshini, at right, and hammered dulcimer wizard Max ZT have become regular performers in the Valley over the last few years. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Magician and balloon sculptor Ed Popielarczyk delights a young audience at Edwards Church during First Night Northampton 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dancers with the Northampton School of Dance perform at the Academy of Music during First Night Northampton 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/5/2021 11:14:35 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Last year, like so many other arts events and public gatherings, First Night Northampton had to be celebrated inside viewers’ homes, as the popular New Year’s Eve festival went virtual.

But though COVID-19 is still with us, First Night, now in its 37th year, is returning to its usual format, with over 60 live events — music, comedy, storytelling, kids’ theater and more — taking place in a dozen venues in downtown Northampton.

Yet in a nod to the unease some still feel about being in a crowd, a good part of the content of First Night 2022, with the aid of Northampton Open Media (NOM), will also be made available as a live-stream at a number of websites.

Otherwise, the in-person party will start at noon on Dec. 31 with a number of events designed for kids, followed by afternoon shows that run until 6 p.m., when there’s a break for the traditional fireworks display from the roof of the city’s parking garage. Events resume from 7 to 11 p.m. and are followed at midnight by the raising of the New Year’s ball from the top of the Hotel Northampton.

“We’re really happy to be back live,” said Steve Sanderson, event producer for the Northampton Arts Council, which has put together First Night over the last several years. “We’d like this to be a memorable experience, something where people will be comfortable and feel safe.”

Due to COVID-19, some downtown sites that have typically hosted First Night events, such as a theater at Smith College, won’t be available this year, Sanderson noted, and some venues will also have reduced capacity.

On the other hand, the Arts Council has beefed up scheduling at 33 Hawley, the Northampton Community Arts Trust building, where three different spaces will be used, including The Workroom, the building’s largest performance area.

The Arts Trust building will host a number of events for children and families in the afternoon, Sanderson said, and a lot of music in the evening.

“Even with fewer venues this year, we have over 60 acts and about 90 performances,” he said.

Enter the Q

One new and featured act is NRBQ, the veteran rockers who first became a hit in the Valley in the 1970s when guitarist and songwriter Big Al Anderson, a native of Windsor, Connecticut, was a key part of the group. The Q, as they’re known, have continued over the years with various lineups; keyboardist and singer Terry Adams is the only original member left, but the band continues to be a popular draw.

NRBQ, which will play the Academy of Music, also recently released “Dragnet,” the band’s first studio album since 2013, with 10 original songs; the title track is an Adams-arranged rocker of the orchestral theme song from the television cop show of the same name from the 1950s.

“I know Terry and I got in touch with him to see if the band wanted to come up here, and he said yes,” said Sanderson. It’s the band’s first appearance at First Night, though NRBQ is the past has played some separate New Year’s Eve shows at the Iron Horse Music Hall.

Another first-time performer is CloudBelly, the neo-folk duo of singer-songwriter Corey Laitman and guitarist/producer Anand Nayak, who met a few years back at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton. Drawn to each other’s music, they began playing together, and they recorded their first album, “Thou/Them,” in the past year, working primarily remotely. They’ve now been signed by Signature Sounds.

Sanderson says he’s also jazzed by the return of one of the newer First Night performers, Myles Jéh, a Springfield rapper, songwriter, choreographer and dancer. “He had all the high school kids at his show a few years ago,” he said.

There will be plenty of familiar faces, especially for younger First Night attendees, such as Henry the Juggler, who makes audience participation a big part of his shows; magician and balloon sculptor Ed Popielarczyk; and the actors from PaintBox Theatre, who use improvisation, music, and audience volunteers to present off-beat versions of fairy tales and children’s stories.

For First Night 2021, a smaller number of acts were videotaped at 33 Hawley, and the performances were streamed between noon and 11 p.m. to match the typical festival format. For First Night 2022, Sanderson said, the Arts Council and NOM will draw on what was learned from that experience to offer a mix of online programming to supplement the live events.

NOM, he added, “has access to something like 30 other broadcast areas, so it’s a great way for the city to reach out to different communities and show what a great time we have here on New Year’s Eve.”

This year, Sanderson noted, planning mostly went along with the assumption First Night could be live again, though with the understanding that safety had to be a priority. For all venues, attendees will be required to show proof of vaccination for Covid or a negative PCR test taken within the past 72 hours. Photos of a vaccine card are acceptable, but a valid photo ID is also required.

Children under the age of 5, who can’t be vaccinated yet, may attend, but they must wear a face mask and show results from a negative PCR test from the past 72 hours. All other attendees, regardless of vaccination status, will also be required to wear face masks. Staff and volunteers for First Night will also be vaccinated.

Sanderson said venues like the Academy of Music that began staging live events back in September have shown that indoor shows can be presented safely. He’s been to a number of concerts himself and feels confident First Night can be a success, even given the uncertainty surrounding Omicron, the new COVID variant.

“Safety’s a huge priority for us because we want people to be able to get back together and see music and other events live,” said Sanderson, who thanked all the sponsors of First Night. “There’s really no substitute for it.”

More information on First Night Northampton 2022, including where to buy pins (including online), is available at firstnightnorthampton.org. Discounts on pins apply through Dec. 30.

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


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