First Night Northampton will ring in 2019 with festival, block party

  • There will be dozens of performers — musicians, jugglers, opera, yo-yo-ers and more — during First Night Northampton 2019.  Photo courtesy of Northampton Arts Council 

  • The Johnny Memphis Band will perform two sets of roots rock in the afternoon at St. John’s Episcopal Church as part of First Night Northampton.  Photo courtesy of Northampton Arts Council

  • Simsbury Light Opera, from Simsbury, CT, will bring its comedic touch to Smith College’s Theatre 14 as part of First Night Northampton. Photo courtesy of Northampton Arts Council

  • Prepare for stage theatrics and classic ska when Beige performs at a new First Night venue: Studio4, on Main Street.  Photo courtesy of Northampton Arts Council

  • The popular A2Z Science Yo-Yo Team will perform at Studio4 at 4 p.m.  Photo courtesy of Northampton Arts Council

Staff Writer
Published: 12/27/2018 11:10:23 AM

Dozens of local bands, fireworks, a Latin dance party in the streets, a comic opera, martial arts, juggling, and a host of other other events: They’re all in store to ring in 2019 at this year’s First Night Northampton, at more than 20 downtown locations.

Among the musical acts on tap at the festival this coming Monday, the range of genres is diverse and includes acts such as the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra, ace guitarist and singer-songwriter Brooks Williams (formerly of the Valley but now living in England), bluesman Wildcat O’Halloran, legendary folk duo Tracy Gramer and Jim Henry, and indie folk artist Kimaya Diggs.

Then there’s Lord Russ, the Valley’s version of musical chameleon David Bowie, who will be doing a tribute show of songs by the British symphonic rock band The Moody Blues at Smith College’s Theatre 14. And these are just a few of the the performers on the schedule.

“First Night to me is a reflection of the talent that’s in this valley,” said Steve Sanderson, the event producer for the Northampton Arts Council and the one-time frontman for the former Valley rock band Drunk Stuntmen.

The Northampton Arts Council started planning the annual New Year’s Eve block party/festival in April, Sanderson notes, reviewing hundreds of applications over the following months to narrow down the list of performers. 

This is the first year the festival is completely without Penny Burke, the longtime director of Northampton Center for the Arts (NCFA), at its helm. Burke retired this past September after more than a decade supporting the local arts scene, including heading First Night planning for 15 years. But though she’s no longer at NCFA, her contributions remain a big part of the event, Sanderson notes.

“Penny ... laid out an incredible blueprint,” said Sanderson, who first took over much of the First Night Planning last year, with Burke’s assistance. “Granted, it was all in three-ringed binders, but she set a great blueprint that we can work and expand from.

“If she hadn’t done that, I don’t know,” he added. “It’s basically like running a festival. It’s like South by Southwest here. It’s our own little mini-music festival here.”

This year First Night will welcome back a number of past performers, including some who have been playing the event for years, like Steve Westfield, frontman of the 1980s-founded punk band Pajama Slave Dancers. This year Westfield will be leading his newest group, the ska band Beige. Others veteran performers include the country/folk-rock flavored Lonesome Brothers and roots rockers The Johnny Memphis Band.

“Johnny Memphis is First Night’s cheerleader,” Sanderson said. “He just loves the event, thinks it's the best thing, and can’t say enough good stuff about it.”

Ray Mason, bassist/vocalist with Lonesome Brothers, who has been performing at First Night for more than a decade, said he loves that so many attend the festival, whether they’re families with children, local music fans or people just looking to have a good time.  

“There’s people that go, ‘My mother came and told me to see you,’ ”  Mason said with a laugh. “And then as I’m getting older, ‘My grandmother said I should go see you.’ ”

First Night Northampton has also added two new venues this year: Studio4 at the School for Contemporary Dance & Thought at 25 Main St., and the new Northampton Center for the Arts location at 33 Hawley St.

Both will feature an eclectic array of performers. At Studio4, there are afternoon events such as Mad Science, a scientific experiment showcase geared towards children and families, as well as A2Z Science and Learning’s Yo-Yo team, which has regularly featured a number of yo-yo champions among its ranks, Sanderson noted.

In the evening, Beige will perform two sets at the venue, to be followed by Trailer Park, the horn-heavy band that specializes in what it calls “barbecue rock.” Trailer Park will close the night at Studio4, with two sets beginning at 9:15 and 10:15 p.m., respectively.

“You take the elevator up there and you’re in this amazing venue that nobody knows about, that’s right under everyone’s nose,” Sanderson said.

Meanwhile, at 33 Hawley Street, the afternoon offers political humor and song from the Raging Grannies, as well as DJ Quintessential in the afternoon, followed by 10-piece theatrical rock/avant-garde pop ensemble The Leafies You Gave Me at 7 p.m. (Editor’s note: Gazette staff writer Chris Goudreau is a member of The Leafies You Gave Me.) A night of Latin and Salsa dance with McCoy & DJ Roger Jr. closes the evening.

“The one thing I got asked at least six times was if we could bring more dancing to First Night,” Sanderson said. “The idea is that only at the World War II Club is there a venue that’s accessible to dancing … We approached 33 Hawley that way and downstairs only is a kids-only dance party. And then we have DJ Roger Jr. and a salsa dance party.

“I’m excited to see a newer venue really work and be interesting and add another element to First Night,” he added.

DJ Roger Jr. will also return at 11:30 p.m. in downtown Northampton for a dance party in the streets to ring in the new year, leading up to the countdown and ball raising at midnight at the Hotel Northampton, which will be overseen by master of ceremonies Trumpy from Hits 94.3 F.M.

“We’re going to dance in the new year in the streets,” Sanderson added. “I’m so excited for this.”

For more information about First Night Northampton 2019 and to view the complete schedule of performers, visit

Chris Goudreau can be reached at

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