The show ‘needed to go on’: Northampton’s First Night festivities go virtual in pandemic 

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  • Dave Newland, left, of Northampton Open Media records a few takes of Northampton Arts Council Events Producer Steve Sanderson hosting a virtual “raising of the ball” atop the Hotel Northampton on Dec. 2, to be broadcast on New Year’s Eve. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Newland, right, of Northampton Open Media sets up a camera to record a virtual "raising of the ball" atop the Hotel Northampton on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, to be broadcast on New Year's Eve. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Newland, left, of Northampton Open Media records a few takes of Northampton Arts Council Events Producer Steve Sanderson hosting a virtual “raising of the ball” atop the Hotel Northampton on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, to be broadcast on New Year’s Eve. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Arts Council producer Steve Sanderson during recording of the “raising of the ball” atop the Hotel Northampton on Dec. 2 for New Year’s Eve. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The intersection of King, Pleasant and Main Streets stands mostly quiet as seen from atop the Hotel Northampton on Wednesday evening, Dec. 2, 2020, where a virtual “raising of the ball” was being recorded by Northampton Open Media for broadcast on New Year’s Eve. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Arts Council Events Producer Steve Sanderson, left, and Dave Newland of Northampton Open Media record a virtual “raising of the ball” atop the Hotel Northampton on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, to be broadcast on New Year’s Eve. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Perennial First Night performer Henry the Juggler will do his juggling and miming virtually this year. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

  • IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

  • Longtime acoustic duet Jim Henry and Tracy Grammer return to First Night Northampton. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

  • Jazz singer-songwriter Kimaya Diggs returns to First Night Northampton. HANNAH ROSE PHOTOGRAPHY LLC/IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL 

  • Grammy-winning children’s singer and songwriter Mr. G makes his debut this year at First Night. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

  • Dick Moulding brings the ragtime sounds of Scott Joplin, Joe Lamb, Tom Turpin and others to First Night. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

Staff Writer
Published: 12/25/2020 8:01:12 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Since 1985, the city has welcomed the new year with a downtown festival offering music, dancing, comedy and more. And what started as a fairly modest event morphed over the years into a 12-hour entertainment extravaganza every New Year’s Eve, with dozens of performers doing their thing at up to 24 different venues.

This year, First Night Northampton will continue, but the pandemic, not surprisingly, has forced organizers to revamp the format. Another 12 hours worth of entertainment is on tap, but it will all be presented virtually, with 25 acts performing sets ranging between 25 and 30 minutes.

That the event is taking place at all, says chief producer Steve Sanderson, is a testament to the continued support of area businesses and organizations, the willingness of performers to appear for reduced fees — and in some cases for nothing — and the simple belief that the show needed to go on.

“It just wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t have this,” said Sanderson, event producer for the Northampton Arts Council, which since 2017 has produced First Night, previously the work of the Northampton Center for the Arts.

“It’s such a big tradition in the city and in the Valley, and we didn’t want the pandemic to have the last word on it,” he said.

First Night Northampton 2021 has been videotaped in advance with help from Northampton Open Media and will be streamed through a number of sites, such as NOM’s YouTube Live channel, all of which can be accessed through the event website, firstnightnorthampton.org. It also can be seen on Northampton Comcast Cable channels 12, 15, and 23.

The show, which begins at noon, will be hosted by Sanderson as well as Monte Belmonte and Joan Holliday of WRSI-FM/The River, who will introduce the acts and encourage viewers to make donations to the event: the show is free, but help is very much needed.

“Without any button sales, we’re obviously really challenged to raise the money we typically do for arts programs and activities,” said Sanderson, who added that he and other event planners are paying performers — themselves all hurting this year — only about half of what they typically do.

But within those limitations, this year’s First Night has stayed true to its basic format. There will be a range of acts, including kid-friendly events early in the day, and a roster that includes First Night veterans, such as the folk duo Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry, and first-time performers including hammered dulcimer player Max ZT and Grammy-nominated Indian singer Priya Darshini. The latter two musicians, both from Brooklyn, New York, play as a duo at 6:41 p.m.

Maz ZT, who melds Indian music and western sounds such as jazz on his dulcimer, previously played in Northampton in 2014 as part of the Arts Council’s “Four Sundays in February” program. “He’s awesome,” Sanderson said.

Other returning favorites include Henry the Juggler, who can be seen at 12:39 p.m., and archguitarist Peter Blanchette (and friends) at 7:39 p.m. On the flip side, another new performer this year is an artist well known in this area and much further afield: children’s singer and songwriter Mister G of Whately, who plays at 2:30 p.m.

The traditional raising of the ball on the roof of the Hotel Northampton will also be seen, having been filmed in advance.

Planning in a pandemic

Sanderson said planning for First Night went through a number of stages this year, including during the initial chaos after much of daily life was shut down in March. Applications for performers for the coming event went out in April as they usually do, he noted, but as the summer progressed it remained uncertain whether a live event could work.

In August, the Arts Council presented one of its other key events, Transperformance, as a continuous livestreamed show from the Northampton Arts Trust building at 33 Hawley St. At that point, Sanderson said, “We still thought we had a chance to do (First Night) live, or at least some of it live.” Another thought was to livestream events from different rooms at 33 Hawley.

But COVID cases increasing statewide and around the nation, planners eventually had performers come to 33 Hawley during three-day slots in October and November to record their presentations (some performers also submitted their own videotaped performances). A plan to host a live puppet show at 33 Hawley had to be scrapped more recently, Sanderson said, after Gov. Charlie Baker imposed more limits on public gatherings following yet another COVID uptick.

“We had to go from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C,” Sanderson said. “If even one person got sick from this, it would be awful. We just couldn’t take the chance.”

Having to whittle down the number of performers for this year’s First Night also proved a challenge, he said. In some cases, the nod went to artists who were the first to get their performance applications in back in spring, he noted, but there were tough calls to make about who else would be part of the show.

“It’s really hard telling people we can’t give them a slot, especially when it’s been such a brutal year for so many artists,” Sanderson said.

His hope, shared by many, is that First Night can return to a live format next year. For now, he remains grateful for the generosity shown by many performers — “Some just said, ‘This one’s on me,’” said Sanderson — and the help Northampton Open Media, sponsors and others have given to put this year’s event together.

“The spirit of First Night has really shined through,” he said.

Donations for First Night Northampton 2021 can be made at the event website and during the program. Various themed items, such as face masks, socks and winter hats, are also available for purchase.

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


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