Watermelon Wednesdays celebrates 20 years of renowned acts in a quirky small-town setting

  • From left, Paula Bradley on guitar, Bruce Molsky on fiddle and Allison de Groot on banjo perform at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, marking the first concert of the year for Watermelon Wednesdays. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • From left, Bruce Molsky plays the fiddle and Allison de Groot plays the banjo while Paula Bradley tap dances at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20. Their performance marked the first concert of the year for Watermelon Wednesdays. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Paula Bradley tap dances to North Americana traditional string music at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Allison de Groot plays the banjo at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Paula Bradley and Bruce Molsky perform North Americana music at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • From left, Paula Bradley, Brittany Haas, Bruce Molsky, Allison de Groot, Yann Falquet and Natalie Haas perform at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, marking the first concert of the year for Watermelon Wednesdays. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Brittany Haas on fiddle, Natalie Haas on cello and Yann Falquet on guitar perform at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Natalie Haas on cello and Yann Falquet on guitar perform at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Natalie Haas plays the cello at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Brittany Haas plays the fiddle at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Brittany Haas plays the fiddle at the Whately Town Hall on Saturday, April 20, as part of Watermelon Wednesdays' first concert of the year. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • West Whately resident Paul Newlin founded the Watermelon Wednesdays concert series in 2000. Staff Photo/Shelby Ashline

  • Five-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson will perform at the West Whately Chapel as part of the Watermelon Wednesdays concert series on June 26. Contributed photo

  • Honky-tonk band The Sweetback Sisters will perform at the Whately Town Hall as part of the Watermelon Wednesdays concert series on July 31. Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 5/16/2019 8:00:28 AM

One thousand watermelons. That’s the number of the juicy summer treats that Paul Newlin estimates he has served at his Watermelon Wednesdays concerts since he founded the series in 2000.

Watermelon Wednesdays presents acoustic music of almost all genres at the West Whately Chapel during the warm weather months. These concerts are favorites with music fans who enjoy hearing everything from banjo great Tony Trischka, to Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, to the honky-tonk sound of The Sweetback Sisters, all presented in a rustic, intimate setting.

‘“Watermelon Wednesdays — keeping live music alive,’ that’s my motto for my shows,” said Newlin, the series’ director.

Watermelon Wednesdays celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and on April 20, the milestone was acknowledged with a special show at the newly renovated Whately Town Hall. It was a night of fiery fiddles, crowd sing-alongs and even some dancing when Bruce Molsky (fiddle), Allison de Groot (banjo) and Paula Bradley (guitar) played a lively brand of old-time music, followed by an equally rousing performance by Brittany Haas (fiddle), Natalie Haas (cello) and Yann Falquet (guitar).

These top-flight musicians were clearly having a great time, but the best part was they connected with the audience in a way that guaranteed they were having an equally good time. Newlin said this season opener captured the spirit of what Watermelon Wednesdays is all about.

Quirky, but beloved

Twenty years in, Newlin, who is an adjunct professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, is proud to be presenting one of the most popular summer music series in the Pioneer Valley. But when he first set his sights on holding events at the historic West Whately Chapel, he wasn’t thinking of music.

The chapel is owned by the Whately Congregational Church and is used for church services in the summer. In the late 1990s, it was also being used for occasional community events, but Newlin, who lives in West Whately not far from the church, saw the space’s potential.

“I got to thinking that I could do something like David Kaynor was doing at the grange in Montague — book contra dances, theater or poetry readings,” he said.

A passionate music fan and a musician himself who plays guitar and fiddle, Newlin decided that maybe music would work at the church. He connected with his friend, musician Rani Arbo of Middletown, Conn., and invited her band, the bluegrass group Salamander Crossing, to play there.

The chapel, which seats about 90, proved to be a great venue for live music. The acoustics of the small room, built in 1896, are perfect for unplugged ensembles like Salamander Crossing, where every gorgeous note sung and the strumming of strings can be heard crystal clear. The show was a success, fueling Newlin and Arbo’s aspirations.

“I remember thinking that we could really use another place for acoustic music in the valley,” said Arbo, who laid the groundwork with Newlin for what would become Watermelon Wednesdays.

Launching a concert series is a daunting task in itself, but the chapel presented some serious issues. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and while the location is beautiful, West Whately is certainly off the beaten path.

But Arbo and Newlin were still willing to give it a go. The idea was to present the finest in local talent, in addition to nationally (and sometimes internationally) known musicians with the hopes of drawing an audience to West Whately. Touring musicians traveling through the area to New York or Boston for weekend shows are often looking for gigs during the week. Newlin thought that Wednesday (shows are occasionally held on other days) would be perfect and a less expensive day to book the artists. The name of the series was finalized when he and Arbo decided that serving free watermelon outside during intermission might be fun.

“Watermelon Wednesdays in West Whately — it’s very alliterative,” Arbo said.

“It was sort of a branding, although we didn’t use the word ‘branding’ back then,” Newlin said with a laugh. “But we wanted to have a fun, quirky place to have high-quality acoustic shows and we’ve been on that trajectory ever since.”

Quirky, indeed. What other concert venue is located near a field of cows and advertises free bat shows since you can watch all the bats that reside in the church fly around during the break? Where else do they hand out Ziploc bags of ice to fans during hot days to compensate for the lack of air conditioning? Yes, the West Whately Chapel is quirky, but that’s what makes it special.

Little venue, big names

Watermelon Wednesdays’ first season consisted of five shows, and it has grown over time. By 2009, the series was up to 14 performances, with the season running into September and many shows selling out. Nowadays, advance tickets are strongly recommended.

Some of the acts that have played Watermelon Wednesdays include Maura O’Connell, The Bee Eaters, Laurie Lewis, Maeve Gilchrist, Aoife O’Donovan, the St. Petersburg Quartet, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Redbird, Martin Hayes, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, The Boxcar Lilies, Della Mae, Hot Club of Cowtown, Barnstar, James Hill, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.

Newlin and Arbo proved that if you offer great music in a great room, they will come.

“I don’t think either of us imagined this would be such a touring stop for national musicians the way that it is now,” Arbo said.

A big part of Watermelon Wednesdays’ success is that the musicians love playing the chapel.

“As a musician, it’s one of those very special gigs where there’s an alchemy between the room and the history of the room, and the people and the place and you,” said Arbo, who has played the room many times with her current string band Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem.

“There are certain venues where you go in and you know there is going to be chemistry, and there is always chemistry there,” she said.

Multi-instrumentalist Jim Henry of Shutesbury agrees.

“I can tell you it is a wonderful place to play,” said Henry, who has played the series with acts like Tracy Grammer and 4 Toads in a Basket. “It can be hotter than hell on summer nights, but the heat seems to add to the vibe. It is a kind of a ‘we’re-all-in-it-together’ thing.”

“The bats coming out at the break, fresh watermelon, community gathered in a church — it’s a great experience all around,” Henry added. “I think it’s tough to convey the power of the event unless you’ve been a part of it.”

The audience is a huge part of Watermelons Wednesdays’ atmosphere, Arbo said, because of the intimate venue.

“It feels like the vibe of a house concert,” she said. “It’s basically Paul’s house concert that he puts on in a church.”

“I can get great musicians all the time, but if they aren’t good entertainers who don’t excite the audience I don’t want them,” Newlin said. “They have to be able to engage the audiences. That’s what it is about here.”

One thousand watermelons, one thousand more

When thinking about the most memorable shows of the past 20 years, Newlin said there have been so many that he could spend hours talking about them. But one performance that instantly came to his mind involved Bulgarian musicians Ivan Milev and Entcho Todorov.

“Ivan plays accordion and Entcho plays fiddle,” Newlin said. “Now, I’m not a big accordion buff, because I got burned by Lawrence Welk. But I’ve never heard anything like this — it was Ivan’s music.”

Tony Trischkaka and Karrin Allyson are also favorites.

Then there were the few that got away.

“I blew it when I didn’t book the Carolina Chocolate Drops when I had the chance, because Rhiannon Giddens ended up getting crazy famous,” Newlin lamented. “And I missed Sarah Jarosz before she signed some big contract.”

Newlin starts booking in October for the upcoming season, and is always on the lookout for new, diverse talent. He recently announced the 2019 season, which features plenty of the old-time traditional folk that has been a staple of the series since Salamander Crossing played that first show at the chapel. You will also find the Cajun band The Revelers, who will kick off the season with high-energy music on June 6 (a Thursday), jazz singer Karrin Allyson on June 26 and self-professed Southern gothic songster Amythyst Kiah, who has drawn comparisons to Rhiannon Giddens, on July 3.

Since the recent show at the Whately Town Hall was such a success, Newlin plans to take advantage of that beautiful room and use it for acts that warrant a bigger space, such as the band Della Mae, which will perform on Aug. 30.

But that’s as big as Newlin plans to make the series’ shows. Watermelon Wednesdays did present a show at the Academy of Music in Northampton a few years ago, and it wasn’t a good fit.

“We aren’t interested in getting bigger; it’s not us,” Newlin said. “We are Whately.”

In its first 20 years, Watermelon Wednesdays has become a nonprofit with sponsorship from about 20 local businesses. The chapel now has electricity, a porta-potty, and even a soundboard (although Newlin prefers unamplified music).

“I’m psyched that Paul has kept it going for 20 years,” Arbo said. “What a gift for the community and to the musicians.”

But if you ask Newlin, he’ll say the concert series’ tenure doesn’t completely surprise him.

“I have no desire to go anywhere else and I do want more music,” he explained. “Put them together and maybe we’ll go 30.”

That means he’ll need a lot more watermelon.

“I hope to go through a thousand more,” he said.

Schedule

All shows will be held at the West Whately Chapel, near the intersection of Conway and Williamsburg roads, unless otherwise noted. Tickets are on sale at watermelonwednesdays.com. All shows start at 7:30 p.m.

June 6: The Revelers — Cajun, country, zydeco and swamp pop

June 12: Aaron Weinstein — Virtuoso jazz mandolinist and violinist

June 19: Mike Compton (mandolin) and Joe Newberry (fiddle) — Bluegrass

June 26: Karrin Allyson — Jazz vocalist

July 3: Amythyst Kiah — Southern gothic singer-songwriter

July 10: Fade Blue — American acoustic music

July 31: The Sweetback Sisters — Honky-tonk, country swing (Whately Town Hall)

Aug. 30: Della Mae — All-female string band playing bluegrass, country and more (Whately Town Hall)

Sept. 18: Genticorum — Musique du Quebec

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.


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