Wooden Fender concerts bring Warwick together for music, food

  • Residents dance during a performance by rice : An American Band at Warwick Town Hall in March 2016. Contributed photo/Alan Morgan

  • An audience in Warwick Town Hall watches Hillary Chase and Sam Clement perform during a 2015 show. Contributed photo/Alan Morgan

  • Warwick resident Jim McRae performs on the keyboard during a Wooden Fender concert in 2015. Contributed photo/Alan Morgan

  • Couples dance during a performance by The O-Tones at Warwick Town Hall in March 2014. Contributed photo/Alan Morgan

  • Jeff Wallace, a carpenter by trade, constructed a wooden fender for his rusty Dodge truck so it would pass inspection. The truck later became the namesake for Wooden Fender, an offshoot of the Warwick Arts Council that organizes concerts. Contributed photo/Alan Morgan

  • The Rear Defrosters, a self-described honky-tonk rock ’n roll band from Brattleboro, Vt., will perform in Warwick on Saturday, April 21. Contributed photo

  • Trailer Park performed at a concert organized by Wooden Fender in January. Contributed photo/Laurette Crane

  • The Patty T Blues Band performed at a concert organized by Wooden Fender in February. Contributed photo/Laurette Crane

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, April 11, 2018

It happens every winter. One night each month, from January to April, Warwick’s Town Hall lights up and fills with rock ’n’ roll, blues and townspeople looking to dance.

Concerts organized by Wooden Fender, an offshoot of the Warwick Arts Council, have been going on since 2006. But the tradition is much older, older than anyone in Warwick can remember, said Matt Hickler, one of Wooden Fender’s co-founders.

Before Wooden Fender, it was called Blues Night, a concert held the weekend closest to Valentine’s Day.

“It just sort of happened,” Hickler said. “You knew that every February around Valentine’s Day, there would be a bash at the Town Hall and a dance, and everyone was invited.”

The setup was relaxed and informal, “almost like an open mic, except there was a core band. People brought their amplifiers. It was pretty hodge-podgey,” said Wooden Fender co-founder Michael Humphries. The band consisted of local guitarist Rick King, who still frequents Wooden Fender concerts; Hickler on bass; and guitarist Jeff Wallace, Warwick’s town treasurer, known for his sense of humor and his love of music.

“(Wallace) actually introduced me to Little Walter,” Humphries said. “He gave me an album of Little Walter’s. Really lit up my life.”

After Wallace’s untimely death at 49 in 2002, his CD collection was donated to the Warwick Free Public Library, and his friends and family started the Jeff Wallace Music Fund to go with it.

The fund was loosely designated for buying CDs, sponsoring events and generally making music available.

“We didn’t quite know what it would be used for,” Hickler said. “But (Wooden Fender) sort of grew out of that. A group of us got together and said, ‘Jeff loved live music, and he was the person who always wanted to have a party at Town Hall and invite everyone.’ So a bunch of us who were his friends and music partners and all just decided to start doing it. And we did.”

The name came from a story about Wallace. As Hickler tells it, “He had this great old Dodge truck. At one point, he went in for the annual inspection and they said, ‘The fenders are all rusted out, fallen off. We can’t give you an inspection sticker.’ So they got talking, and Jeff said, ‘Well what does the law say about what’s a fender?’ Well, it just has to cover the wheel.”

Wallace, a carpenter by trade, went home, built a wooden fender, bolted it to his truck, then went back and passed the inspection.

Wooden Fender has expanded the original Blues Night into a series of four monthly concerts. The bands vary somewhat in style, but most have some essential connection to rock and roll or blues. Local bands are preferred.

So far this year, Wooden Fender has hosted Trailer Park, The Patty T Blues Band and The Tommy Filiault Band — all featuring longtime Pioneer Valley musicians, all of whom have played at Wooden Fender concerts before.

“We like to bring people back,” Humphries said. “We’ll get a good band one year, and we’ll bring them back the next.”

Most years, there is at least one concert that breaks from the normal formula of rock and roll and blues. One year, it was a showcase of young local songwriters; one year, it was folk night; one year, it was Charles Neville’s jazz band.

“It seems like our core people really like to come and dance,” Hickler said. “So we keep migrating back to ‘There’s gotta be a beat. There’s gotta be something danceable.’ Although, at any given concert, there will be a bunch of people who just come to listen.”

Still, the organizers make sure that every year, February’s concert is Blues Night.

Wooden Fender is completely funded by donations, dropped in a fish bowl at the entrance. The suggested donation is $5. Some put in less, some put in none at all, some put in more.

“The concerts lose money
on purpose,” Hickler said. “Our goal in life is, if we
start making money,
we’re not doing things
right … The idea is to support the bands and have a party.”

Each concert is also paired with a dinner fundraiser for some town group. The Moore’s Pond Beach Committee, with its lasagna dinner paired with April’s concert, usually makes enough money from its Wooden Fender-paired dinner to pay for its yearly water testing and other expenses. The Arts Council pairs its annual Souper Supper with a Wooden Fender concert, too.

Some subtle upgrades that the Arts Council made to the Town Hall auditorium help Wooden Fender to attract bands. Acoustic panels behind the stage and foam blocks in the corners of the room prevent the sound from “bouncing.” There is also a PA system that Wooden Fender co-founder Jim McRae said is more than sufficient to fill the room with sound.

“The trick with bands here is convincing them to control their sound,” McRae said. “Most of us are past the years of standing right in front of the speakers because it feels so cool.”

Roles in Wooden Fender are loosely designated, but McRae often scouts bands. There is one more Wooden Fender concert coming up this year, on Saturday, April 21, starting at 7 p.m. following dinner. The band is The Rear Defrosters, a self-described honky-tonk rock ’n’ roll band from Brattleboro, Vt.

The preceding lasagna dinner, which also includes garden salad, bread and desserts, will start at 6 p.m. Meat and vegetarian options will be available. Ticket prices for the dinner are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 4 to 12, and children ages 3 and under eat for free.

McRae said he found The Rear Defrosters through the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival, which he also helps to organize.

“While I love what we do, which is put on great music and dance our butts off, I wish that we could bring in a wider audience,” McRae said. “That might mean getting some music that we’re not as personally turned on to. It’s very much a kind of a post-hippie crowd … We want to have a younger crowd to come and enjoy being with us, doing the things we like to do. And that is not a formula that’s succeeded over the ages, including when we were the young people.”

Although, Wooden Fender’s organizers are not sure that they should even try to appeal to younger generations.

“We don’t want to perpetuate our thinking about how you live in a town and be part of things,” Hickler said. “We’ve gotta let other people figure it out themselves and do it their way just like we did.”

“They need to say, ‘We wanna have music in town. We wanna have big parties.’ That’s what we did when we first got here,” Humphries agreed.

“I really believe,” McRae said, “being in a town like this, you have to create your opportunities to get together and experience things. It’s really the most precious thing, being surrounded by the community that we have. I do not, in the least, take it for granted, and it lights my life.”