Next week, the New England Americana festival returns for a third straight year. And for a third straight year, it is expanding. The festival found a home at a Fenway night club for its first two years, and while there, went from a single night of music to three. For 2012, it has moved across the river to Cambridge, and will sport a lineup of around 50 acts spread across three nights (plus a free outdoor Saturday afternoon show at Cambridge's Winthrop Park) and multiple venues.
John Colvert and Noel Coakley, two of the motive forces behind the event and the New England Americana Association that puts it on, inherited the festival, and quickly set about putting their own stamp on it. (Both will be playing at the event — Colvert with his band the Great Brighton Fire, and Coakley along with his bandmates in Coyote Kolb.)
The festival had existed for a couple of years in a previous form — as the Alt-Country Extravaganza — but when its organizer had to move out of the area, the event’s future was uncertain.
“It seemed like a shame to let it go, so I talked to him [the previous organizer] about picking it up where he left off, and we brainstormed a little,” says Coakley, who checked in, as did Colvert, via conference call on a recent afternoon. “Really, the first year was, ‘We don't want this thing to go away.’ ” But it very quickly started turning into something bigger.
“We expanded the alt-country idea to Americana, which has a wider umbrella,” Coakley continues. “We put ‘New England’ on it too, trying to reach to more than just Boston.” And they went from 30, to 40, to 50-plus acts.
Most of all, the pair approached the festival as an expression of, and a vehicle for promoting, musical collaboration and community. “Cambridge has had a long history of collaboration,” Colvert says, “especially around roots music. In the ’60s you had the first folk revival, and then another folk revival in the ’90s. So a couple of years ago when Noel and I met, that collaboration and that community, I don’t want to say it had died out, but it wasn’t as active.”
The festival seemed like a way to address that. In fact, both men view the primary mission of the association behind the festival as fostering such community; the festival itself is just one way of doing it. And from the beginning, Coakley says, the pair weren’t just going for the show itself, but hoping to see things spin off from that — “like, maybe bands who haven’t played together now doing short tours or a bill together, or going to each other’s shows and supporting one another.”
In that sense, the festival exists as much for the artists themselves as for those who come out to see them play. “That's something we’re very proud of,” Colvert says. “We love the fans that come out — the music wouldn’t be what it is without their support — but the goal of this festival is to create a cohesion and community around the bands.”
As for who that community incorporates — in other words, what, exactly, Americana is — the two take a nonprescriptive view, or, as Coakley puts it, they take the approach of not taking the approach.
“We try to take the approach of holding a space for a community,” he explains, “and if someone identifies himself as being within that community, who are we to say that that’s not the case? To try to have the ultimate say on what Americana is, that doesn’t make sense to us. So if someone comes to us and says, I grew up listening to x, y, and z, and this is how I tell an American story with music, then that’s Americana.”Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.