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A Kerouac-inspired arts festival takes the road to Lowell

Jack Kerouac in 1962.Associated Press/file

In his first book, the one he published seven years before “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac leaned heavily on his upbringing in Lowell. “To this boy of New England,” he wrote in “The Town and the City,” “the May morning was like faint music in the woods again.”

Like Kerouac, Chris Porter was born and raised in Lowell, and he’s bringing the music back. A concert and festival promoter, Porter moved from the Boston music scene in the 1990s to Seattle, where he worked for years on that city’s long-running music and arts festival, Bumbershoot. Now, fresh off his first year as the talent booker at San Francisco’s prestigious Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, he’s coming back to Lowell to launch The Town and the City Festival.


Running Friday and Saturday at venues throughout the city, the music and performing arts event features nationally recognized talent such as Kristin Hersh, Kingsley Flood, and the spoken-word artist Andrea Gibson, plus dozens more performers. The festival is a tribute not so much to Kerouac’s writing, Porter says, but the broader spirit of wanderlust, open-mindedness, and the power of words that his writing represents. It’s also a celebration of the city itself.

“If I can take what I’ve learned over the last 21 years and apply it to my old hometown, that would be super special to me,” he says. Other medium-size cities have become known for their own festivals, he notes — Boise’s Treefort Music Fest, Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival, Reykjavik’s Iceland Airwaves.

“Why not Lowell?” he says.

Gibson, who grew up in tiny Calais, Maine, on the Canadian border, can relate to Kerouac’s yearning to see the world, and also how he was continually drawn back home.

“I felt it my whole life, a calling to bigger cities,” Gibson says, on the phone from Boulder, Colo. “I was excited to leave, and also terrified.” After years of distance, “I feel like I’m in a place where I’m able to appreciate it a lot more than I ever did. There’s a lot to miss about growing up in a very working-class town, how tight families tend to be.”


Gibson, who headlines a spoken-word bill at Christ Church United on Friday, has become one of the most sought-after figures on the spoken-word circuit. The Boulder poetry community was still influenced by Beat Generation figures like Kerouac when Gibson first began performing there 20 years ago. (The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was founded at Boulder’s Naropa Institute in 1974.)

“The first time I ever went to an open mic in Boulder, at a place called Penny Lane, there were a lot of poets with connections to Kerouac and [Allen] Ginsberg,” Gibson says.

Gibson — who uses the nonbinary pronouns they and them — knows their work is often cited as political but doesn’t always see it that way.

“It’s a constant exploration, uncovering who I am — what I believe, what I know, and what I don’t know,” Gibson says. “Any sort of creation right now is political because it’s such a destructive culture. Beauty right now feels political. Just hanging out with a tree! It’s its own sort of radical movement just to be creating beauty.”

“The only truth is music,” Kerouac once said. Boston rapper Edo G, who tops a hip-hop bill Friday at the Old Court, has his own bit of wisdom about the power of words. His 1991 debut album, “Life of a Kid in the Ghetto,” helped put Boston on the hip-hop map.


The gift of language is something we often take for granted, he says: “I try to preach that in my music. There are two things you can’t take back — bullets and words.”

Edo G, born Edward Anderson, is a Roxbury native, but he has spent plenty of time in Lowell.

“One of my good friends is from Lowell. He reps Lowell hard. And my uncle used to live out there back in the ’80s. It’s all Massachusetts to me.”

Wreckless Eric, the punk-era singer who wrote the do-it-yourself cockney classic “Whole Wide World,” performs Friday at Gallery Z. He’s not quite a devoted Kerouac fan — “I did read ‘On the Road’ again a few years ago,” he says — but he does have some thoughts about the relationship between music and his adopted American home. He and his wife, songwriter Amy Rigby, live in the town of Catskill in upstate New York.

“I have this thing about music and landscape which I can never quite explain,” he says. “I feel like Elton John had great success in America because his voice is kind of like a landscape. Like Tammy Wynette — you can hear the Mississippi River.” Likewise, Kerouac’s writing, which he called “spontaneous bop prosody,” is forever rolling over highways. And it’s often noted for its musical quality.


Porter plans a slow build for the new festival, calling this year’s debut “almost a soft launch.”

“The best things start organically,” he says. “So many festivals, you blink and lose a million bucks. They try to be too big, too fast.”

For now, he just wants to create something memorable, for the performers, the attendees, and the city.

“Really, my business is bringing people together,” he says. “Music is a conduit of that, and a festival is a very creative conduit. To me, it’s an art.”

THE Town and the City Festival

Oct. 19-20 at various venues around Lowell. Two-day pass $45, one-day pass $32. Tickets for individual shows, $7-$20. www.thetownandthecityfestival.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.