When music buffs anywhere in Massachusetts are standing in the path of oncoming cars, it’s a sign that something’s gone seriously right.
On July 9, about 200 musical, dance, and spoken-word acts performed outdoors at private houses, businesses, and other buildings across Jamaica Plain as part of the annual JP Porchfest. Following my ears around, I ended up on residential Boylston Street, where two very different bands had set up in front of homes just 223 feet apart. Each had drawn scores of fans.
Who knew? When we let musicians do their thing with a minimum of hassles — rather than regulating live entertainment to death, as we so often do in the Boston area — entire neighborhoods are better off for it.
Playing at 44 Boylston was an intense groove-rock quartet called Clyde Brown, formed last summer by teenage guys from the town of Millis. Across the street and a few doors down, at 33 Boylston, was a JP-based trio called Voci Angelica, which combines chamber and folk genres. Spectators of each band lingered on the sidewalks, leaned against parked cars, or took in the music while standing a few feet out in the roadway.
None of this was a big deal. Whenever a car approached, anyone in the way just moved closer to the curb to let them pass. Besides, there wasn’t much traffic, and giving people room to enjoy themselves is a social good too.
“I wish you could see how cool it looks to see everyone dancing in the street,” Voci Angelica singer and percussionist Jodi Hitzhusen said from a porch high above Boylston.
Commercial music venues have to do far more to prevent noise, traffic impediments, and other public disruptions. In a state where restaurants and bars face penalties if they allow — gasp! — illegal dancing, a raft of old, restrictive licensing and zoning rules are designed to keep music out of any area where neighbors might conceivably object to them. But as Massachusetts revises antiquated rules against house calls by barbers and reconsiders legal sanctions against tramps and vagabonds, let’s cut entertainment venues some slack too.
Fortunately, because JP Porchfest, like a growing number of similar events around the area, is a free daytime event held mainly in noncommercial spaces, it’s blissfully devoid of regulatory psychodrama.
“We can do it because everything is on private properties,” festival producer Marie Ghitman told me when I interviewed her and fellow producer Mindy Fried before the festival. “It’s like we’re having a party, and everyone’s seating their friends.”
At JP Porchfest, there were no accidents, no arrests, no emergencies, no axe murders, no zombie apocalypse. The biggest problem I witnessed? Voci Angelica was just ending a classical-inflected version of a Nigerian folk song — yup, this was Jamaica Plain — just as Clyde Brown was reaching the very loud, very spirited climax of its cover of “Dream On.” A small inconvenience: The chamber-music trio had to delay a few moments before launching into another song. On the upside, the proximity meant music fans could easily graze on music in two disparate styles.
Events like JP Porchfest create an alternative universe where artists and property owners can just decide to put on performances. Alas, they’re also part of an alternative universe where money isn’t a factor. The $7,000 to $8,000 cost of putting on the festival pays for printing fees and office supplies. For musicians at Porchfest, the sheer joy of playing, and the possibility of broader exposure, are payment enough.
In the normal universe, though, the rent comes due, which is why musicians also like to find venues that pay them with money generated by tickets, cover charges, or drink sales. Yes, yes, of course: The dynamics change when money and alcohol are involved. It means somebody’s got an incentive to crowd in lots of patrons and ply them with as many drinks as humanly possible. But not every venue is like that, and the vitality of neighborhoods suffers when the laws presume that every single business owner is out to screw the neighbors.
Explaining why porchfests work, Ghitman emphasizes the “trust and intimacy” that bind performers, venue hosts, and fans. Still, in other American cities — Austin and New Orleans come to mind — low-key taverns with the occasional live band exist in predominantly residential areas. Giving musicians more opportunities to earn a living, and fans more freedom to enjoy their work, is great for neighborhood spirit too.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this column stated the incorrect date for JP Porchfest.