BRATTLEBORO — Northern Roots is in its 11th year, and “it's hard to believe that we're entering our second decade of music, dance, and celebration,” says the event's director, Keith Murphy.
On Saturday, Jan. 27, and Sunday, Jan. 28, in the Brattleboro Music Center, Northern Roots will bring together local and regional musicians representing the best of various northern musical traditions.
A rich diversity of musical talent draws on both Brattleboro's deep local scene as well as musicians from across New England. Northern Roots presents the highest caliber of Irish, Scottish, Scandinavian, and French Canadian music in intimate settings.
This event is a weekend-long immersion in traditional music and has become a cornerstone of the local traditional community, garnering acclaim among traditional music enthusiasts throughout the region.
The Northern Roots Festival includes a full slate of daytime participation and performance activities from noon to 5:30 p.m., including workshops, panels, mini-concerts, pub sessions, dance-band prep, and a family dance.
A Saturday evening concert at 7:30 p.m. will feature performances by John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Josée Vachon, Skip Gorman, and Dan Foster, and Traddleboro 2018.
Sunday's activities include a pub sing at 1 p.m., French-Canadian sessions at 2:30 p.m., and an Irish session at 4 p.m., all of which will be held in their traditional place, McNeill's Brewery & Pub, located at 90 Elliot St., in downtown Brattleboro.
Northern Roots was founded and has been directed since its inception by Murphy, a veteran performer, teacher, composer, and recording artist in the traditional arts. For 20 years, he has toured extensively as a singer and guitar, mandolin, and piano player appearing at festivals, folk clubs, and performance-art centers.
Originally from Newfoundland, he has been based in Brattleboro since the early 1990s. He has taught instrumental classes at dozens of traditional music events around the country, working with hundreds of mandolin players, piano players, and guitarists.
Even before BMC began Northern Roots, Murphy had been looking around to find somewhere else to put on the event. Now, his wish has been granted.
“During our first 10 years of Northern Roots we performed at the auditorium in the New England Youth Theatre,” Murphy says. “Last year, BMC moved into its new space near Living Memorial Park and, on Saturday, everything at Northern Roots will take place there.”
Murphy thinks the new BMC space is an amazing facility.
“It has two key components that work well for us,” he says. “First, it is a school, so there are great teaching and workshop spaces, and all of our workshops now will take place at BMC.
“The second component is BMC's new big auditorium, which is a great space to perform this music, with carefully designed acoustics for musical performances. The theater is quite a bit bigger than our previous space at NEYT.”
Murphy said seating at NEYT would be variable, depending on the way the stage was configured, “but I would estimate we could seat, at best, 160 people. At the new BMC auditorium, we can seat 75 more. Since Northern Roots usually sells out, the extra space is a needed bonus.”
Finding a space that was bigger, but not too big, was a challenge for Northern Roots before the new BMC campus opened.
“We needed a space a little bigger, but not [so big as to] dwarf the intimacy that this music requires. So we are very excited about coming to a hall that seems ideal.
“Of course, BMC is located near Living Memorial park, which is not right in the middle of downtown Brattleboro as NEYT was. However, there is ample parking, with overflow parking for all BMC events usually available at the parking lot for Living Memorial Park across the street.”
A second day
Since all Northern Roots-related events at McNeill's Pub will happen on Sunday, Northern Roots is now a two-day event.
“Moving the McNeill's events to Sunday, we can really pack our Saturday schedule at BMC,” Murphy says. “With the potential of space in the new building, we can fill up more events on our workshops schedule, so there seems to be more things happening at Northern Roots than ever before.”
All of the nearly two dozen workshops - addressing such issues as piano accompaniment, learning French-Canadian songs and listening to traditional music - will take place on Saturday afternoon at BMC. There also will be a series of performing workshops on topics including “Songs of Immigration” and “Women in Song.”
“In performing workshops, you have a casual performing setting, where the artists can talk about what they are playing and their music in general,” Murphy says.
As in all the past years, the evening concert remains the centerpiece of the event.
“Special artists this year include Josée Beston, a French Canadian singer from Quebec who is now living in the states,” Murphy says. “She will perform at the evening concert and conduct several workshops.”
Josée Vachon performs traditional, popular, and original songs in French from her upbringing in Quebec and Maine. She has a dozen recordings that represent various aspects of Franco-American music and culture, from French hymns and 40s-60s French and Acadian folk to Quebecois chansons à répondre (songs of call and response).
“Singing mostly in French, Josée focuses on French songs in America, as well as the French experience in North America,” Murphy says. “Although we often perform French-Canadian instrumental music, we have never had a French-Canadian singer at Northern Roots, so we're excited about Josée joining us.”
Another highlight of this year's Northern Roots is the reuniting of John Roberts and Tony Barrand.
“They haven't performed together in a long time,” Murphy says. “Tony doesn't get out that much these days, so their duet promises to be a very special event.”
Roberts and Barrand have sung at concerts and festivals and recorded many CDs for more than four decades since they met in graduate school at Cornell. They are widely acclaimed interpreters of English ballads and songs that they perform in close harmony and accompany with concertina and banjo.
The Festival brings yet another incarnation of “Traddleboro,” an annual project bringing together a new grouping of local musicians each year for a festival collaboration. This year's grouping features Flynn Cohen (mandolin), Corey Dimaurio (double bass), David Cantieni (various winds), and Sarah Blair (fiddle).
“We have tried to make this year's Northern Roots appealing to all kinds of people,” Murphy says. “Some can come and listen to the performing workshops - and of course the concert in the evening.
“Musicians can participate in the many workshops or jam with other musicians in sessions. Other events are designed with kids in mind. Few other events of this size offer the opportunity to experience this range of music through teaching workshops, performances, and jam sessions.”