A real old-school First Night: Northampton New Year’s Eve festival returns with its old energy

SHOW Circus Studio youth members, from left, Emma Larouche, 17, Veralin Wopereis, 15, and Alex Brumer, 16, practice their routines as they get ready to perform at the Academy of Music at First Night Northampton.

SHOW Circus Studio youth members, from left, Emma Larouche, 17, Veralin Wopereis, 15, and Alex Brumer, 16, practice their routines as they get ready to perform at the Academy of Music at First Night Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Singer, songwriter and pianist Mary Lambert of Amherst, who’s won national recognition in the past decade for her advocacy for issues such as LGBTQ equality and body positivity, will perform for the first time at First Night Northampton.

Singer, songwriter and pianist Mary Lambert of Amherst, who’s won national recognition in the past decade for her advocacy for issues such as LGBTQ equality and body positivity, will perform for the first time at First Night Northampton. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

Rocking Puppies, the father and daughter team of Michael and Pema Crigler of Greenfield, will perform at First Night Northampton, their second straight gig at the event.

Rocking Puppies, the father and daughter team of Michael and Pema Crigler of Greenfield, will perform at First Night Northampton, their second straight gig at the event. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

Bomba de AquÍ, which performs and teaches Afro-Puerto Rican traditions and music throughout the region, comes to 33 Hawley for First Night Northampton.

Bomba de AquÍ, which performs and teaches Afro-Puerto Rican traditions and music throughout the region, comes to 33 Hawley for First Night Northampton. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

Poor Monroe, a bluegrass band that has won considerable notice since forming in the Valley a couple years ago, will be at The Parlor Room for First Night Northampton.

Poor Monroe, a bluegrass band that has won considerable notice since forming in the Valley a couple years ago, will be at The Parlor Room for First Night Northampton. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

Violinist and singer-songwriter Aisha Burns will be at the Academy of Music for First Night Northampton.

Violinist and singer-songwriter Aisha Burns will be at the Academy of Music for First Night Northampton. PHOTO BY STEPHANIE LARSEN/COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

Love Crumbs, the indie and folk-rock group that’s gotten a good amount of airplay this year on The River/WRSI-FM, will make their debut appearance at First Night Northampton.

Love Crumbs, the indie and folk-rock group that’s gotten a good amount of airplay this year on The River/WRSI-FM, will make their debut appearance at First Night Northampton. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON ARTS COUNCIL

Songwriter and indie rocker Dennis Crommett, seen here in front of CitySpace in Easthampton, and his band will play First Night Northampton 2024.

Songwriter and indie rocker Dennis Crommett, seen here in front of CitySpace in Easthampton, and his band will play First Night Northampton 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 12-21-2023 9:43 PM

Modified: 12-28-2023 8:47 AM


As Steve Sanderson sees it, First Night Northampton is getting its mojo back.

The annual New Year’s Eve celebration got shot down two years in a row by COVID-19, first in December 2020 and then again in December 2021 when, just days before the event was set to resume, the spiking Omicron variant led city officials to cancel all indoor events — in other words, almost everything. (Some virtual programming took place both years.)

But First Night 2023 was a real success, says Sanderson, event producer for the Northampton Arts Council and First Night’s principal planner.

“It felt like a real old-school First Night, with lots of events and a really great vibe,” he said. “It had that kind of energy.”

And when the 2024 downtown arts and performance festival kicks off on Sunday, Dec. 31, it will have even more venues and performers, with some expanded evening shows especially and a number of first-time acts as well as returning favorites.

In particular, Smith College is hosting performances in three different locales — Sage Hall, Theatre 14, and the Hallie Flanagan Theatre — after just one venue was used last year. All told, 20 events, featuring 15 different artists and performing groups such as the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra, will appear at the college.

“Having more access to Smith is a big boost for us,” Sanderson said. “We really appreciate it. It’s another reason it feels like [First Night] is back.”

The timing certainly seems appropriate: Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the New Year’s Eve festival.

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In total, 22 separate stages, in 20 different locations, will host events, including a new spot, the small retail complex at 90 King Street, across the street from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church. Shows also will take place in the A.P.E. Gallery for the first time in a while, and at Bishop’s Lounge, which was just added last year.

Sanderson says he’s been attending a lot of concerts and events in the city and the region in the last few months, and attendance has been good — an increase from last year and certainly from the fall of 2021, when venues first began reopening after being shuttered  since March 2020.

“It feels like there’s been a real resurgence” in live entertainment, he noted.

That said, he’s cautioning people to play it safe health-wise on First Night, given there’s been an uptick in COVID cases in recent months, with some flu going around as well.

“Some individual [venues] may require a mask, and if you have any doubts, bring one with you,” he said. “And if you’re sick or not feeling well, don’t expose yourself to other people.”

A busy schedule

As in past First Night celebrations, events begin at noon with a focus on kid- and family-friendly events, including two sessions at the Academy of Music by the young acrobats and circus performers who train at SHOW Circus Studio in Easthampton.

At Edwards Church, meantime, singer-songwriter Carrie Ferguson and the Grumpytime Club Band will play their tunes about getting a new puppy, cats and piggies taking a boat ride, and other topics for young listeners.

And at 33 Hawley, which has now reopened after months of construction, a range of events will take place: storytelling, puppet shows, Latin dance instruction and more.

If weather permits, says Sanderson, the Expandable Brass Band might play outside on the balcony at Bishop’s Lounge in the early afternoon to “give things a little New Orleans feel.”

The Rocking Puppies, the father-daughter punk duo of Michael and Pema Crigler of Greenfield, are also returning for an afternoon gig at Bishop’s Lounge after making their First Night debut there last year.

“Definitely a fun show to catch,” Sanderson said. “They were awesome last year.”

There’s plenty of other music on tap during the afternoon, such as at The Parlor Room, where the bluegrass pickers of Appalachian Still and Poor Monroe will be followed by the pop and R&B sounds of the Lucia Dostal Band and folk by singer-songwriter Lisa Bastoni.

The traditional downtown fireworks take place at 6:15 p.m. during the 6-7 p.m. break, after which a range of new performers hit the stages, including the Northamptones, Northampton High School’s a cappella group, and Valley Jazz Voices.

Sanderson has sampled even more music this year after taking over as the morning host at WRSI/The River, following former host Monte Belmonte’s move to NEPM. As such, he’s jazzed about some newcomers to First Night this year such as the indie folk-rock band Love Crumbs, who play the A.P.E. Gallery.

Sanderson says he’s also enjoyed the new album by singer-songwriter and indie rocker Dennis Crommett, “Get Gone,” especially the jangly, melodic rocker “Three Cheers for the Weekend.”

“That’s been a really popular song” on the station this year, he said.

Crommett, who’s played a few First Nights with one of the bands he’s in, Winterpills, is gigging this year with a few other friends: the guys who helped him record his new album, including Dave Chalfant on electric guitar, Jeff Hobbs on keyboard, Ray Mason on bass, and Jason Smith on drums.

He’s excited about doing the show. “This will be my first time playing First Night as a solo artist under my own name,” he said in an email. “We’ve only done one band show, with 4 of us, and this will be 5!”

And Sanderson says he’s looking forward to seeing singer, songwriter and pianist Mary Lambert make her First Night debut at the Academy of Music at 9:15 p.m.

Lambert, who splits her time between Amherst and Seattle, first won national attention in 2012 as the writer and singer of the chorus of the rap-based “Same Love,” which became a popular anthem about marriage equality, earning two Grammy nominations.

Sanderson said he saw Lambert, who’s also a poet, perform at the Academy in September “and it just blew me away. She’s a stellar piano player, great voice, and she’s got a lot of pop savvy, too.” And Lambert has good messages about body positivity, LGBTQ equality, and other issues in her music, he noted.

First Night concludes, of course, with the raising of the ball at the Hotel Northampton, where Sanderson will host the countdown to midnight and with Peace & Rhythm DJs will spin upbeat tunes to encourage dancing in the streets.

First Night buttons are available at multiple locations in the Valley until Dec. 31 and can also be purchased online at firstnightnorthampton.org. Attendees can buy them the day of the event at the First Night box office in Thornes Marketplace and a few other locations. Full details are at firstnightnorthampton.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.