A vision of variety at Simple Gifts
Season closing with Black Eagles; next season already in the works
By Michael Witthaus firstname.lastname@example.org
A richly varied season at Simple Gifts Coffee House in Nashua closes out this Saturday, May 15, with the old-school New Black Eagle Jazz Band. The group mixes turn-of-the-20th-century Dixieland with Big Band standards and traditional jazz shaded with the blues.
Since kicking off last September with Cambridge folk veteran Geoff Muldaur, the performance space, nestled inside the Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashua, has stayed eclectic.
“That falls in with our mission — keep shaking it up,” said Anya Zakiewicz, who’s helped manage the music series with her husband, Geof Goodell, and a team of volunteers for the past six years. “Our vision was to bring a mix of music, not just your typical classic folk, but mix in blues, jazz and bluegrass.”
A high point of the 2009-2010 season was the appearance of Boston’s Los Sugarcanes in mid-November, complete with a dance floor: “That one was very dear to my heart,” said Zakiewicz, who heard the Afro-Cuban salsa fusion band at last summer’s Bread and Roses festival in Lawrence and persuaded them to play.
Turnout has been good for folk shows from Harvey Reid and Bill Staines, as well as a scorching double bill of acoustic blues with Danielle Miraglia & Teresa Storch.
“We’ve usually been able to pay the performers a little more than we promised,” Zakiewicz said.
Plans for next season are already under way for the non-profit organization. Opening night will feature a return engagement from Acoustic Eidolon, a Colorado duo featuring a cello and an exotic handmade double neck guitar. Also on tap is a joint appearance by Christine Lavin and Don White — both have played solo in the past. “The two of them together are a hoot,” Zakiewicz said. “We’re really looking forward to that.”
With eight members, the Black Eagles (as their fans know the band) will be the largest group to play Simple Gifts. Booking the group, Zakiewicz said, was a long shot: “We didn’t think we could get them, we thought they’d be way too much money.”
Oddly, the traditional jazz band has its roots in the Cambridge folk scene. The original Black Eagle Band, led by Harvard student and New Orleans native Tommy Sancton, had a long residency at Club Passim before breaking up in early 1971. Two former members, C.H. “Pam” Pameijer and Tony Pringle, assembled a new group. Thirty-nine years later, they’re still going strong.
The Simple Gifts Coffee House has been around almost as long — 25 years. Zakiewicz and her husband came to the organization after the musical series went dormant for a couple of years. “We were expressing interest in it,” she recalls, “and someone said, why don’t you do it?”
“We said, ‘Uh, OK.’” Their first show was Lori McKenna, just on the cusp of her Nashville success.
Over the years, they’ve welcomed Vance Gilbert, Les Sampou, Guy Davis, Tony Bird, Aztec Two-Step and others. Their goal is to provide the greater Nashua area with a variety of both well-known and up-and-coming artists at an affordable price, and to provide musicians with a comfortable and welcoming venue to play. “It’s been received pretty well,” Zakiewicz said. “We’ve gathered an audience, we see familiar faces a lot.”
She added with amusement that a few old-time folkies grumbled a bit about the adventurous talent, while one or two youngsters complained that the shows were too geared to an older crowd.
Between those two extremes, Zakiewicz and her band of merry volunteers must be doing something right.
“I do make it a point to get people if I have enough requests,” she said, which led to one show — sort of. “Bill Staines called me and said he wanted to play. I said great because people want to hear you. It’s serendipitous.”
Zakiewicz and her husband are longtime music fans with a range of tastes, “But you can call us Deadheads because that’s what we were and are,” she said. “We went to lots of shows.”
So the job of choosing performers for the musical series never feels like anything close to work. “This is a coup for us because it’s right around the corner from our house,” she said. “I don’t have any intention of stopping any time soon.”