Seats hot for three-day Back Porch Festival; celebrated guitar pickers will hit Amherst and Northampton

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Though it’s still two weeks away, the Back Porch Festival is set to take up a lot of space in downtown Northampton, and some of the ticket options have already sold out, so it’s time to give a final preview of the annual roots music fest.

The basics: The festival, begun by Signature Sounds in 2014 as a one-day event, this year has expanded to three days (March 3-5) and to eight venues in Northampton, including Progression Brewery, Bishop’s Lounge, CLICK Workspace, and the Hotel Northampton (there’s also one show at a ninth venue, the Iconica Social Club).

The festival, co-presented by the Northampton Arts Council, has also been reorganized ticket-wise, with options that allow audience members to attend multiple shows with one pass. Tickets for attending all the performances have sold out, but there are still options for attending nearly all the shows (there are some limitations on attending evening concerts at the Academy of Music).

You want variety? There are more than 50 artists on the bill, playing everything from bluegrass to blues to folk to rootsy rock to combinations thereof. Highlights include award-winning bluegrass picker Molly Tuttle, folk/bluegrass duo Watchhouse, and the hot country pickers Session Americana.

Plenty of local heroes and heroines are also part of this mix, from the Deep River Ramblers to Mamma’s Marmalade to The Claudia Malibu. One key event takes place March 3 at 8 p.m. at the Academy of Music, when several other local musicians and bands will pay tribute to the late John Prine by covering his songs.

The music runs from 6 p.m. till past midnight on March 3 and from 2 p.m. to late in the evening on March 4 and 5. That adds up to — count ’em — 70 performances and events, including a bluegrass jam at The Parlor Room, over the three days.

As at First Night Northampton, a number of bands and artists will be playing multiple gigs, so if one show is sold out or you can’t make it, you may have another chance to see a particular act.

Both Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, and Steve Sanderson, event producer of the Northampton Arts Council, say they hope to make this expanded Back Porch Festival a template for future shows. To get tickets or find out more, visit


At the Drake in Amherst, meanwhile, they’re readying for another British Invasion — or more accurately, a British Isles Invasion — this time by a couple of acoustic guitar wizards rather than mop-top pop bands.

On Feb. 18, England’s Mike Dawes, who’s been hailed as one of the world’s greatest fingerstyle guitarists, comes to the Drake, a little less than a year since he played at the Academy of Music along with Tommy Emmanuel, another celebrated fingerstyle player.

Dawes is something of a one-man band, as he uses percussive taps on his guitar’s sound box and fretboard, hammer-ons on the strings, and other techniques that allow him to play melody, bass and harmony at once. “He slaps, taps and caresses his way to brilliance,” is how Guitar World magazine puts it.

He draws inspiration from open-tuning players such as Michael Hedges and Pierre Bensusan, and he’s become something of an internet sensation over the years for his own compositions and his arrangements of rock songs, including “Jump” by Van Halen and “One” by Metallica.

Dawes is currently touring with another fingerstyle master, Gareth Pearson, who’s been dubbed “The Welsh Tornado” for his fiery playing and a style that incorporates elements of country, classical, pop, rock and more. Pearson has also toured with Tommy Emmanuel and, like Emmanuel, has been influenced by American country pickers like Chet Atkins.

Pearson counts the late and great flatpicker Doc Watson as an inspiration as well, and his website features an amazing fingerstyle version of “Black Mountain Rag,” one of Watson’s signature tunes.

The man’s got a good sense of humor, too: He plays an arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on acoustic guitar while imitating some of the King of Pop’s dance moves.

Dawes and Pearson will play separate sets at the Drake beginning at 8 p.m., and hopefully will share the stage for a few songs.


At the risk of leaning a little heavily on hotshot guitar pickers, it’s worth noting a Feb. 25 show at The Parlor Room that brings together a couple of acclaimed players who could be considered a great warmup for the Back Porch Festival: Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley.

Ickes is a 15-time IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Dobro Player of the Year who’s gigged for years with bluegrass groups and country stars including Vince Gill, Earl Scruggs, Merle Haggard and Alison Krauss. Hensley in turn has been dubbed “Nashville’s hottest young player” by Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Together the duo have been lighting it up on a range of rootsy music, from bluegrass to blues to country, winning a Grammy nomination and enough critical accolades to fill a suitcase. Hensley’s also a powerful vocalist, and get this: He first played at the Grand Ole Opry at age 11 (he’s 32 now).

No Depression calls them “two of the finest musicians playing today.” Their show begins at 7:30 p.m.

More music on tap

The Marigold Theater in Easthampton is featuring a Johnny Cash Birthday Bash tonight (Friday, Feb. 17) that includes performances by The Memphis Flyers (blues) and Wild Bill and the Flying Sparks (classic country and Americana). The evening begins at 7 p.m. with a sign-up for an open mic to perform Johnny Cash and June Carter songs (costumes of the two singers are welcome).

The venerable Crash Test Dummies, the Canadian rockers who first came to prominence in the 1990s, will play the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.

You can start your Mardi Gras celebration Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield by checking out Zydeco Masters and Bourbon Street Blasters; the latter band is described as a “dangerous horn section with some New Orleans connections.”

Arcadia Viols, a subgroup from the Valley Baroque instrumental group Arcadia Players, will perform Feb. 19 at 3 p.m. at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley. The program, “Musicke’s Delight,” a collection of works from Renaissance England (and 21st century New England), will be played on viols, the precursors to violins.

Kassa Overall, a Grammy-nominated drummer, emcee, vocalist and producer, brings his special melding of hip-hop, jazz and rap to the Bombyx Center Feb. 25 at 8 p.m.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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