Local startup group heads to Edinburgh festival
THE RECORDER • December 3, 2017
By Richie Davis
It begins with just a stray chord or two on the guitar and a few mallet beats on the African balafon, and within a few minutes, percussionist Tony Vacca and guitarist John Sheldon have a steady strum and rhythm going softly, punctuated by a beat on Vacca’s African bass drum and the shake of a goat-hoof rattle wrapped around his left ankle.
Less than a minute in, Paul Richmond adds his voice: “Are we talkin’ north? … Are we talkin’ south? … At one time, it was just country,” as the musical strum slowly builds.
This was a rehearsal of “Do It Now,” a trio of veteran area performers who came together this fall and are ramping up to the big time next August: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The month-long Edinburgh Fringe, which calls itself the world’s largest arts festival, with more than 3,000 acts from 50 countries, presented Amherst guitarist Sheldon in 2016 for his one-man autobiographical show, “The Red Guitar” with enough acclaim that its two-week run is being extended to four weeks next summer.
This time, though, he’ll be adding a second show for 12 nights — together with percussionist Vacca of Whately and spoken word performer Richmond of Wendell — presenting a improvisational musical and verbal and commentary on current realities, like the looming confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea, consumerism and sexual assaults.
“What happened to diplomacy? What happened to talking to each other?” asks Richmond, as Sheldon begins a chant, looping a track to harmonize with his own voice. “No, let’s just shoot rockets. … Let’s push someone into a corner … My rocket is bigger than your rocket.”
Richmond, who runs a monthly spoken word event in Greenfield and was named “Beat Poet Laureate” by the National Beat Poetry Foundation, has been organizing annual spoken word festivals for eight years, primarily in Greenfield.
He began inviting Vacca, a percussionist who specializes in African rhythms, to which he adds spoken word and rhythm poetry, to his word festivals three or four years ago, and joined with Sheldon, who’s added theater to his repertoire of playing music and composing, to form “Do It Now.”
Their debut, at a Sept. 22 Shea Theater benefit for survivors of Sierra Leone’s flood and mudslide last summer, was a surprise to nearly everyone.
They decided to go through with it even though the group’s fourth member, Jo Sallins, couldn’t make the gig. “When we came off that stage, we’d been pretty focused on what we were doing,” recalls Richmond of the trio’s improvised commentary on Cuba, incorporating the song, “Guantanamera.” “It was really strong. Everybody was kind of going nuts!”
Sheryl Stoodley and Robin Doty of the Serious Play Theatre Ensemble of Northampton, which had produced Sheldon’s 2016 performance of “The Red Guitar” in Edinburgh, said they saw the kind of theatrical energy that would be a hit at next August’s fringe festival.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Stoodley, who also called it “a huge risk” to try to hone a group that only began working this summer for next summer’s spectacle. She plans to begin working with the trip from January through June to help develop four core shows that will serve as the basis for the dozen shows Do It Now will present from Aug. 13 through 25.
“They’re kind of pushing the boundaries,” she added, as did Scottish performer Mairi Campbell, whom Serious Play presented at the Shea this weekend. “We’ll see what they come up with.”
When Do It Now presented its next show, as part of the Great Falls Word Festival, it was with Sallins. The consensus afterward from Stoodley, Doty and others was that as a foursome, Do It Now sounded more like a band and less like theater.
“I agree it’s more theater-like” with three, said Vacca, while agreeing with Sheldon and Richmond that Sallins is a great musician. “From my point of view, there’s greater transparency, and musically, you could see into the three of us more clearly, you could sense the emotions more clearly when played as trio.”
Sheldon said that as a trio, guitar, percussion and voice “come together as something theatrical, and it’s a very fine edge to walk.”
Sheldon’s “Red Guitar” tells about the Fender Duo-Sonic that his friend James Taylor sold him as a young teen in the ’60s, how he learned his first guitar licks from Taylor and was inspired by Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and others. He said the thought of playing his own nightly show from 9 to 10 p.m., followed by a 10:30 hour-long performance seems daunting.
“It feels equal parts insane, invigorating, and a chance to really really unwind in my art,” he said. “The Red Guitar is a piece where you can really see me learning guitar, everything I’ve learned. Then in this piece, I get to do it all, I get to just be free. The combination of the two might really work. … I might need a therapist or someone to talk me down, who knows?”
And who knows what Sheldon and Richmond, both 66, with nearly shoulder-length gray hair, and Vacca, 67, with long curly brown hair and beard, will deliver each night?
“Whatever’s happening in the present day, we want to be able to make social and political commentary about it,” said Richmond. “We want it to be about social justice. Usually that’s not a lot of fun to listen to. It can be depressing: ‘I came out tonight to party.’ But all of us are socially conscious. We’re in a place in our lives where all these things have mattered for a while. We want to make a difference. Can we have an experience where people see hope in any of this, and walk way saying, ‘That was an amazing night?’”
Vacca added that when the trio played before the Shea audience, “It seemed like there was an empathy between us about how delicate these topics are. You want to come out stronger than when you went in. You want to feel energized. We’re going to energize you by facing the stuff, by showing you that we’re built for this kind of challenge. This isn’t new to humanity.”
As the trio in coming months explores ways of building structures for dealing with improvising around current realities with universal truths, the three musicians are planning a series of performances, including a Jan. 13 show at Wendell’s Full Moon Coffeehouse.
With each rehearsal, said Vacca, there is the kind of organic give-and-take that seasoned musicians are used to as they make space for each other to jump in and organically create a work in the moment that’s less like jazz riffing and more like a spontaneous composition.
“There’s a feeling of discovery that were having,” he said. “The intention would be to always have that feeling on the stage.”
Sheldon, who felt the concerns of many in post-Brexit Edinburgh in August 2016 that candidate Donald Trump could actually get elected, added, “Part of what the Fringe Festival organizers saw (in their invitation) were Americans willing to speak directly to this in their piece: the possibility of seeing Americans who aren’t going along with the program.”
Maybe even more important, added Richmond, pointing to the popularity of storytelling events like public radio’s Moth Radio Hour and his own local variation, The Mole storytelling events, “Everybody is wanting something real … that brings people together as humans with emotions.”