Close to a hundred people clapped their hands and tapped their feet to the sounds Scottish and Canadian Maritime fiddle champion Mari Black at the Mexico Congregational Church on March 4.
Mari, part of a trio, played a variety of different music, all the while sharing what country it was from or a connection to an artist with that song. During a waltz she played, several waltzed in the aisles.
This was the second of a 10-concert series at the Green Church on Main Street, thanks to the efforts of Phill McIntyre of New England Celtic Arts.
The next concert here will be The Don Roy Ensemble on April 15.
“Don Roy is the top Acadien Franco fiddler in the State of Maine. He has mentored more fiddlers, more young people in southern Maine than any one individual. That includes Mari Black, who performed at the last concert,” said McIntyre.
What makes the Green Church an appealing venue for these concerts?
“What makes it appealing is, if you go downstairs, they’ve got the cookies and the cakes out. The conversation is like a din of activity. The volunteers there are welcoming in their attitude. That’s what I’m looking for. We do try to have jam sessions and we have a few locals who are coming in, and then when the band members join in, it just picks right up,” said McIntyre.
The facility holds about 130-150 people.
“It’s not big, but it’s fine. If we could get 120 people out to every show, we’d be tickled to death.”
For their part, the venue receives a portion of the gate for the evening.
“It’s very important that they receive their share, and that it’s not eroded by sound and lights and expense,” said McIntyre, noting that he’s looking for sponsorships to help with sound and lighting at each of some dozen venues he’s using for the concerts.
Locally, United Insurance and Patriot Renewables are going to sponsors of several of the shows at the Green Church.
“It really helps because the level of musicians that we use, we can’t use inferior level sound systems. What’s adequate for a pastor on Sunday is not adequate for the presentation of music. We need really competent sound technicians and the bands I use require it and they expect it. If they don’t sound good, they don’t even want to play,” said McIntyre.
“The level of the bands I’m working with, there isn’t an organization in the United States that’s doing it the way I do it,” he said.
“First, the artists need to trust that you’re going to put them into a good setting, where there’s a welcoming audience, good hospitality within the venue. Touring artists will go to venues and they’ll get pizza for supper. They don’t want pizza. They want a meal. These gals are lining up to cook for the artists. That’s the situation that makes the whole thing jell. When the artist feels comfortable and at ease, then they don’t mind what the paycheck is because it’s not always about the money. It’s about the experience,” said McIntyre.
For more than 10 years, New England Celtic Arts, under McIntyre, has brought top international performers in Celtic music, as well as up-and-coming young artists to western Maine. The musicians have hailed from Ireland, Scotland, and Canada, as well as from Maine and other parts of the U.S. The music ranges from old timey Celtic tunes to roots music to Celtic rock, and always features lively performances and great stories about the music and culture with a good helping of humor.
NE Celtic Arts partners with venues from across northern New England, including the Tillotson Center in Colebrook, NH; Acoustic Artisans in Portland; and venues in Farmington, the Rumford/Mexico area, Kingfield, Phillips, Stratton, Rangeley, New Portland and Calais.
The premier venue for the shows had been Skye Performing Arts Theatre, located off a mountain road in South Carthage. Over the course of 10 years, McIntyre, friends, and volunteers converted the large building where transmissions were once rebuilt and auto body parts were auctioned off into a music venue.
But that facility closed last October. Keeping up the building was financial responsibility that McIntyre and his wife Jan could not longer shoulder. He had a buyer for the building and decided to focus his attention and energy on keeping the music coming to the area via his New England Celtic Arts production company.
“It’s always been my dream to take the music into the rural areas, which are looking for good opportunities. With the Celtic music, it touches on a lot of levels. You connect with your roots. You might be into a genre like bluegrass, Appalachian music, or folk. It crosses a lot of lines,” said McIntyre.
“There’s people who still believe that Celtic music is just Irish or Scottish, but it isn’t. Open the phone book locally — Arsenault, Robichaud, Thibodeau, Theriault, Leblanc — all Acadien names. Maine has the highest per capita of Acadiens in the United States,” he said.
The audience is typically made up of older people. McIntyre admits it’s a struggle to gain an audience to include younger people, even though artists are often under age 30.
“But they do discover it. It’s usually when they’re in their thirties. And there’s a reason for it. As we get older, some of the music we enjoyed when we were younger kind of falls away because it evolves to the place where it doesn’t reach us anymore. That’s when we kind of look to our roots and to our heritage and I think it’s kind of a natural progression,” he said.
“If you bring little kids to Celtic music, they’re just like jumping beans. And they’re right in tyme with the music. It’s an innate thing that’s born with us. We have this need for rhythm and dance. It’s part of who we are as human beings,” said McIntyre.
McIntyre was able to hold down expenses by housing the artists at his facility. And now, he is housing artists at his home.
“When I sold the building, we put an addition on the house. We had a group of five two or three weeks ago. The trios work okay, but you get into five or six band members, it’s hard on the house. It’s hard on your septic system. It’s hard on everything but we do it,” he said.
That includes feeding them and doing their laundry. And because the groups are not familiar with traveling to these rural venues, McIntyre also drives them to these concerts.
“We work with the bands and we give them, through this series of venues, mid-week opportunities during the times when it’s very difficult for them to get work,” said McIntyre.
“These groups would like to have money in their pocket are the end of a tour. Traditionally what they’ll do is play big cities on the weekends, make their money and go home, because they can’t make money sitting in a hotel waiting for the next weekend to come around. I figured if I started this network of venues and provided these mid-week dates, and was able to work with venues and orchestrate…so I work with these bands that fly into Boston, that may work in the Boston-area this weekend, or have something out in Chicago next weekend, I’m able to hook them and get them in here for three or four days. Generally, it’s Sunday night through Thursday night, gives them Friday for a travel day to a big market,” he said.
In this way, they’re able to keep a positive cash flow.And people around here are getting the benefit of listening to professional musicians in their own backyard.
“I try to involve this River Valley region as much as I can. I have a lot of customers in this area. There’s a lot of people here from Prince Edward Island, from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as well,” said McIntyre.
He’s said he remains as passionate about providing these Celtic concerts as when he began in 2005.
“I have days when I’d think I’d like to get away from it, but I can’t get away from it. It consumes me. So I find ways to make it happen,” noted McIntyre, adding, “It’s a little more difficult without Skye Theater as a focal point for what we’re doing, but it’s working.”
“I’m almost 70 years old. I’m getting near the end of realistically being able to push as hard as I have,” he said. “I retired 10 years ago. And I’ve been working 60 to 80 hours a week, sometimes even more, on doing this, ever since.”
“I’m trying to pass the torch a bit, so if I decide not to do it or I have a health problem, it just doesn’t fall on its face,” said McIntyre, noting that he hopes that some of these larger venues will learn the process of attacting these Celtic artists on their own..
For more information about upcoming concerts, visit the website, if people sign up for his mailing list, they’ll receive an email every one to two weeks which lists in detail upcoming concerts.