PORTSMOUTH — It all started on his outside deck with a few friends, said Tom Perrotti.
“I play a lot of Irish music and on that day it was Jack Wright, Jon Campbell and Jack Lyons,” he said. “The three of us were playing some music and in comes Tim Flaherty with the catch of the day. As we’re playing, he goes right to the grill and starts cooking the fish.”
And voilà, A Gathering of Fiddlers and Fishermen was born.
Fifteen years after that first gathering, Mr. Perrotti nearly has to fight the musicians off the tiny gold lamé stage at the nonprofit Common Fence Music, where he serves as musical director. The concert series is now in its 21st year, and “Fiddlers” was meant as an opportunity for showcasing more local talent.
“I used to talk to Ed Nary, my partner at the time, about a little giveback. There were a lot of people in the audience who played, but they were coming to see this national talent,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of area people on stage their friends and family come, so there’s even more of a community spirit in the room.”
One of those in the audience was Tom Duksta, a South County-based musician who was selected as this year’s master of ceremonies.
“I’ve been to (Common Fence Music), but I haven’t played,” said Mr. Duksta, who was honored to have been tapped as guest host this year. “It was definitely a surprise. It came out of the blue. It’s like winning the Oscars.”
While the event is officially advertised as an “open mic tribute to the sea,” Mr. Perrotti says it’s evolved over the years.
“This is all area talent, so there are 12 or 13 acts. It’s no longer an open mic because there are so many people interested in playing that I usually have a list for the following year. I should stop calling it an open mic,” he said.
The Gathering started off with free admission, but then Common Fence Music started charging a few more bucks every year until the event started turning a profit, with sell-out crowds now the norm.
“Some people think it’s a fund-raiser. It’s not,” he said.
Passing the rake
As it does every year, Saturday night’s celebration featured sea chanties, Irish tunes, and goofy originals accompanied by oysters, wine and whatever other goodies music-lovers brought in their picnic baskets. After a short seisiún — a traditional Irish music jam session — the event got down to business with last year’s MC, Jacob Haller, “passing the rake” off to Mr. Duksta while another musician played “Octupus’s Garden.”
“The ceremonial bull rake needs to be passed from one host to another, so there’s an unbroken chain,” explained Mr. Haller.
Added Mr. Perrotti: “It passes very quickly and it’s become a ritualistic silliness.”
And then the parade of local talent began. Because of the number of performers, however, they were limited to two songs each.
“I think it’s important that we keep everything moving, because people don’t want a slow show,” said Mr. Perrotti.
There were many familiar faces on stage Saturday night, including not one but two former music teachers in the Portsmouth school system: Kate Grana and Sandra Hammel.
“I’m a recording high school teacher,” said Ms. Grana before singing an original song about tattoos. (Sample lyric: “Rhode Island troopers can’t show them.”)
“What do you think of Common Fence Music? Nothing common about it,” Ron Marsh told the crowd before sharing his two numbers, one of which was a Tom Paxton tune that turned into a rousing sing-along.
Mr. Marsh didn’t plan on being a solo act Saturday night; it just ended up that way. First his guitarist canceled.
“Then I got a text message from my mandolin accompanist who said he had a paying gig tonight. I can’t beat that,” he said.
Sing or Swim, a four-woman a cappella group from Newport, did their own version of the Ink Spots’ “Java Jive” before launching into a humorous version — complete with wild animal sounds — of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
John Fuzek, who was selected to host next year’s Fiddlers and Fishermen, performed his ode to motorcycles, “The Closest Thing to a Cowboy.”
And on played the music into the night, with a different cast of familiar characters on stage every 10 minutes or so.
“I like that it’s a celebration of local artists,” said Mr. Duksta. “It seems like a musical community and friends just gravitate to these things.”