Portsmouth concert series labor of love for volunteers


PORTSMOUTH — Like most Common Fence Music (CFM) volunteers, Jedd Sullivan started out in the audience.

"A friend of mine, when I first arrived in Rhode Island, told me about Common Fence as a great place for music as well as a social community," said Mr. Sullivan, who sports long white hair and a full beard. "I arrived, liked what I saw and I started helping putting away chairs at the end of the shows."

It was the same for Lisa Santucci, who came to her first show about a year and a half ago. "Sometimes they put a notice in the paper that they're giving away free passes to seniors or high school kids, so I jumped on that as a senior," she said. "It was an African group and they were very good. It was great fun and we were dancing. I thought, this is such a wonderful event and this is such a wonderful venue. There was such a nice feeling in the place and I wanted to be more attached to it, so I volunteered."

Last week a group of volunteers talked about their involvement with the nonprofit organization while sprucing up a storage room at the Common Fence Point Improvement Association Hall, where they rent space. Entertainers use the room before their shows and during intermission.

"We rent here, we're not the landowners. But we try to be of use," said Tom Perrotti, the concert series' music director who picks the talent that graces the so-called "gold lamé" stage.

"There would be no Common Fence Music without its loyal volunteers," said Ted Czech, CFM president. "Nancy Arruda has organized the dessert and beverage sales and Tom Nary has managed the ticket desk for more than a decade. During our 20-show season, many other volunteers regularly set up the hall, sell raffle tickets and desserts, write successful grant applications, raise funds, manage the stage and serve on the board of directors."

This year marks CFM's 20th anniversary, and although the organization is no longer the only game in town in these parts, it hasn't lost its vision or passion to putting great live music on stage.

"It's great to still be here," said Mr. Perrotti. "We're a very resourceful and frugal organization, so we have survived. We're graced with some wonderful, friendly competition these days," he said, referring to places such as Sandywoods Center for the Arts in Tiverton, the Narrows in Fall River, Blackstone River Theatre, Stone Soup and others. "There's no denying it's become a bit more challenging as a result. But it's just all part of the game. We all float around to one venue to the next as well."

What's particularly challenging is trying to book artists for Saturday night, which is the only night the shows are held in Portsmouth. "We have to match our schedule — which is tight and limited — with their road tours," he said. "Sometimes it takes a few years. We're smaller and there's a lot of competition. This game to a certain extent is about agents these days who work off a percentage. They're counting chairs and Saturday night is obviously the premium night. If we hadn't been in business for 20 years, we probably would not get the attention from folks asking for Saturday nights."

Besides the Portsmouth concerts, CFM also hosts the occasional show at the acoustic-friendly Channing Memorial Church in Newport on Thursday nights. Nearly 300 tickets were sold for folk icon Tom Rush's appearance at Channing. "That's very exciting for us. That's the first time we've had that kind of turnout," said Mr. Perrotti, adding that 200 tickets are sold for the shows in Portsmouth.

Connecting the Beats

CFM also hosts educational programs for local youths. "We have a program called Connecting the Beats that's been funded by Rhode Island Foundation and The Newport County Fund. It's in its third year and it's bringing African and Afro-Carribbean percussion music to the youth of Newport County," said Mr. Perrotti.

The next Connecting the Beats show features Jesus Andujar & Grupo Sazon on March 23. "We've invited students to come to that show. We give away what we call 'RISCA-tix' and that's a way of thanking the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts for the general operating support that they give us," he said.

CFM's bread and butter, however, is the Portsmouth "picnic series," where audience members are invited to bring beer, wine and supper. You can also buy homemade items at the kitchen, where you'll see Ms. Santucci and other helpers.

"We bring the baked goods in. There's some unmentioned competition among us — 'Who's selling the most today?'" she said, adding that soup and chili is usually available, too. "We pay for it and make it ourselves.”

One of the more challenging volunteers jobs went to Linda Remington this year. "I've been in the learning curve for stage manager. That's really exciting because I get to meet the performers," she said, before conceding that the job can also be rather nerve-racking. She's dealt with a few performers who were a little intimidating, although she didn't want to name names.

"Some performers really need things to be just so," said Ms. Remington. "One very well-known person who's been in the business a long time wants decalf as soon as he arrives. But I was told just coffee, so I didn't know that." Fortunately, she said, the mistake was realized before the high-test brew made it to the performer's lips.

Perks to the job

Of course, there are fringe benefits to volunteering at CFM. One of them is all the great live music. Mr. Sullivan said he’s been to nearly every show since he arrived here 12 years ago, and only one “was a small disappointment,” he said.

“Tom picks such incredibly good people. I think probably my favorite this season was Susan McKeown," he said, referring to the Grammy-winning contemporary Celtic artist who played here in late January.

Ms. Remington said her favorite show this year was the female roots trio Red Molly “I was also impressed by how they sold their CDs. They don't put a price on them. They just say, 'Pay what you want,’” she said.

Betty Ann Czech has been coming to CFM with her husband Ted “since the beginning.” While some performers' most successful days are behind them, CFM has caught others on their way up — such as blues singer Keb’ Mo’, who would go on to win three Grammys.

“He got off the stage and he sort of meandered amongst the tables. He was quite the gentleman and a professional. He had on creased pants and an ironed shirt," said Ms. Czech, pointing out that not every roots artist is so well-dressed for the stage.

"That was a great show,” added Mr. Perrotti. “I can't even get in touch with him now."

More than the concerts, however, is the sense of community volunteers and other music-lovers feel when they step through the CFM doors.

"We're never here by ourselves,” said Ms. Czech, who coordinated the spruce-up of the storage room. "This is part of our lives. The series gives us so much back. Sometimes we're on the floor dancing and it's a wonderful way to bring new friends into your circle."

Added Mr. Sullivan, “I would call it a community treasure."

For more about Common Fence Music, visit http://commonfencemusic.org.


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