MARBLEHEAD FESTIVAL OF ARTS: After two-year hiatus, Crocker ready to rock once more

No one has been driven crazier by the sound emanating from Marblehead’s Crocker Park the past two Fourth of July weekends than Brian Wheeler.

That sound? Silence.

Wheeler, longtime chairperson of the performing arts portion of the Marblehead Festival of Arts, is beyond excited that he and his team of volunteers will once again this year be bringing an eclectic array of accomplished performers to the stage at the “gorgeous sandbox” that the Parks and Recreation Department and other town officials have allowed them to play around in for the past quarter-century.

The stage at Crocker Park may have been quiet the past two years, thanks to COVID-19. But that is all about to change.

Until its involuntary COVID-19-related hiatus, the Performing Arts program had been part of the Festival every year except its first.

Over the last five-plus decades, it has grown into a “very professional concert series,” with more than a few memorable, magical moments, Wheeler noted.

“We like to say we take the gig seriously; we don’t take ourselves seriously,” Wheeler said.

Now as much as ever, Wheeler said the Performing Arts Committee recognizes its responsibility to create an environment where neighbors can come together and lose their worries for a little while.

“Come for the fun, come for the family, come for the community — all under the umbrella of music,” he said.

This year’s Performing Arts lineup includes 14 acts who will perform over the course of four nights and three days.

Guy Van Duser and Billy Novick

Getting things started on Friday, July 1 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. will be Guy Van Duser and Billy Novick, a clarinetist and classical guitarist, respectively, who have been involved in the Festival since the 1970s, Wheeler noted.

Following Duser and Novick will be the Cassandre McKinley Band, which features drummer Dave Mattacks, who has recorded with two former Beatles (Paul McCartney and George Harrison), Elton John and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, among many others.

But hilariously, Wheeler noted that Mattacks’ status as “house drummer for the Marblehead Festival of Arts” essentially got equal billing with all of his other international accomplishments in the write-up on the website of famed British rock band Jethro Tull, with whom Mattacks in 1992 appeared as percussionist and keyboard player on a semi-acoustic tour that also produced a live album.

Cassandre McKinley

“He embraces [the moniker], which is wonderful,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler added that July 1 is also “Me & Thee Night” at Crocker Park, in honor of the Marblehead music institution formerly known as the Me & Thee Coffeehouse (now Me & Thee Music), which had the misfortune of having its 50th-anniversary season disrupted by the coronavirus.

Saturday night, July 2 is “country night” on the Crocker Park stage, Wheeler explained. The headliner is Houston Bernard, who was born in Oklahoma and raised in Alaska, and is also an Army veteran. Wheeler said he got to know Bernard through his “day job” at iHeartRadio.

Opening for Bernard will be the Jake Armerding Trio, with the group’s namesake a second-generation Festival of Arts performer, following in the footsteps of his father, Taylor.

Jake Armerding

Sunday night’s headliner is The Soul Resonators, a group that features a “fantastic sax player,” Henley Douglas Jr.

Mention of Douglas’ name conjures memories for Wheeler of one of his favorite only-in-Marblehead mash-ups of all time, when he suggested bringing together Douglas’ 20-piece big band and Rachel Taylor, a singer best known as one-third of the group Maeve.

“You could tell he was leery,” Wheeler said of Douglas’ reaction when he raised the idea.

Nonetheless, despite not ever rehearsing together, a six-month-pregnant Taylor came out on stage to join the band, and together they “hit it out of the park,” Wheeler said.

Johnny Ray will lead the national anthem from Crocker Park just before the start of the annual fireworks display.

On the Fourth itself, the headliner will be Better Than Nothing, with its four-piece horn section, the BTN Horns, an act that has “played all the local big stages,” Wheeler noted.

But at approximately 8:55 p.m., Johnny Ray, propriety of The Beacon Restaurant and Bar in Marblehead, will cut in to perform the National Anthem, leading up to the countdown to the start of the town’s fireworks display.

Conducting the countdown itself will be the family of Heather Walker, a Marblehead mom of two young daughters, who was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma, a year ago.

Heather Walker, inspiration for the Move 4 Heather Challenge to benefit glioblastoma research at the Dana Farber Cancer Center, and her family will lead the countdown to the start of the fireworks from Crocker Park.

As she wages her own health battle, Walker is also for raising funds for glioblastoma research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through the Move 4 Heather Challenge. Wheeler said the Performing Arts Committee welcomed the opportunity to bring additional awareness to Walker’s campaign.

While all eyes during the Performing Arts part of the Festival are on the stage, Wheeler notes that it would have been a challenge to continue to put on the shows without the help of an internship program launched about 20 years ago, through which about 300 students have gotten hands-on experience, some of whom are now accomplished professional sound engineers.

That internship program, which is gearing back up after the COVID hiatus, has been handed off to Marblehead resident John Krivit, a former president of the Audio Engineering Society and Emerson College faculty member, Wheeler said.

For now, aside from perhaps some scattered thunderstorms on Saturday, the weather forecast throughout the Festival looks mostly rain-free. But, absent dangerous lightning, the shows at Crocker Park will go on, rain or shine.

In fact, Wheeler said he is still stopped on the street all the time people people who say the 2014 “hurricane concert” was one of the best days of their lives. That year saw “buckets of rain” all day, but it was “just water, no lightning, wind or thunder,” Wheeler said.

“We had about 150 people pogo-ing by the stage and under the gazebo,” Wheeler said. “For them, it was like Woodstock.”

For a broader overview of the Marblehead Festival of Arts, see Marblehead News’ primer.

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