Roots, by nature, probe outward while providing a solid footing. The Belleville Roots Music Series has done just that, imbedding itself in the fertile ground of Newburyport culture while spreading its message to a broader audience. Now in its sixth year, this ongoing series of concerts at Belleville Congregational Church has featured such performers as JD McPherson and The von Trapps, plus several other Grammy-nominated artists.
Roots music relates to a particular culture, fusing blues, country, folk, zydeco and rock. The impressive and eclectic lineup of past and future Belleville performers reflects the diverse demographics of the local community. In fact, one of the series’ primary missions is “building community through music.”
Members of the series’ concert committee are themselves a micro-community. The nonprofit organization, made up of 12 local music lovers ranging in age from 35 to , functions like a roundtable, without a formal leader but with common goal. If there were a “King Arthur” among them, it would be Ken Irwin, a retired record company executive who helped launch the series when he was looking for a venue for a friend’s band touring New England. His knowledge of music and his network of industry contacts spearheads the booking process.
Irwin echoes the group’s basic criteria for invited entertainers when he says, “We want kind, nice people to perform here. This is a family-focused [concert series], and we want performers who reflect that. But they also have to be talented, and have a style entrenched in the roots [tradition].”
Ken’s wife, Donna Wilson Irwin, also a committee member, explains this idea by highlighting the virtues of operating as a nonprofit. “Not pursuing revenue not only allows us to be selective, but eliminates any anxiety that may arise from needing to make X amount of dollars,” she says. She adds that any profits realized by the performances go to local charities or toward the upkeep of the Belleville Congregational Church.
Belleville’s pastor, the Rev. Ross Varney, is a member of the committee. He maintains the church’s performance venues—one is a small dance hall that seats about 175, the other is a larger, cathedral-style auditorium with a center stage and seating for about 400. Both theaters have ideal acoustics engineered into their wood construction.
Other members of the committee include professionals from several apposite fields. Like an impassioned group of football fans, they perform almost like a stadium wave. Section 1 initiates the act, and subsequent sections follow in unrehearsed rhythm without having to be directed, each contributing equally. Likewise, once Irwin has suggested a band to the panel, the wave begins. Committee member Marcia Samuelson, a public relations expert, begins the marketing. Varney schedules the appropriate arena. Retired economics professor Bob Crofts prepares contract negotiations, and his wife, Diane, serves as concessionaire. Graphic artist Joe Carper updates the website. “We are all music fans above all,” says Carper, who moved to Newburyport after learning of the concerts.
The series serves as a symbolic trope for Newburyport itself, where old architecture shares the landscape with modern commerce. One loyal fan, Dr. Ben , has been to several shows since the series’ inception. “I originally came to support the church,” he says. “But the music was so good that I kept returning. I didn’t even know I liked this style of music.”
Five or six concerts are offered annually, often bolstered by sponsorships from local banks and businesses. The next event is scheduled for September 2016. For more information about tickets and upcoming shows, visit BellevilleRoots.org or call (978) 503-7668.