Memorial Day weekend is nearly upon us, and chances are you’re already planning to book it to the seashore or go off-roading or attend a primitive skills workshop or whatever it is Bostonians do for fun. (Probably not off-roading.) It’s also possible you decided to stay home and not “book it” anywhere, since that sounds ridiculous. In which case, I have just the low-cost, minimal-commitment activity for you: Campfire at Club Passim in Cambridge, your source for all things local and folky.
Campfire is a four-day long musical extravaganza, which is a lot cooler than I just made it sound. Three times a year, Passim invites up-and-coming artists from near and far to share the tiny basement stage, which from 6 PM Friday until midnight on Monday will become a revolving door of little-known, but very talented, talent.
Campfire was co-conceived by Passim’s managing director Matt Smith and a friend back in 1998, when they were trying to figure out how to get people out to the club on the holiday weekend, a notoriously tough timeslot. The original title of the festival was The Cutting Edge of the Campfire, a hint that many of the performers were not your typical singer/songwriters. “The festival was a prepositional phrase. Great idea,” Smith notes dryly.
Needless to say, the name was shortened. “The idea being, with these in-the-round things,
it was sort of like you were at the campfires after a festival—you know, where there’s all the main stage stuff that goes on, but then all the fun really happens up on the hill where people are camping and sitting around playing,”
explains Smith. One of the hallmarks of Campfire is the “in-the-round” format, in which several musicians join each other onstage to share songs and sometimes collaborate. Although the weekend mainly features new or lesser-known acts—everyone plays for free—the communal atmosphere entices many established artists back year after year. “There are people that headline shows at the club and sell them out that play Campfire still, ’cause they just enjoy it,” says Smith.
The first Campfire was a rousing success, drawing around six hundred people over the course of the weekend. Smith refers affectionately to the era between 1998 and 2002 as Campfire’s “heyday,” although he says it is currently experiencing a resurgence. While those early years were filled by single singer/songwriter acts, bands now dominate the lineup, a by-product of Boston’s burgeoning acoustic music community and the string programs at Berklee and New England Conservatory. “As the scene changes, the culture of the festival changes, because it’s mostly based on the local scene,” Smith points out.
Way back in ye olde 1998, you could attend the entire festival for a mere $5. Now it’s $10 for a day pass and $30 for the whole weekend—not a bad deal in these futuretimes. (That breaks down to about seventy-one cents per hour of music. Remember, time is money!) A quick glance at the program says you won’t be disappointed.
Where else can you hear a ukelele trio fronted by the Cars’ keyboardist, original songs from a cellist that tours with Yo-Yo Ma, a singer that makes paper-bag-puppet Youtube videos, and a one-man band that features harmonica and throat-singing?
Nowhere, that’s where. I mean besides at Passim, which now serves beer.
Here are a few videos of some of my favorite Campfire artists. Enjoy!
CAMPFIRE: CLUB PASSIM
47 Palmer Street Cambridge, MA, 617-492-7679
May 25 6PM-12AM, May 26-28 12PM-12AM