“The point is that we are not some giant event booking nationally famous bands. This is for JP, for the community”
Over the past decade, the Jamaica Plain Music Festival has grown into something a neighborhood can truly be proud of. And it’s no wonder, with all the talent that touches the area, from artists who have lived off the Orange Line for years to those who more recently discovered the urban xanadu (and let’s not forget about the many who have been priced out).
This year’s festivities include sets by artists and Dig favorites including Catherine Bent and Ian Coury, Evan Greer, Bird Language, Chandler Travis Philharmonic, Hallelujah the Hills, and Lovewhip (check our separate interview with Walter Alice Sickert from the Army of Broken Toys). As well as the Nickel & Dime Band with Rick Berlin, a longtime JP fixture and co-organizer of the festival.
We spoke with Berlin and fellow organizer Shamus Moynihan about hitting the 10-year milestone and about some of the stones they stumbled on along the way.
So this is the big number 10. It’s not exactly a half-century but did anyone ever think this would go this long?
Shamus: We had no idea what we were doing the first year. We weren’t sure we could even pull it off. We didn’t even have all of the permits until about 48 hours before the festival started. We were a little cocky and called it the “first annual.” Once the day was over and we actually made it happen. We knew it would keep going, because of the ongoing support of JP itself—in particular the local businesses who sponsor us each year, especially Mission Realty, Galway House, Tres Gatos, and JP Licks—and because of the high level of musicianship these local bands provide, the event will not stop.
Rick: Put another way, the JP Music Festival is bigger than all of us.
Give us some of the most dramatic changes – from scale to mission – over the past decade.
Shamus: Most of the changes happened between the first and second years. After a complaint our first year, we had to move the stages from one side of Pinebank Baseball Field to the other. It turns out this was in our favor. It is a better location for both sound and sight. We moved the stages so the sound would head towards Jamaica Pond instead of a residential tower.
That’s when we decided on two full sized stages as well.
Rick: Each act gets about 20 minutes, so we rotate between the two side-by-side stages. While one band is playing, we’re setting up for the next slot on the other one. It makes for a real energy over the course of the day that is different from most festivals we’ve been to with a lot of lulls. It’s a moving train and once you get on at noon, it keeps going.
Shamus: We also really upped our game on sound and production. We provide professional quality back lines on both stages, with drums and amps set up and ready. That makes the rapid transitions between acts possible. Our first year’s back line was a mess. It came out of the dusty basement of a music store. Bandaids and rubber bands held the drum kits together and amps crackled with unwanted distortion. Things ended up wired backwards and a couple people got zapped from the microphones.
We rented our own generator, which came unhitched from the back of our friend’s pickup truck while driving down the Jamaicaway. There we were. Chasing this giant generator down the road while dodging traffic. It was like a 3 Stooges episode. I can’t believe we made it out alive. After we survived all that, we decided to leave the stage, sound, and power to the pros.
The sound and staging is administered under one roof by one consummate pro, Dana Filloon. The high-level production values are where we spend the most money. Because of the uptick in sponsorship we’ve been able to afford to print those giant bus stop signs all over the city promoting the event at a glance (the bus shelter space is donated to us since we’re a nonprofit).
Rick: Lastly, due to the volunteers who work the entrance gates and collect donations on the day of, we’ve been able to pay the bands for the last bunch of years.
Shamus: When we first came up with the idea we had no idea what it would cost. We were raising a few bucks here and there. A bunch of rinky dink fundraisers (don’t ask me about the chili cook-off/square dancing contest).
A few months in, Eddie from the Galway House shot me a text. “Hey. I got a check for you at the bar next time you swing by.” Well, we stopped by and the check was for more than we made at any of our fundraisers. “Seems like you guys are trying to do something cool. You’re my friends and I trust you. I wanna be on the ground floor.”
One thing about the fest is that we don’t pay ourselves. Ever. It’s a lot easier to ask for money when it’s an all volunteer operation.
After we pulled off the first year it was a lot easier. Everyone wanted to be a part of it. Tres Gatos and JP Licks have been big sponsors since. A few years ago, Eric Johnson and Melissa Raynor from Mission Realty got involved. They quickly became our single biggest sponsor. They are the kind of people that cut us a big check and then also show up on the day of to volunteer. They’re helping load up the trucks and picking up trash. We really couldn’t do this without them.
How have organizers adjusted to cater to a changing JP?
Rick: It’s hard to say. For those born and raised in the hood, and for many of us who’ve lived and worked here for years, it still feels more or less the same. Because of our friends, the families who’ve been coming to the festival year after year, and the great small businesses that sponsor us (even after the devastation of Covid) it continues magically. Because the pandemic curtailed us for two years, we have new residents to discover the day. Once you’ve experienced it, you can’t wait for it to happen again.
Shamus: The first couple years we had a strict rule that at least one band member had to live/ work in JP. Over the years, as so many people got priced out, we switched to having a “strong connection” to the neighborhood. You have bands who are the embodiment of JP, who were in the neighborhood for decades, who had to move a little further out. We try to be fair about that.
Any memorable moments that stand out in particular when you look back?
Rick: All the hilarious mistakes. For me it was this: before Ferris Mueller and Margie Nicoll sang America the Beautiful (now an annual tradition) there would be, in front of the stage, a popcorn bucket with a circus of helium balloons attached. Like Pixar’s Up our idea was the balloons would lift the bucket into the cloudless blue. In the basket, hizzhonor, a squirrel, a stuffed animal, our mascot. Children and parents would cheer. Drew Chasse, daughter of longtime friend Jeff, would approach, cradling the squirrel in endearing arms. A trumpet would play a solemn march as she walked. The plan went swimmingly until the moment of release. When the cord, holding the basket to earth, was cut, the bucket and squirrel sank sadly to the ground. Hizzoner [Former Mayor Tom Menino] remained farcically in basket and the balloons dead floated in front of the stage. No lift off, no illustrious JP as NASA. It was one of my absolute favorite things that ever happened, ever. There’s a video.
Shamus: There are so many, but the first year always sticks in our minds. We had the fest in August that year. It was about 102 degrees all day. Zero shade on the field. We were sweltering. We didn’t know if anyone would actually show up so we only booked one food truck. I think the line stretched into Brookline for them.
Rick and I had met Gordon Gano from The Violent Femmes a few times before that. His sister lives in JP and he played a few guest appearances at The Midway with other bands. Rick reached out to him to ask if he could make it to the fest. He ended up playing a few Femmes songs with Rick’s band. One of the best memories is him doing the intro to the Femmes’ “America Music” with Margie. After the first verse he said “You sang the wrong words” then sang the lyrics, “Do you like Jamaica Plain music”. The crowd went nuts. Totally unscripted.
He’s the nicest guy. Flew here on his own dime. Wouldn’t even let us buy him lunch. We gave him a t-shirt. He still wears it occasionally at Femmes shows.
How long have you had two stages? How exactly does that work?
Rick: From the beginning, but the first year’s version was as pathetic as it was funny. One big stage and by its side something that looked very homemade: plywood sheets on grass. Two stages make all the difference. As one band performs on stage A, the next band is setting up on stage B. The turnaround is smooth and essentially instantaneous. Never a dull moment.
Are you in touch with other organizers of similar community-based festivals around the region? Any trends? What’s the word on the street?
Rick: There are similar festivals around the country, some of whom have read the ‘how to’ page on our website. The point is that we are not some giant event booking nationally famous bands. This is for JP, for the community, and for bands who normally play small local venues around town and for this one time get to perform in front of a huge welcoming crowd.
Shamus: We’re friends with most of the local organizers/promoters. JP Porchfest, Wake up the Earth, etc. We all feel lucky to have survived the last few years and are able to keep doing what we love.
What’s the selection process? How many of the performers are from JP?
Shamus: Definitely the hardest part. Especially saying no to people who we love and respect and who are super talented. There’s only so much time in the day and we try to balance it out the best we can to get a good mix of everything. Most people are very understanding and supportive even if they’re not selected.
Rick: This is the toughest part, where we act like fake a&r guys. We do our best to make the lineup include genre variety, represent the hood, and are all excellent. Ideally, when they sign up, they include links to a live performance. An upscale video with a studio level soundtrack doesn’t really show us how a band looks and sounds live, most who submit send live video. The rule (expanded over the years due to that gentrification moving artists out of the hood): one member of each act must either live, work, or have a strong connection to JP.
Let’s say we’re coming for the day. What should we bring?
Rick: Kids, dogs, sunscreen, a lawn chair, a sun hat. Pocket money to grab food from the food trucks and music and merch at the Tres Gatos and festival merch tents.
Shamus: Sunscreen. A blanket or chair if you’re planning on spending the day. Your dogs, kids, friends. your bike (we‘ll have plenty of bike racks) A few bucks to drop in the donation bin if you’re so inclined (a free festival is surprisingly expensive).
The JP Music Festival is Saturday, Sept. 10 from noon to 7pm. For more info visit jpmusicfestival.com