Jonathan Edwards
at Tool Town Live in Fish Park,
Athol, Mass.
(29 August 2008)

Before the evening began, the only Jonathan Edwards song I could identify was "Sunshine," which hit the charts when I was a freshman in high school. I have always enjoyed hearing that melody, and I love that it is still played on classic rock and easy listening radio stations. So I was assured of recognizing at least one song during this folk/rock concert. Otherwise, I had no idea what I would be in for this night and what surprises could lay in store for me.

Edwards was greeted with a certain amount of glee, and he started us off with an appropriate Curtis Mayfield classic, "People Get Ready." "People get ready / There's a train a-comin' / You don't need no baggage / You just get on board." That tune quickly segued into an upbeat "Train of Glory." Right away I was presented with Surprise No. 1: Jonathan Edwards is a master of the harmonica. (Howard Levy, move aside!) He would go on to demonstrate his mouth-harp proficiency on many songs this evening.

At this venue, Edwards was accompanied only by Stuart Schulman -- who, when he isn't serving as a selectman for the Town of Groton, Mass., can play a mean bass guitar, fiddle and keyboard himself (though not all at once, of course) and can supply close harmony on the vocals. Together the duo braved monitor problems and an invasion of mosquitoes "the size of sparrows" on the small gazebo stage. Nevertheless, Edwards insisted with humor, "We'll forge ahead; we're professionals."

And so they did, giving us spirited slices of life in "That's What Our Life Is," "Seven Daffodils," "Athens County," "Angelina" and "Rollin' Along." Though all could be considered Edwards standards, four of those tunes also appear on his newest solo album, Rollin' Along: Live in Holland, which he recorded in a number of clubs in the Netherlands. The energy of his music was infectious, and most adults were tapping their feet or clapping along in time from their blankets or lawn-chair seats. A band of impromptu ballerinas, all in the single-digit age range, swirled and twirled around on the ground in front of the gazebo. They were almost as entertaining as the music itself.

"Sunshine" was an obvious sing-along. We were already chiming in at the tops of our lungs before Edwards invited us to do so for each chorus. "How much does it cost? / I'll buy it. / The time is all we've lost; / I'll try it." It was the reason why many of us were there. The song sounded just as fresh as it did back in 1971, too. Some grownups joined the merriment of the up-front lawn dancers, as did a prancing golden retriever with its owner. Everyone was enjoying this family-friendly show.

After much applause and many hoorays, Edwards and Schulman changed the pace with a quieter, slower ballad. At first the lyrics seemed familiar, but the styling was elusive. The musicians were past the first verse when it dawned on us that we were hearing a wonderfully innovative arrangement of the Beatles' "She Loves You." Chalk up Surprise No. 2. Edwards sang the vocal alone and thus had no time for any background "yeah, yeah, yeahs," so some of us supplied them when we figured out where they should go. It's been more than 40 years since the "invasion," and we were being treated to a new version of this seemingly simple tune. What fun!

Edwards continued with "How Long Have I Been Waiting for You," followed by a pensive birthday tribute penned by Al Anderson, the former guitarist of NRBQ. Then it was time for "My Home Ain't in the Hall of Fame" and "Don't Cry Blue." Edwards and Schulman were assisted on "Blue" by the background vocals of Ryan Hommel and Schulman's daughter Leah. The most devoted fans in attendance mouthed the words, too, and rewarded Edwards with hoots and hollers at its conclusion. The dog danced and barked.

Surprise No. 3 was yet another sing-along: "Paper Doll." Schulman's bass guitar provided the barest of accompaniments for the melody that we all somehow knew. "I'm gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own / A doll that other fellows cannot steal." We weren't the Mills Brothers; but who is, these days? It turned out to be a great evening for audience participation.

Edwards ended his concert set with his "Shanty Song" -- "We're gonna lay around the shanty, momma / And put a good buzz on." Both musicians took the chance to perform featured solos during this finale. Combined with the lyrics, their veteran instrumentation got the crowd clapping and laughing again.

When your stage is a gazebo perched eight-feet above the edge of a public park, there's no dressing room for you to escape to when the gig is over. Edwards climbed down the stairs to great applause and then came back up to offer an encore. Perhaps inspired by the youngsters who had been dancing at his feet all evening -- and thinking of his own daughter, now 32 years old and recently wed -- Edwards sang "Little Hands," a father's speculation over his child's future. He ended the evening with the fourth and final surprise: an a cappella solo of "This Island Earth." Leaving us with a strong environmental message in this crucial election year was the perfect food for thought and the perfect way to say goodbye.

This was Edwards' second visit to Athol in two years. He had also been the headliner for the 2006 Tool Town Live season; but that concert had been held in the town hall because of inclement weather. A warm summer night in New England -- even with a few squadrons of invading mosquitoes present -- is an unparalleled choice for an outdoor concert and for fine music provided by veteran performers.

Tool Town Live is a series of concerts organized by Athol native and musician Ethan Stone, chair of the town's Memorial Hall Revitalization Fund Committee. This group was established to plan, organize and produce alcohol-free community events that generate revenue to be used for the revitalization of Athol's Memorial Hall. Business and individual sponsorships ensure that all of the late summer concerts are free and open to the public.

The series also encourages nearby talent. Three local opening acts provided a variety of entertainment before Edwards took the stage. Sixteen-year-old Hillary Chase, a singer-songwriter from Orange, Mass., offered two original songs on keyboard and one on acoustic guitar. With a voice on the delicate side and a light touch on the keys, the young woman's lyrics oozed with adolescent quandaries, as evidenced by such lines as "Will you accept me for who I am?" and "I don't want to be mistaken for your love." Still, she has a wide musical future ahead of her.

Heidi-Jo Hanson of Ashburnham has 20 years of performance and life experience on Chase and is known for hosting the Thursday night Acoustic Singer Songwriter Showcase at McNally's Grille & Pub in Westminster. Her steamy vocals rang out in time with her edgy six-string strumming for two of her own compositions, "I'm Still Me" and "Love, Time & Soul."

But it was a 19-year-old pianist from Shelburne who initially grabbed the audience's attention. Seth Glier began with "The Trouble with People," an introspective view of the world that gave voice to evaluations seemingly beyond his years. He was aided by guitarist/vocalist Ryan Hommel on "Someone Else to Crown" and "Gotta Get Away." Glier's inventive melodies, punchy keyboard style and passionate tenor vocals resounded throughout the park and neighborhood. He showed a musical maturity that collided with his youthful, boy-next-door appearance; and he is surely headed for certain success. Performers like these should make us proud to live in the North Quabbin area.

by Corinne H. Smith
4 October 2008

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