Somebody once said that Lowell is a “little big city,” and that character is due in part to the spectrum of activities on any given day: small to large, low to high, basic to extravagant, local to global, traditional to experimental, common to cosmic — you get the idea. Yesterday was a “little big city” experience for me from afternoon to evening, with the activity tipping the scales toward the “big city.”
In the storefront art space that announces itself with blaring color on Chelmsford Street in the Lower Highlands, the second day of 119 Gallery’s XFest got going around 2 p.m with an opening set featuring Lowell writers Ryan Gallagher and Derek Fenner, accompanied by Walter Wright on drums (whose array of percussion components included an upside down cupcake pan atop one of his tom-toms), Rick Breault on laptop (yes, he was operating this device for sonic effect), and Stephanie Lak on another electronic audio instrument that was a cross between a keyboard-synth and a short-wave radio. Ryan approached the standing mike and proceeding to unroll a short epic poem from his inner drive that pulled the audience toward him in held-breath mode for at least a third of a scuba tank of air. He kept saying his long lines with images of marmalade and jazz, his sentences surround-sounded by the rumble and snap and melodic static and voicings of the trio backing him.
Next up was Derek Fenner who crouched at a portable typewriter wired to a speaker that turned the machine into an alternative drum, bang-banging as he punched out a poem on the spot. When his poem-on-paper rolled off the typer, he picked it up and stood up at the microphone to read that one and ten other short pieces, many of them Lowell-inflected in the way Sandburg’s early poems spoke Chicagoan, strange and reverent vignettes of life on the local run. He closed with two poems, one a howler, from a friend who couldn’t be there. On the howler, the musicians raised the volume roof with their post-mod version of a Salvation Army band.
In the compact gallery a couple of dozen people from Lowell and beyond were locked in on the performances. For this festival, 119 Gallery is the magnet to which the iron filings of edgy cultural taste are drawn. For the weekend in Lowell, visiting artists traveled from Berlin, Montreal, Asheville N.C., Brooklyn N.Y., and other places.
In the second set, musicians Chris Welcome (guitar) and Shayna Dulberger (upright bass) of Brooklyn and sax and flute player Ras Moshe put music to the smooth testimony of spoken-word artist Anthony Febo, one of Lowell’s favorite poets, a master of performance, who, like Ryan Gallagher, has a lucid memory of his own compositions. Anthony and I alternated in our set, each of us putting four poems on the table. Mine were the audience participation piece “December Canticle,” “Crazy Horse” (about the maker of a huge stone monument out west), “Make Words,” and “The Sandbank on Riverside” (set in Pawtucketville).
For Part Two of the day, the location shifted to downtown and the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, where the high-achieving River Hawks wouldn’t let the nearly 6,000 people go until they had tied the Merrimack College Warriors, who had whipped the locals the night before. I sat with four friends two rows behind the Merrimack bench, where the ice action is in your face, including the random clearing shot plunking off the break-free glass. The Tsongas has become everything the campus leadership imagined was possible in the complex and daring days when the transition from City to University was being worked out. It is a full on sports experience in sound, light, video, and live athletic drama. This is big-time college sports. Nationally ranked. Top tier in all respects. The student shouters were out in force. The seating bowl was the definition of family entertainment. The Lowell Bank Pavilion was jammed. In the lobby a dozen or more Star Wars characters posed for pictures with the kids and parents. Rowdy the River Hawk starred in a clever film mash-up that turned the Death Star into a war ship of down river Merrimack College that got obliterated on the jumbo-screen high over center ice.
Each time UMass Lowell tied the score the building rocked on its pins. We would have liked to walk down Martin Luther King Way with a win in our pockets, but it could have been worse. It’s been a super season, with more to go. What a difference a couple of years makes. And kudos to the traffic controllers. They got the jambo crowd off the property in good order and time.