By Tara Filip

The summer music series Music on the River has become a bridge between East Haddam and the greater community. It brings together all walks of life in a safe place to enjoy live music, mingling together all ages and inspiring people to dance together, share napkins or a piece of fruit, to laugh and say hello to a stranger. To reunite with an old high school friend, to find a new favorite band. Most of all, it breathes life into a quiet town square, where local businesses allow overflow parking, stay open a bit longer or run a special sale. Most importantly, it inspires people to appreciate the art of live music in a gorgeous setting along the Connecticut River.

The free concert series has been growing in both size and local lore for over a decade now. I personally think that once you turn ten, you get to claim legacy status; a tradition that will always be a part of the community and people’s lives. The 2017 series christens the 11th year on the banks of the river. When the series first started, it was a small community gathering on the beautiful campus of Chestelm Health and Rehabilitation Center, and was known as the Chestelm Summer Sounds. In 2007 the East Haddam Parks and Recreation Department took over the program and moved it to its current location in collaboration with the Goodspeed Opera House who lends the program their green.

Tiffany Quinn

Tiffany Quinn

Tiffany Quinn, the town’s recreation director has nurtured and overseen the program ever since. With a stealthy crew of volunteers, they manage the event with the organizational capacity of a much larger team. The steering committee consists of past and present members of the town’s Recreation Commission as well as founding partners of the original Chestelm Summer Sounds concerts. During the summer, Charlie and John are special additions to the team to greet every attendee with the evening’s program, a welcoming handshake, and sometimes even a hug.

Under the shadow of the stoic swing bridge and in the company of the historic Goodspeed Opera House and the Gelston House, families settle in for a night of music and socializing, while children dance in front of the stage to the beats of a different band each week. Average attendance is 1500 people, with the highest reported at 2200. I’m not sure how one might compare it to other local summer evening concerts, but I do know that this one is special.

Quinn and the volunteer committee manage the event together each week. The committee arrives in the late afternoon to set up flag ropes that keep folks in bounds and safe, posting signs with friendly rule-reminders like leaving Fido at home. The band and sound crew set up and the crowd starts trickling in. At first, it’s a few people that want to get a good parking spot and time to set up blankets and chairs. Then the parade begins: strollers, little red wagons, rolling picnic baskets, folding chairs, and even small tables. The boats begin to arrive, tethering four or five together at the dock or floating nearby. The joy of being outside on a beautiful summer evening is slowly consumed by the excitement of the crowd waiting for the band to start.

Whether its new-to-you or an old favorite, everyone’s heads bounce and feet tap while the brave ones are moved by the rhythm to join the kids dancing center stage. Bodies swirling and jumping to the tempo of a warm summer evening, as the sunset fades behind the bridge and the stars begin to pop one by one in the reflection of the river. Throw in the thrill of listening to the unique sounds of each band, be it rock, country, salsa, mambo, or reggae, and this summer series is unbeatable.

You can find Quinn mingling with the volunteers, greeting friends and locals, conferring with a helpful police officer or making sure the buses are running on time. She makes managing such a large production look easy. Everyone knows Quinn, she’s been running the town recreation programs since 1998. “The most amazing thing about the evolution of this event,” explains Quinn, “is that no tax dollars are used. All expenses are covered by the generous donations of donors and attendees. We pass the basket each Monday night during the event and people throw in a few dollars.” An incredible display of community support for the arts.

Many bands have come to town with a name that we recognize or a local musician we know, while some come from far away with strange sounds we’ve never heard before. Bands have included Livingston Taylor, Plywood Cowboy, the Coast Guard Band, Great Escape the Journey cover band, the notorious Parsonsfield, and the long-time local The Basically Blues Band.

“Choosing the lineup is the most exciting part of the job,” laughs Quinn. “There are so many talented bands it’s always so tough to choose. And that’s the hard part – picking the best of the best while giving the audience a diverse line up of music.” The committee chooses a varied playlist of bands to expose the community to a wide range of music genres.

When I asked Quinn how far people travel to attend, she smiled and said she knew there were dedicated attendees who drive in each week from New York, Massachusetts and different corners of the state. The event has become so popular that there is a shuttle bus to and from the parking lot at Eagle Landing State Park across the bridge. The overflow parking became a necessity a few years ago, and has been in demand ever since.

“Another exciting part of this series is our partnership with the Essex Steam Train,” says Quinn. “This is the second year they will have a special train schedule on concert nights that stops along the river to pick up people. Once they arrive in Haddam, everyone hops on the shuttle bus to cross the bridge. The train is then waiting to take them home at the end of the night.”

To open each concert, Quinn takes the stage to thank donors and remind everyone of the rules before introducing the band. “I always get nervous,” she says, “that I’ll pronounce someone’s name wrong. I want each donor to feel appreciated, to know how important their support really is.” She then adds that it’s a pretty cool feeling being up on stage while the band’s energy is cresting higher as they prepare to rock the crowd.

More than 60 bands have performed over the last decade, and while each night is memorable, there is one that stands out for many: the last concert of 2015. By late August the sky gets dark earlier and the sense that fall is around the corner perches in the trees. Souls of Fire performed their last song of the evening and came back on the mic with a special announcement. The International Space Station was going to fly over us and the band volunteered to play an extra set while we waited for the space station to arrive. The crowd cheered and continued to dance, while some folks slowly packed up and readied for home.

“I see it!” shouted someone deep in the crowd, “There it is!”

A murmur began to bubble up as we each locked eyes on it, witnessing it gently floating across the deep blue night sky, imagining how small it looked to us and how small we must have looked to them. With a grand whoop of delight, we all cheered, hugged and said goodnight to another epic season.

The Music on the River committee is preparing for this season’s series, which begins on Monday July 17th with Plywood Cowboy. As the next decade begins, building community is exactly what we need to nurture and support; to inspire people to gather and dance, to listen and hum along in a safe place; to support an amazing program, to buy local and enjoy the small-town charm that East Haddam offers.

There is something magical about listening to live music in such a beautiful location, with the green grass and blue sky, the sun settling behind the bridge and a gentle breeze off the river. I think this place changes how you hear the music. It gets into your hair and fills up your pockets, it can curl your smile into a devilish grin. It tickles the souls of children’s feet and makes them jump and dance and twirl. The bass sounds deeper, the twang lingers a little longer. It inspires a vibrancy of life, at least for a couple of hours on a hot sticky summer’s eve.

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