As students return to school and family vacations come to an end, September ushers in a new season of local entertainment; theatre, dance and music venues will start to come alive again after their summer hibernation. There is no better way to ring in the fall than with a hot cup of coffee and some great music. Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts have their fair share of coffeehouses and charming little music spots, from Stone Soup in Pawtucket to the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, but one very special venue can be found off the beaten path in Portsmouth: Common Fence Music.
It’s a gathering place tucked away off the beaten path in a community hall located at 933 Anthony Road in an area known as Common Fence Point in Portsmouth. The Point is so named because it is nearly at the point of Aquidneck Island; back in the day, early islanders used the fields here to graze their cows and sheep. Music Director Tom Perotti affectionately refers to it as “a shoebox in a dusty parking lot that comes alive with music,” and likens it to a place where the folk music circuit has its roots, in church basements and college campuses and perhaps even community halls such as this.
The hall undergoes a summer sprucing up in preparation for the September 22 opening of Common Fence Music’s 20th season of presenting concerts of folk, roots and world music. It has a capacity of 200 and there is plenty of parking. Volunteers staff ticket and concession sales. Put simply, it’s a fairly well-oiled machine.
Perotti, in the midst of putting the final touches to the 2012-2013 season, said that the building was originally built in the 1950s by the community – possibly country music lovers – for local performances. “Back in the day the stage had gold lamé curtains and the stage was nicknamed the ‘Gold Lamé’ stage,” he says. “After the Station fire, the curtains had to come down.”
Both Perrotti and Board President Ted Czech have a passion for the music and have been with the group since the early days. Common Fence Music itself is the dream child of local members Ed Neary, his wife Nancy Aruda and his brother Tommy, as well as Jeanne and Billy Northup, all of whom are still involved in some capacity or other. Common Fence is very much a community-spirited organization that wouldn’t survive without the support of volunteers. Perotti got involved after the first show in 1993 as tech director and says that though he gets paid a stipend for his work, he still considers himself a volunteer as he also maintains the website.
The concerts have featured some of the top performers of the folk and world music genre including Cheryl Wheeler, Tom Rush, Aine Minogue and John Gorka. Known as the Picnic Series, patrons arrive at 7pm with picnic baskets and engage in a preshow chow down, often times sharing a BYOB meal dubbed the “Folk Tail-Gate Party” by performer Geoff Muldaur. Common Fence volunteers provide other beverages and dessert for a monetary donation. Some of the performances include workshops built around the musicians. Liam Neary, son of Ed and Nancy, serves as emcee for the events.
Red Molly, an all-female trio that performs Americana music kicks off the 20th anniversary season on September 22 at 8 pm followed by April Verch, Canadian fiddler and dancer, on September 29. Other performers scheduled this year are Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, AcquAria, Aine Minogue, Bruce Molsky and Cheryl Wheeler.
In addition Common Fence Music offers special music programming to include “Horn of Plenty,” “Gathering of Fiddlers and Fisherman” and “Connecting the Beats,” funded by RISCA. “Connecting the Beats is not only about connecting beats but connecting generations, neighborhoods and music,” Perotti says. “It’s a metaphor for society and great therapy. The goal is to hear kids playing drums in the park.”
While there are no immediate plans for an anniversary gala, Czech states, “The 20th anniversary committee is in the process of planning and ideas are percolating. However, selected longtime supporters will be invited to a pre-show meet-and-greet with the performers this year as way of saying thank you.” Perotti agrees. “In challenging times, we are proud to still be here after 20 years.”