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In A Music-Rich Neighborhood With Few Rock Clubs, The JP Music Fest Thrives

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining in Jamaica Plain. Cars whizzed along the Riverway past an almost impossibly picturesque Jamaica Pond, where a small crowd gathered to watch a stringband play. On Washington Street, the door to the Midway Cafe was open, laughter and stale beer fumes spilling out onto the street, a pungent reminder of late-night revels past.

The JP Music Festival board had just wrapped up a meeting. This year’s version of the free, annual concert features 21 bands at Pinebank Field off Perkins Street and the Jamaica Way in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood from noon to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6. Three board members—Shamus Moynihan, Rick Berlin and Margie Nicoll—swigged the last of their beers and trooped downstairs into the basement green room. Beneath the glow of a bare light bulb throwing shadows onto crumbling ceiling plaster, they remembered how, four years ago, it all began.

“Well, Rick and I lived—we still live—about a block away from each other. We would always run into each other at this laundromat,” remembers Moynihan, a towering, round-faced, perpetually smiling man who worked for several years booking shows for the Midway. “We were both doing our laundry and Rick just comes up to me and says, ‘Why isn’t there a Jamaica Plain music festival?’ It just kind of clicked: ‘Why isn’t there a Jamaica Plain music festival?’ There are so many musicians and artists in this town and there’s so few places for them to showcase.”

It’s true: the Midway is the only legit, permitted venue in Jamaica Plain that regularly hosts rock bands. (You can find live music at Tres Gatos, The Haven and The Milky Way Lounge on certain nights.) Yet JP overflows with artists and musicians, partly because of the cheap rent (at least relative to Camberville), partly because of the neighborhood’s proximity to Berklee College of Music and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and undoubtedly due to an ineffable mystique that its residents struggle to put into words.

“For an artist, it’s a nice sensibility,” says Berlin, former frontman of the now-defunct, much-beloved Orchestra Luna and a self-described “JP zealot” who has lived in Jamaica Plain since the ‘70s. “You feel welcome, no matter what kind of weirdo you are.”

What Time Is It Mr. Fox? performs at a past JP Music Festival. (Tony Sahadeo)
What Time Is It Mr. Fox? performs at a past JP Music Festival. (Tony Sahadeo)

The JP Music Festival, now in its fourth year, has grown each consecutive iteration. The organizers estimate that last year’s festival drew between 4,000 and 5,000 attendees. This year, 130 bands applied for 21 spots. The only application requirement was that at least one member of each group be a resident of Jamaica Plain.

“One point I would like to make about the festival is it’s really a festival of unknowns,” says Berlin. “There are some people that are surfacing and getting more well-known, but there are so many great people that never actually happen on the national scene in terms of music. And we kind of made a decision never to have any ringers. So it’s not like Boston Calling, it’s not like what they do in Union Square and Davis Square. ... My phrase is, it’s a mom and pop music festival. It’s a corner store idea that has tremendous production value. Because we don’t get paid and the bands don’t get paid, so we spend it on the stage, we spend it on sound, we spend it on backline, we spend it on T-shirts. So it’s a wonderful chance for the unknowns to be known for a day.”

The lineup this year skews slightly in favor of rock ‘n roll, though it features some compelling eclecticism. There is the Boston Police Column of Pipe & Drums, local gospel choir Bethel A.M.E. Praise & Worship Team and Boston’s ubiquitous surf-rock outfit Surf’s Up, Spicoli! Other notable acts include sing-along roots rockers Tallahassee, zany elecropop-punk duo Streight Angular and Berlin’s emotive, theatrical Nickel & Dime Band.

“We try to be as versatile as possible,” says Moynihan, who curates the lineup with Berlin. “We didn’t want it to the be the ‘friends of Shamus and Rick festival.’ So we had a lot of people apply. And we get to hear a lot of great new music from this town.”

The festival is held at the Pinebank Baseball Field, a grassy hilltop expanse ringed by trees and overlooking Jamaica Pond. The steep slope, it turns out, is an ideal spot for cardboard slides, a whimsical contribution from the JP-based community arts organization Spontaneous Celebrations, which is again heading up the festival’s family programming.

“The location is one of the most beautiful spots in the city,” says Nicoll. “Last year there were dragonflies. I don’t know where they came from. It was very magical.”

“Magical,” it seems, is the theme that the festival’s organizers inevitably land on. Moynihan, Berlin, and Nicoll can’t quite believe that they have managed to pull off the same ever-expanding feat three times in a row. Their nonprofit depends completely on live music fundraisers, auctions, sponsorships from local businesses and donations from citizens to meet its budget, the majority of which goes towards event operations and equipment. That goal is never easy to reach, even with massive involvement by local talent and the community at large.

There have been memorable moments, too many to count: a Cambridge Symphony Orchestra flash mob, a performance by Gordon Gano of the acclaimed alternative rock band Violent Femmes. For Moynihan, something crystallized last summer. After an 8 a.m. start and four hours of frantic setup, he had sat down among a thin audience to catch a couple of bands. Forty minutes later, when he stood up and turned around, the crowd had quadrupled.

“They’re just coming in from every corner, just waves and waves of people,” he recalls. “You’re just looking around, lost for words.”

The next day, Moynihan returned to the park for a final sweep. The field was quiet, serene. A pair of drumsticks and a paper napkin, discarded there in the grass, were all that remained of the immensity, the brightness, of the day before.

“It’s kind of like, you were there, or you weren’t. It’s that kind of thing,” explains Berlin. “So it has that magic immediacy.”

Amelia Mason is a writer, musician, and bartender living in Somerville. She is a regular contributor to The ARTery. You can follow her on Twitter @shmabelia and Tumblr.

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