Jack Kerouac-inspired art and music festival returns in Lowell

A performance during the 2019 The Town and The City Festival. (Courtesy Coleman Rogers)
A performance during the 2019 The Town and The City Festival. (Courtesy Coleman Rogers)

Jack Kerouac died in 1969, but his legacy lives on, especially in his hometown of Lowell with The Town and The City Festival, now in its third year. The two-day event, which takes its name from Kerouac’s first novel, published in 1950, will feature 50 musical acts.

As songs by Bruce Springsteen, Cheap Trick and Florida Georgia Line have put it, “It’s been a long time coming.” The Town and The City Festival, twice postponed due to COVID-19 driven shutdowns and regulations, will finally take place at multiple sites throughout the city April 8-9. Shows will play on seven stages on Friday and 10 on Saturday, with venue capacities ranging from 40 to 350.

While the festival is certainly meant to celebrate the writing and fame of its namesake and native son — this year represents his 100th birthday — promoter Chris Porter, a Lowell native himself, wants it known that modern-day Lowell is a pretty cool place to visit, for the arts, for the shops, for the restaurants and, especially this weekend, for the music.

The festival, typically held in the autumn, began in 2018 and continued the next year. Then, Porter says, “I started planning for 2020 and the inevitable happened, so we canceled that outright.” Then, the fall surge of the omicron variant pushed the festival once more.

Hence, the switch to this spring with a better chance for “relative normalcy,” Porter says. Another reason for the seasonal shift, he adds, had to do with the availabilities of some of the national artists on the bill, which include Robyn Hitchcock, Jon Langford and Screaming Females. Many are on the road, playing missed dates, and Porter had to do some juggling to fit everything together.

Langford — rock ‘n’ roll-bred in Leeds, England, but a longtime Chicagoan — was planning to bring a full band when the festival was slated for last fall. Adjustments were made and instead he’ll be appearing with violinist Jean Cook and accordionist Josh Kantor, also known in these parts as the Red Sox quirky organist. They’ll be playing Warp and Weft April 9.

The trio played The Outlaw Country Cruise in February and, last month, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. “We’re as close as it gets to being a well-honed unit at the moment,” the singer-guitarist says. “Having a bit of fun and we’re playing new stuff written during the pandemic, back catalogs of various bands, Waco Brothers and Mekons, solo stuff. It will be acoustic but me and Jean make a racket and I play acoustic guitar like a drum kit. It’ll be fun; people will be able to mosh.” (The “moshing” part would be a joke. You won’t want to mosh at Warp and Weft.)

Langford says he didn’t know much about Kerouac until he went to the University of Leeds. But he didn’t learn through a course he took. Langford was in an art studio and his friend and future co-leader of the Mekons, Tom Greenhalgh, was in the next room over. Langford wandered over, spied an open notebook and was really impressed by the prose.

“I was reading all these hand-written passages and I was hugely impressed,” Langford says. “I thought it was Tom’s diary. It was really strange.” Of course, it wasn’t. It was Greenhalgh, the Kerouac fan, transcribing chunks of the author’s words. He’d just come back from America, having read Kerouac.

Langford was intrigued and started to read that author’s works as well. “This guy had an amazing life,” he says. “We actually were lucky enough later to meet with [William] Burroughs and [Allen] Ginsberg and get to talk to them about him. The whole Beat thing is something that becomes inescapable as you grow older.”

The Newton-based Will Dailey is co-headlining a show with Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters at 5th Floor at Mill No. 5 on April 8. Dailey says his mother impressed Kerouac’s importance to him at a young age. “I read him in middle school and high school, and now I realize how wonderful it was to have that instilled so early,” he says. “Pushing a kid early can have a lasting effect.”

One lesson learned from Kerouac, Dailey says, “was not to just live outside the box but to live outside the world of boxes.”

To wit, when the singer-guitarist plays solo or in a duo format with a drummer, he makes out a set list, but never duplicates a set. “That’s the Kerouac factor,” the singer-guitarist says. “I will write a list so I don’t blank, but I react to what happened that day in our world. We’re so homogenized — there’s a Starbucks in every town — and I want the show to be something only for you. That you feel as special as you make me feel for being there. We’re supposed to remind each other of our humanity.”

Even if Dailey, who played 90 shows last year, isn’t certain of which songs he’ll play, a pretty sure bet will be “Broke My Calm.” “I’ve always taken Kerouac seriously,” he says, “and I’ve written a song based on his book, ‘Tristessa.’”

Donelly, a veteran of Throwing Muses and Belly, played her first gig since the pandemic last August with the Parkington Sisters, a Cape Cod-based string trio with whom she recorded an album of covers in 2020. That concert, she says, “felt good. We were deep into it, but a little nervous having a social moment after so long indoors. It was freeing and anxiety-provoking at the same time.”

For the Lowell show, the singer-guitarist will also be joined by guitarist Gail Greenwood, upright bassist Joe McMahon and drummer Matthias Bossi. (She also plans on joining Dailey and Aaron Perrino of The Sheila Divine during their sets.)

As to a Kerouac connection, Donelly says she and her daughter, Gracie, visited the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, a few years back. “On the Road,” she says, “is really a great book, obviously. My grandparents were Beats and very much in the Greenwich Village scene. They were really important to me on the politically motivated side of things. Kerouac and the Beats’ cultural importance was one of the tipping points where everything got pushed forward really quickly. His influence can’t be understated.”

Porter — who booked the Boston area clubs Bunratty’s, the Middle East and Mama Kin in the 1980s and ‘90s — made a big mark helming the internationally known Bumbershoot festival in Seattle from 1997 to 2014. He currently books the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) in San Francisco, but Lowell — and this Festival — has a special place in his heart.

Porter, who also serves as president of the board of The Kerouac Foundation, says the festival “is a nod to Jack and his spirit. It’s also a discovery and celebration of Lowell, the arts that are there, how walkable the city is.” If fans and artists “have an affinity for Kerouac, that’s a plus but not required. We wanted to do a small, eclectic festival that has grown gradually and organically, with artists who fit the landscape of Lowell.”

The Town and The City Festival takes place April 8-9 in Lowell.


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Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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