Out & About: 'Americana' at Ossipee Valley Music Festival

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One of southern Maine’s most anticipated summer events takes place this weekend: The Ossipee Valley Music Festival features a variety of acts loosely grouped under the “Americana” rubric. More than a dozen groups will play Thursday through Sunday at an attractive alfresco setting in South Hiram.

The mesmerizing, throbbing beat of disco dance tunes can be experienced indoors in Brunswick, where Maine State Music Theatre is running a fully professional production of “Saturday Night Fever.”

The music of Elton John and Billy Joel will echo through the rafters of Deertrees Theatre on Saturday, when Portland pianist-vocalist Joe Boucher and friends perform “Piano Men” in Harrison.

Ossipee Valley Music Festival

Two dozen musical acts performing over four days on two stages and a dance barn. Plus workshops, competitions and eating opportunities galore. That’s the basic formula for one of southern Maine’s most popular summertime happenings, the annual Ossipee Valley Music Festival.

I’ve been a regular attendee for about 15 years, and I’ve made plans to be there this weekend.

When it began exactly 20 years ago, host and director Bill Johnson booked mostly bluegrass bands, but over the past decade he’s expanded his festival’s vision to include a number of offshoots and related genres. Mostly they fall within the general description of “Americana,” a rather broad category.

Johnson mixes Maine bands, New England ensembles and national touring artists. Top billing for 2018 goes to Dustbowl Revival slated for the No. 1 spot on Friday night, and the Wood Brothers, who get the prime slot on Saturday.

Dustbowl Revival is based in California. Seven men play a traditional string band with drums and horns added, plus a female vocalist. Songs are mostly originals.

The Wood Brothers hail from Nashville, and their offerings are mostly Americana variations. They’re currently on tour promoting “One Drop of Truth,” their sixth album. Songs are mostly originals.

Other acts with national reputations are Mile Twelve, Wiyos, Town Mountain, Upstate Rubdown and Billy Strings.

Most exotic? Hailing from Tuva, a republic of the southern Siberia region, Alash is a group of masters of traditional Tuvan instruments and of throat singing, a remarkable technique for simultaneously sounding multiple pitches at harmonic frequencies.

Closer to home, New England Bluegrass, based in seacoast New Hampshire, is very traditional. Lula Wiles, based in Boston, is an all-female trio. The Bagboys are from greater Boston. Ditto Lonely Heartstring Band.

Two Maine ensembles are the longtime duo of Harvey Reid and Joyce Andersen, from York, plus Tricky Britches, a Portland-based bluegrass foursome.

Performances are scheduled for three venues: Main Stage, Stage Too and the dance barn.

The Ossipee Valley Music Festival runs Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon at the Ossipee Valley Fairground in South Hiram. Visit OssipeeValley.com.

‘Saturday Night Fever’

Figuring out who you are, who and where you want to be and how to get there. Those are among life’s most interesting challenges. And they’re also the elements for many stage dramas.

One of the most interesting is “Saturday Night Fever,” the 1999 Broadway musical based on the hugely successful 1977 film of the same name with a score that mostly comprises hit disco tunes written and originally performed by the Bee Gees.

It’s easy to disparage “Saturday Night Fever” as a spectacular disco-dance showcase, and I’ve been guilty of that attitude myself. But when I saw Maine State Music Theatre’s current production this past weekend, I was reminded that “Saturday Night Fever” has a really fine book, by Robert Stigwood based on a short story by Nik Cohn, with interesting and engaging characters.

The principals are 19-year-old Tony Manero, who holds a dead-end job, lives in a dysfunctional family and hangs around with dead-end friends. But on Saturday nights, Tony’s king of the dance floor at his local Brooklyn disco. There he meets Stephanie Mangano, a beautiful 20-year-old dancer who has a very definite and somewhat comic plan to move across the East River to Manhattan and move up in the world.

The pair enter a dance competition, and their budding romance – with complications and side plots – structures the story and drives the action.

I loved Jacob Tischler as struggling Tony and Alexandra Matteo as his elusive love interest. Both are convincing actors with fine voices and sensational dance moves.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “Saturday Night Fever” through Aug. 4 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit MSMT.org.

‘Piano Men’

The music of two of the most successful pop musicians of our time will be performed Saturday, when Deertrees Theatre and Arts Center presents “Piano Men,” a show that features the songs of Elton John and Billy Joel backed by a small orchestral ensemble.

“Piano Men” was created by two Mainers, pianist-vocalist Joe Boucher, who fronts the show, and Chris Eastburn, who plays bass guitar and wrote the orchestrations.

John and Joel are exceptionally successful singer-songwriters with nearly identical performance styles: singer seated at piano with backup band. John, who grew up in London, wrote (with lyricist Bernie Taupin) and performed a string of hits beginning in the 1970s, including “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Daniel,” “Rocket Man,” “Levon,” “Honky Cat” and “Crocodile Rock.” In his 50 years in the music business, John has sold more than 300 million records. Honors include five Grammy Awards.

Joel’s career runs nearly parallel. A native New Yorker, Joel’s hits, all of which he wrote, include “Movin’ Out,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and of course, “Piano Man.” He has won five Grammys and sold about 150 million records.

Boucher performs all these songs and more. He’s backed by a three-man rock ensemble: Eastburn on bass guitar, Gary Backstrom on lead guitar and Steve Hodgkin on drums. Boucher and Eastburn created the show for performance on symphony orchestras’ pops programs. I’ve seen “Piano Men” with the Southern Maine Symphony and the Portland Symphony. They’ve also appeared with at least four other orchestras around the country.

For smaller venues, Eastburn pared the orchestrations down to a string quartet, and that’s also been popular. When they debuted their small-scale version of “Piano Men” at Deertrees two years ago, I attended and I was tremendously impressed with the show, the showmanship and the enthusiastic audience reception. Plus artistic and executive director Andrew Harris said they ranked as Deertrees’ top ticket seller for the season.

Catch “Piano Men” at 7:30 p.m. July 28 at Deertrees Theatre and Arts Center, 156 Deertrees Road in Harrison. Call 583-6747.

Lonely Heartstring Band is one of more than a dozen acts that are slated to appear at this weekend’s Ossipee Valley Music Festival.

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