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Taj Mahal heats up Stearns Square Concert Series

Date: 7/25/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – For thousands of people on the evening of July 18, the 90-degree heat wasn’t an issue. Famed blues and world music artist – not to mention Springfield native – Taj Mahal was playing.

Mahal, who was raised in the Mason Square area of Springfield, ignored the heat and humidity as well and played a set of blues and folk numbers to the enthusiastic audience.

Don Courtemanche, executive director of the Springfield Business Improvement District (BID) that staged the performance as part of its Stearns Square Concert Series, said the attendance “was close to our typical crowd, between 5,000 and 6,000 [people].”

He added, “We had people set up their lawn chairs hours in advance to stake their claim on several square feet of real estate to see Taj Mahal.”

Courtemanche expects this year’s series to attract even more attention as he said the BID has “upped the ante of the caliber of the performers.” He said in years past people came to the concert series just to experience the event itself, but this year more people seem to be coming to watch the performers.

“There is a great balance,” he said of the schedule, “between national acts, local hardcore talent and a couple of tribute bands.”

Calling the concerts “the signature downtown event,” Courtemanche said that despite the cost of producing the performances, the rewards are great. The economic spin-off from the concert series is “huge,” he said.

“The bars and restaurants are full preceding and after the concerts,” he said. Courtemanche added the Springfield Parking Authority and the independent parking lots are full, another economic benefit.

Springfield restaurants have also been vendors at the concerts, which draw customers to their locations later on.

Although Courtemanche expressed there had been some concerns about starting the series two weeks later than usual due to the day of the week on which the Fourth of July fell this year, he said opening night drew “incredible crowds.”

The rest of this year’s schedule includes more blues and a tribute to Aerosmith. Berkshires-based country and western band Whiskey City will play with the Truck Stop Troubadours on Aug. 1.

Blues artist Anna Popovic will take the stage on Aug. 8 and prove the blues is an international medium. The acclaimed guitarist and singer was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia and began her career as a blues artist in Europe. She was nominated as “Blues Artist of the Year” by the readers of BluesWax Magazine in 2006. Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers will open for her.

Courtemanche said that teasers put on the concert Facebook page about Popovic’s appearance drew an enthusiastic response.

Legendary Cajun and zydeco artist Buckwheat Zydeco will return to Springfield on Aug. 15. The New York Times wrote of him, “Buckwheat leads one of the best party bands in America; he can pump out zydeco two-beats or shift into rolling 12-bar blues, steaming all the way.” Jamie Kent & The Options will open for him.

Courtemanche said that Buckwheat Zydeco was a personal favorite of his and is “a lot of fun.”

Western Massachusetts’ veteran rockers Fat with Springfield resident Peter Newland will also return to the stage at Stearns Square and perform on Aug. 22. The group re-united last November for a fundraiser for The Open Pantry. Janet Ryan & Straight Up will open.

Rhode Island-based Roomful of Blues is currently celebrating its 45th year performing blue sand swing music and will have released its new album, “45 Live” just days before its appearance in Springfield on Aug. 29. Soul of a Man will open.

Georgia Satellites is best known for merging Southern rock with straight ahead rock and roll with songs such its hit “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” among others on Sept. 5.

This year’s concert series will conclude on Sept. 12 with the songs of Aerosmith as performed by the tribute band Draw the Line. The Diamond Back Band will open.

The music starts at 6 p.m. at Stearns Square on Worthington Street.