ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT *9/30/2010 When Jamie Berger began planning four days of events -- including local musicians and nationally known comedians -- to raise money and awareness for The Thrive Project, he came up with an "assignment" for participating musicians.
Date: September 30, 2010 Section: a&e
"My idea," he says, "was to have a lot of people perform, and each do two cover songs that have helped them thrive or inspired them to be a musician. I was thinking that people would go back to the first song or artist that got them going." "I told everyone I invited to be in it that they could break the rules all they want. But so far, people seem to really like the rules."
The Thrive Project, which has its grand opening Sunday, will offer experiences, inspiration, support and role models for area young adults, 18-30.
While better known as co-owner of The Rendezvous in Turners Falls, Berger also teaches freshman English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. So, doling out homework-like tasks can be second nature to him.
Local legend Ray Mason says he's been slinging his sacred Sears Silvertone guitar to Pioneer Valley gigs since starting his first band in Holyoke in 1966. He says he was at first stumped by the assignment: "I don't really do covers I mainly write my own songs."
He's leaning toward playing the Terry Adams' NRBQ song "Magnet." "I love the way he words things," Mason explains. "I'm like a magnet/You're like a piece of wood/We can't get together/It doesn't make me feel too good.' That's inspiring to me as a songwriter. And, NRBQ was inspiring to me as a band."
Mason goes on to say that he, in various rock incarnations, has opened over 30 shows for "the Q" starting in 1972. "To me, there's, like, The Beatles, and The Band and NRBQ. They're that good."
For his other cover song, Mason's choosing something slightly unexpected for such a grizzled road warrior: the sweet and sexy "Yes I'm Ready" by Barbara Mason (no relation). He calls it a "classic soul ballad" from the mid-'60s. "It's such a romantic love song. I love it."
In contrast with Mason's pioneering position in Pioneer Valley musical lore, Heather Maloney, a singer-songwriter from Turners Falls, is a relative beginner who has been playing out for about two years. For one of her covers, she will do a Joni Mitchell song. In a recent e-mail, Maloney says, "She has been an inspiration to me as a solo female artist who was able to maintain fierce independence as a songwriter in an era of music that was even more male-dominated than it is today."
For her second cover, Maloney chooses one she admits is "dorky": Mariah Carey's "Can't Take That Away." While she describes the lyrics as "cheesy," she adds the song was "so inspiring to me at the time, when I was, like, 13. I think she's reminding herself of her own strength and love in situations where others might be trying to break her down."Michael Metivier, another Turners Falls resident, says the music he performs is rooted in folk and country traditions, "but the songs themselves are not necessarily linear or traditional singer-songwriter stuff. It's more dreamlike and open-ended."
Metivier, who is a member of Oweihops, thought long and hard about which covers to play because he wanted to choose something that would convey "the right message for this event." Finally, he decided on a tune from a group named Songs: Ohia. He says "Didn't It Rain," "is a melancholy song but the lyrics are about asking for help, that it's OK to ask other people for help and also offering help to other people who need it. I like that message and I think it might resonate with people who are afraid to ask for help."
His other choice is "Somewhere Else to Be" by The Handsome Family, which, he says, "is about finding inspiration in mundane moments and being open to small details that otherwise seem unworthy or unpoetic."
And all that is just for the Thursday Opening Night of what Berger is labeling "The First Annual Thrive Fest." Besides the above, other solo acoustic acts will be on hand, such as Jazer Giles, Levin Schwartz, Jason Mazzotta, Peter Seigel and Nathan Hobbs. The show starts at 9 p.m. at The Rendezvous.
Friday night, also at The 'Voo, features local indie rockers Winterpills; Rusty Belle, the Amherst-based group that plays an eclectic blues-folk mix and lists among its influences Etta James, Tom Waits, Leadbelly, Lightning Hopkins, Nina Simone, and "going to the dump"; Zack Holmes, who describes his music as "experimental, fusion and progressive"; and Hilary Graves, who is part of Ghost Quartet, a jazz/funk/blues aggregation Berger says is "almost our house band at Thrive" because their young members are among the target demographic for young adults he hopes will become part of the new program.
Saturday night will switch venues to the Montague Elks Lodge and also switch into comedy mode as four funny men with national reputations will take over. Eugene Mirman, so brilliant on HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" among many other credits, returns to western Massachusetts, an area to which he has many ties. Speaking from his home in Brooklyn, Mirman says that, as a graduate of Hampshire College and as someone whose girlfriend is an Amherst native, he returns to these parts as often as once a month.
Mirman is also on the advisory board of Thrive and thinks its target age-group, from 18 to 30, is largely ignored by agencies and others offering assistance and mentoring. "Lots of people want to help kids," says Mirman. "People don't often try to help those a bit older."
As a comic, Mirman was not asked to do any covers that inspired him. But, if he was asked, he would choose music by Velvet Underground and Robyn Hitchcock and comedy by Emo Phillips.
His connection to this area runs so deep that he and some others are in the process of putting together a proposed TV pilot for the FX network. He calls it "a cartoon series set in western Mass. I like western Mass. a lot and I'm so familiar with it and it really fit into what we were doing with the cartoon."
Joining Mirman will be Michael Showalter, co-writer of the cult film hit "Wet Hot American Summer." He is also part of MTV's comedy troupe The State, was briefly a correspondent on "The Daily Show," and is one-half of the Michael and Michael duo, with Michael Ian Black, on the eponymous Comedy Central series.
Rounding out the bill will be A.D. Miles, head writer and frequent performer on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," and Leo Allen, who has appeared on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and whose writing credits range widely from "Saturday Night Live" to "The New York Times Magazine."
On Sunday, from 1 to 6 p.m., the events conclude with an open house at the new Thrive Project headquarters at 37 Third St. in Turners Falls.
All in all, it's an ambitious extended program of entertainment for an ambitious social undertaking. In its mission statement, Berger describesThrive as a place where young adults can receive free services "that include tutoring, training, and standardized-test preparation: apprenticeships with local artisans, trades people, businesses, and grants and scholarshipsThrive also provides a place to use computers, get and give advice, research careers, and engage with others in their community in a variety of productive ways." It will serve "all of Franklin County and beyond."
Through this series of events, Berger hopes, of course, to raise some money for Thrive -- all performers are donating their time. However, that's not the only goal. "We want to raise awareness. That's why I made it as big as I could. We want the word to get out about Thrive. We need donors, we need volunteers, we need mentors, we need grant writers, fundraisers, and we need Thrivers -- the young people themselves that we'll serve," he said.
Berger feels that it's all about giving people "breaks." "I was born with the break of having two middle-class parents who, from a very early age, were incredibly supportive in every way. And from that break came a million other breaks. The reason these people who I really like aren't doing what they'd like to do with their lives is that they haven't had that break -- usually in the form of another person -- to help them change."
He wants Thrive to help those young folks get those breaks. "This feels good," he says. "It's what I should be doing."
Fred DeVecca is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Conway.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.