Music Festival Preview: Lowell’s The Town and The City — “A Passion Project”

By Paul Robicheau

The Town and The City Festival honors the “spirit of [Jack] Kerouac, a celebration of exploration, discovery, love of life, those things that he wrote about.”

Booker Chris Porter — bringing his skills to Lowell, his “old hometown.” Photo: Peter Dervin

For the past 26 years, Chris Porter spent the bulk of his time on the West Coast, booking huge music events from Bumbershoot to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. But his heart belonged to Lowell, the Massachusetts city where Porter grew up and then returned to create The Town and The City Festival, his self-proclaimed “passion project,” now in its fourth year on April 28-29.

“Bringing my skills to my old hometown,” says Porter, whose local history includes booking bands at Boston clubs like the Middle East, Mama Kin, and Once Ballroom.

NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner Alisa Amador will perform at The Town and The City Festival. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Named after the earliest novel of Lowell icon Jack Kerouac, The Town and The City Festival keeps the Mill City’s small downtown theaters, clubs, taverns, and galleries bustling. The 2023 fest features out-of-town notables John Doe of L.A. punk band X, Rhett Miller of country-rockers the Old 97’s, and indie-rocker Ted Leo. But at least 80 percent of the lineup will be devoted to regional or locally based artists, led by Buffalo Tom, Dalton & the Sheriffs, Pile, Vapors of Morphine, Peter Mulvey & Sista Strings, Robin Lane, Ali McGuirk, and NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner Alisa Amador.

The festival honors the “spirit of Kerouac, a celebration of exploration, discovery, love of life, those things that he wrote about,” Porter says, adding, “I like to have some literary or poetic elements to it — and one year we did a musical tribute to Kerouac.”

Prose and music will mix this year in a special edition of the performance series Earfull with two locally launched musicians who have become nationally known authors. Warren Zanes, a co-founder of the Del Fuegos and former VP of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, will present his new book on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, while Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz will read from his new book (Arts Fuse review) about Leon Russell.

“I’m a great admirer of Warren’s writing,” says Janovitz, who recalls moderating a Café 939 event on the occasion of Zanes’s 2015 Tom Petty biography and playing some Petty tunes. “He also brings what I feel like I bring to books, the experience — having been in the band, been in vans, been in the backstages over and over again, never mind the recording studios.… It’s a comfortable playing field when you’re talking to musicians, which is the bulk of who I talked to for [my] book.”

Janovitz says he plans to perform a couple of Leon Russell songs, a Buffalo Tom tune, and (with Zanes’s blessing) Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” on Saturday.

On Friday, Janovitz will front Buffalo Tom at the Zorba Music Hall, the same room the trio played at the festival in 2019 before Covid forced a two-year delay for The Town and The City, which switched from a fall event to spring 2022 in the process.

“That room is like something out of ‘Kojak,’” Janovitz says with a laugh of Greek restaurant and entertainment space Zorba. “It’s like 1979 or something. I love it.”

Buffalo Tom (L-R Tom Maginnis, Bill Janovitz, and Chris Colbourn) will perform at The Town and The City. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Janovitz recognizes the charms of Lowell — beyond being just a 20-minute drive from his house. “You’re driving into a place like that, it’s like Americana,” he says. “Just the way the light hits off the mills makes you think of Hopper paintings.”

There will also be illumination at night along Lowell’s West Canal from hundreds of personalized lanterns set afloat for “Points of Light,” a free Saturday event with music from the UMass Lowell Cambodian music ensemble Wong Pleng Khmer and Lowell-rooted singer/songwriter Jen Kearney on Ecumenical Plaza. Outdoor elements will be a first this year for The Town and The City fest, Porter says.

While he wants people from Greater Lowell to attend the festival, Porter is looking beyond, from Boston to New Hampshire. “I want this to draw people to the city and have this be one of many things to help the whole creative community there.”

Full-festival passes and individual show tickets are both available for The Town and The City Festival.

Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.

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