Concert Review: “Fort Nights” — A Celebration of Life and Community

By Paul Robicheau

Saturday night’s advertised performers paid robust homage to the late Gary Smith — the Fort Apache Studios owner, producer, and band manager — across three-and-a-half hours at the Somerville Theatre.

Bill Janovitz and Tanya Donelly in Fort Nights at Somerville Theatre. Photo: Paul Robicheau

“Music can’t change the world,” Billy Bragg told a sold-out Somerville Theatre on Saturday, but it provides “the power to make you believe the world can be changed.”

It was a philosophical topic the British singer/songwriter used to discuss with Gary Smith, the Fort Apache Studios owner, producer, and band manager who died from cancer last year at age 64 and was celebrated over the weekend with a pair of Somerville benefit concerts dubbed Fort Nights.

For the musicians onstage Saturday — and on Friday at the adjoining Crystal Ballroom — Smith certainly changed their worlds. He helped them realize their dreams, onetime Fort Apache co-owner Bragg said, championing their art over music-business pitfalls. Juliana Hatfield said, “He protected me from the vultures.” Throwing Muses mainstay Kristin Hersh recalled when Smith shared his childhood diary, providing a glimpse into the “chubby little sad kid” who grew into an “ambitious people person.” Yet the kid who felt hated and hated the world in return was still in there, she said, and made her “feel less alone.”

Jocie Adams of Arc Iris in Fort Nights at Somerville Theatre. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Friday’s Crystal Ballroom show offered more intimate collaborative surprises, along with sets by Buffalo Tom (which included a few chiming songs from its upcoming album Jump Rope), Thalia Zedek, and a reunited Fuzzy. During her set, Tanya Donelly — who helped organize the Fort Night shows — brought out saxophonist Dana Colley, whose band Morphine was another Fort Apache alum, and closed with a communal rendition of “All You Need Is Love” (CD singles of that Beatles song, a 1995 Fort Apache holiday release, were given away as merch). And Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz joined his sibling Scott in fronting the rhythm section of Cold Water Flat in a “Beautiful” tribute to bandleader brother Paul Janovitz, who also died last year.

But Saturday more closely stuck to a script of showcasing its advertised performers across three-and-a-half hours at the Somerville Theatre. To start, Donelly paired with Bill Janovitz for a few tunes they’ve done together before, “This Hungry Life” and “Salt” (which both metaphorically reference rain), in addition to a gorgeous, simpatico duet of Buffalo Tom’s “Frozen Lake.” They also dug into Tom Waits’s wistful “Take it With Me” (a flip on the old saying “You can’t take it with you”), sporting the killer line “All that you’ve loved is all you own.”

Next up was the young art-pop trio Arc Iris, who befriended Smith not when he ran Fort Apache in Roxbury or Cambridge, but after he relocated to the New Hampshire/Vermont border in the new millennium, reestablishing community through a public radio station and restaurant as well as visiting musicians. As such, Arc Iris was the bill’s lesser-known wild card, focusing on new material that fell between Kate Bush and Sylvan Esso in sound. Jocie Adams (once of the Low Anthem) topped synth and live drums with her coy, endearing voice, played glassy guitar and, in “Swipe Left,” manipulated her voice via pedals.

Kristin Hersh in Fort Nights at Somerville Theatre. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Hersh blew in like a March wind. Her slight smile as she sat and strummed acoustic guitar belied her songs’ intensity no matter the tone or tempo, her imagery writ large in dark turns. She began with 1992’s “City of the Dead,” one of three Muses choices, while favoring decade-old material that included solo tunes “Mississippi Kite” and “Krait,” whose lyric “To sunburst snarls, thrashing and parched” could have described her tightened voice as she ratcheted taut chords. When the 2020 Muses track “Kay Catherine” closed her solo set with the line “Oh, that gradient’s steep, let me sleep,” it was like a sigh of relief. And no, Hersh didn’t collaborate with stepsister and Muses co-founder Donelly.

If Hersh was a tough act to follow, rocker Hatfield benefited from the night’s introduction of the fine Fort Nights house band of drummer Chris Anzalone, bassist Ed Valauskas, guitarist Mike Oram, and keyboardist Elizabeth Steen. Hatfield also checked the diverse boxes of her past and recent catalog. She bookended her 40-minute set (nearly twice as long as those before) with her early ’90s hits “Everybody Loves Me But You” and the grungier “My Sister,” while mostly dipping into her recent cover albums. Hatfield captured the stridency of early Sting in the Police’s “Hole in My Heart,” the earnest twang in Olivia Newton-John’s “Please Mr. Please,” and the pop charms of ELO in “Telephone Line” and “Sweet Is the Night,” with its Beatlesque touches.

Billy Bragg in Fort Nights at Somerville Theatre. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Bragg graced the finale of Fort Nights with a sweeping near-hour-long set that (not surprisingly) highlighted both his songcraft and his politics. After fronting the band through the bracing kickoff “Accident Waiting to Happen,” he took an acoustic detour through his Mermaid Avenue albums with Wilco that put music to Woody Guthrie lyrics, rekindling “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” with accordion from Steen, who played it on record. Then Bragg turned lead vocals over to Adams for “I Was Born” (a play on the hands of the clock) and “Birds and Ships,” tunes that Natalie Merchant sang on record.

Assisted by Steen’s accordion, Bragg nodded to St. Patrick’s Day and the late Shane MacGowan with the Pogues’ “If I Should Fall From Grace With God.” But he also took a jab at the libertarians who took over Grafton, New Hampshire, with “Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free,” called for unions and free health care in “Rich Men Earning North of a Million,” and finally tackled pending elections in both the UK and US with “The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here No More.” The election in America, he said, amounts to one thing: “If anybody is above the law.”

After musing about the power of music, Bragg dedicated “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” to Smith to cap the set with a bang, then returned with electric guitar for a solo encore of his 1983 broadside “A New England.” The Somerville Theatre crowd was happy to commandeer its lighthearted chorus, heartily singing “I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl.” A grinning Bragg’s role in this celebration of life and community was over.

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.


  1. Clea Simon on March 19, 2024 at 7:03 pm

    Great review. Sorry we didn’t see you and Toni there on Friday (our only night of it), but lovely to read this recap. I couldn’t believe it was three-and-a-half hours. Really just flew by.

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