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Entertainment Highlights: Contra Dance Mainstay Northern Spy to Sound Its Final Notes

Thursday, November 12, 2015
While celebrating their band’s 35th anniversary at Norwich’s Tracy Hall this weekend, you can count on the musicians of Northern Spy to play some French-Canadian tunes, at least one English country dance from the 1600s, maybe a Celtic hornpipe or a southern-Appalachian reel.

Just don’t expect them to play the blues during their last performance as an ensemble.

“Very few groups stay together as long as Spy has,” pianist and arranger Carol Compton of Keene, N.H., a member since the mid-1990s, said this week during the countdown to the band’s self-described “Last Waltz” at Saturday night’s contra dance. “Our love of the music, our belief in the importance of this kind of community-based, participatory activities for all ages and experience levels, the joy we get out of playing with other musicians — these are the things that kept the group going for 35 years, and they are all still important.”

While this form of music and dance remains important to Compton and her six colleagues, turnout at Northern Spy’s Second Saturday dances has waned and the audience has aged. The same trend has been dogging the Fourth Saturday gatherings at Tracy Hall, with which the band Cuckoo’s Nest parted ways last spring. Northern Spy founder and fiddler Bill Shepard, of Thetford Center, now is working with the nonprofit Muskeg Music and other dance devotees to keep the dances going over the next year, including the recruitment of nationally-renowned caller Nils Fredlund to direct four dances in 2016. Whether there will be dances in December remains to be seen.

At the same time, Shepard and his collaborators are hoping to find a long-term mechanism for scheduling bands and callers and, in the process, to attract the kinds and the numbers of young dancers and musicians who fueled a robust contra dance scene in the heart of the Upper Valley in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I’m not 26 anymore,” Shepard, who also performs with the band Blind Squirrel, said Wednesday. “These are the sorts of things that Spy stepped in to do after Muskeg stepped back.”

Around the same time that Cuckoo’s Nest, which shared some musicians with Northern Spy, stepped away from playing for and promoting the Fourth Saturday dances at Tracy Hall, members of Northern Spy, particularly caller David Millstone and Compton, began talking about exit strategies.

“I finally hit the wall in organizing the dances for Cuckoo’s Nest,” Northern Spy mandolin player, sound-system schlepper, public-address announcer and publicity czar Rick Barrows said on Tuesday. “We’d gone from 50 or 60 people coming for Fourth Saturday down to the 40s. Then David and Carol were saying, ‘Maybe it’s a good time to stop.’”

Millstone remembers alternating between playing hammered dulcimer and calling the dances during Northern Spy’s first year upstairs at Lebanon’s Carter Community Building, before becoming the regular caller as the dances moved to Etna’s Trumbull Hall for a decade, then rotated among a mix of venues before settling at Tracy Hall. He said on Tuesday that he began wondering in recent years whether Northern Spy’s time as the organizing force was passing, while he missed more of the local dances to meet dance-calling commitments around the United States and in Europe.

“We decided that something different needed to happen,” Millstone said. “We really felt it was important for there to be new energy running the dances. For instance, none of us are avid users of social media. We aren’t designing flashy websites to bring in a younger crowd. We needed someone more grounded in those areas.”

Barrows ran and danced with a younger crowd of his own, after moving to the Upper Valley in the early 1980s.

“I went to a dance upstairs at the CCB, and while I remember having a great time, it never occurred to me to go back,” Barrows recalled. “But a seed was planted.”

It sprouted a few years later, when he attended some jam sessions and practices with other area musicians, among them a bass player in his household whom Northern Spy was courting.

“I just kept showing up,” Barrows said. “I learned how to keep up and fit in. There’s an awful lot of notes you have to play, and I wasn’t going to be able to play them all, but I learned how to play some of the right notes in the right places.”

In the mid-1980s, Spy became the right place for fiddler Andy Stewart, a lawyer who recalls attending square dances during the 1940s at his three-room schoolhouse in West Fairlee, and taking up the fiddle while in law school. Mary Jo Slattery, now Stewart’s wife, started learning the guitar in 1990, and a few years later began watching Spy rehearsals.

“After about a year,” Slattery said last week, “(then-musical director) Margaret Fanning said, ‘Are you going to join the band?’ ”

Thus has a parade of area musicians flowed into and out of Northern Spy over the years, Stewart said, bringing with them expertise in many genres and traditions, expertise they adapted to the prime directive of contra dance.

“It’s all about the dancers,” said Stewart, now 76. “The beat has to be there for them. The dancers rule, definitely.”

Now, Stewart and his bandmates hope that a new generation can step lively and keep the beat in Norwich.

“Thirty-five years ago, Spy picked up the tradition of local dances from our predecessors,” Compton said. “It is my belief that our retirement simply provides an opportunity for others to pick up the tradition and carry it forward.

“And I plan to be out on the dance floor when they do.”

Northern Spy will perform for the last time as an ensemble during the Second Saturday Contradance at Tracy Hall in Norwich on Saturday night. The dancing begins at 7:30 under longtime caller David Millstone. Beginners and singles are welcome. Bring a change of clean shoes, as well as a potluck snack. Admission is $5 to $8 for ages 16 and older, by donation for seniors. For more information, call 802-785-4607. Muskeg Music will put on a contra dance at Tracy Hall on Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m., with Liz and Dan Faiella setting the rhythm and David Kaynor calling the dances. Admission is $5 to $8, with a dollar discount for members of Muskeg Music.

Best Bets

At a dance benefiting the Neighbor Helping Neighbor program on Friday night, the central Vermont-based band Jeanne & the Hi-Tops will provide a soundtrack of blues, soul and roots rhythms at Barrett Hall in South Strafford. Donations of $10 are suggested. For more information, call Stephen Marx at 802-765-4059.

∎ In a tsunami of musical woman-power, the Flying Monkey Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H., will host country dynamo Lee Ann Womack, indie-folk idol Ani DiFranco and Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Rhiannon Giddens this weekend. Womack hits the stage at 7:30 on Friday night, with tickets going for between $44 and $49. Preceding Di Franco, who is touring her new album Allergic to Water, to the microphone on Saturday at 7:30 will be the Americana/folk duo Mike + Ruthy; tickets, of which very few remained available on Wednesday, cost $45 to $55. Giddens, on a solo tour, performs on Sunday starting at 7:30; admission is $35 to $45. To reserve seats and learn more, visit or call 603-536-2551.

∎ Singer-songwriter Durg (aka Sharon Academy math and science teacher Christian Durgin) will perform at the Main Street Museum in White River Junction on Saturday night, during the release party for his new CD One Chance. Joining Durg on stage will be guitarist Pat Gochez, bassist Michal Mancini and drummer George Laliotis. The doors open at 7:30, and the music begins at 8. Admission is by donation of $5 to $15. For more information, visit

∎ For the last stop of the East Coast swing of his American Songster tour, Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder and roots-music multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons will lead his new trio into Randolph’s Chandler Music Hall on Saturday night at 7:30. For tickets ($5 to $20 general admission) and more information, visit or call 802-728-6464.

Looking Ahead

Saxophonist/pianist and jazz educator Fred Haas is inviting musicians and singers as well as visual artists and all devotees of music to Woodstock’s Norman Williams Public Library next Thursday night, for a jam session of jazz. Before the music starts at 7, Haas will lead a discussion of the place of the jam session in music history. While admission is free, musicians aiming to join the session should visit to RSVP.

Theater/Performance Art

Comedian Bob Marley will fire up his joke machine at the Claremont Opera House on Friday night at 8. The veteran of more than 100 television appearances and a Guinness Book of World Records run of 40 straight hours of stand-up has toured North America and Europe and performed for military audiences in the Middle East. For tickets ($27.50) and more information, visit or the box office in Claremont City Hall, or call 603-542-4433.

∎ The ArtisTree Theatre Company will wrap its production of the Neil Simon comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor at Hartland’s Damon Hall this weekend with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and on Sunday afternoon at 5. To reserve tickets and learn more, visit or call 802-457-3500.

∎ Dartmouth College’s theater department concludes its run of Don Juan Comes Back from the War, Christopher Hampton’s translation of Odon von Horvath’s 1936 dark comedy imagining the legendary ladies’ man finding himself the last man on Earth, with performances at Moore Theater on Friday and Saturday nights at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2. For tickets ($10 to $12) and more information, visit or call 603-646-2422.

∎ ValleyImprov is inviting devotees of improvisational comedy to its weekly practice sessions on Tuesday night at 7 in downtown Lebanon, either Lebanon Opera House or the First Congregational Church on the opposite side of Colburn Park. For more information and practice location, email Rebecca Byars at

∎ Northern Stage opens its run of the musical adaptation of Mary Poppins with a preview staging on Wednesday night at its new Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. This and the subsequent previews, next Thursday, Nov. 19 and Friday, Nov. 20, start at 7:30, as does the official opening night on Nov. 21. For tickets ($30) to the previews and more information about the show, which will continue through Jan. 3, visit

∎ North Country Community Theatre will kick off its production of Lee Blessing’s Cold War drama A Walk in the Woods next Thursday night at 7:30 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. Based on a series of off-the-table conversations between negotiations over nuclear arms in 1982, the play stars Kevin Fitzpatrick as the Russian negotiator and Alan Haehnel as his American counterpart, under the direction of Linda Neubelt. Subsequent stagings are scheduled for 7:30 the nights of Nov. 20 and 21 and for 3 in the afternoon of Nov. 22. For tickets ($20) and more information, visit


Chad Hollister will lead his quintet into Pierce’s Inn in Etna on Friday night to top off a Feast and Fest show. The feast portion begins with cocktails and appetizers at 6, followed by the main course at 7. The music starts around 8:30. For reservations ($65) and more information, visit, email or call 603-643-2997.

∎ Under the direction of Walt Cunningham and with the backing of a 20-piece band on Saturday afternoon, the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir will fill Spaulding Auditorium with traditional and rhythm-and-blues-tinged spirituals on the theme of “Over and Over … He Keeps on Blessing Me!” The music starts at 2. For tickets ($10 to $15) and more information, visit or call 603-646-2422.

∎ Kim Wilcox and Anthony Funari of The Wheelers will perform pop, classic rock and reggae as a duo at the SILO Distillery in Windsor on Saturday afternoon from noon to 3. For more information, call 802-674-4220.

∎ With David Wysocki conducting, the Upper Valley Music Center Community Orchestra will perform works of Bizet and Dvorak at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction on Sunday afternoon at 3. Admission is free to the concert, which will take place at the auditorium in Building 4A. For more information, visit

∎ The Handel Society of Dartmouth College will tackle the 18th-century master’s Messiah on Tuesday night at 7 at Spaulding Auditorium. To reserve tickets ($10 to $20) and learn more, visit or call 603-646-2422.

Bar and Club Circuit

Singer-songwriter Chris Powers will play at Bentley’s in Woodstock tonight at 8.

∎ The Road Trash Band will pull into Windsor Station tonight at 7 to tune up for an America’s Got Talent appearance. Next to the microphone over the coming week will be the Lynguistic Civilians on Friday night at 10, The Squids on Saturday night at 9:30 and folk singer-songwriter Dave Richardson on Tuesday night at 6.

∎ The jazz tandem of singer Sabrina Brown and pianist Fred Haas will perform at the Canoe Club in Hanover tonight starting at 6:30. Following them to the microphone with 6:30 to 9:30 performances over the coming evenings will be jazz pianist Norm Yanofsky on Friday, pianist Gillian Joy on Saturday, guitarist Stuart Ross Johnson on Sunday, jazz pianist Bob Lucier on Tuesday and singer/pianist Tom Lord on Wednesday. And on Monday night starting at 5:30, Marko the Magician will perform his tableside sleight-of-hand.

∎ Crown Point Country Club’s Table 19 restaurant in Springfield, Vt., this weekend features Enfield native singer-songwriter Hannah Hoffman on Friday night starting at 6 and singer-guitarist Mike Kelley on Saturday night at 6.

∎ About Gladys will play rock and funk at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon on Friday night starting at 9. Saturday night at the same time, Acoustic Truffle takes the stage for a set of Americana and rock.

∎ Jim Roberts and Doug Morse will perform their mix of rock, blues and folk at Jesse’s restaurant in Hanover on Friday night starting at 5.

∎ The dance band Club Soda swings through Salt hill Pub in Hanover to play its mix of rock and soul on Friday night at 9, followed on Saturday at the same starting time by Alex Smith and the Mountain Sound playing Americana, rock and folk.

∎ Singer-guitarist Jason Cann leads his Wherehouse trio into Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland Four Corners on Friday night at 9.

∎ The weekend line-up at Salt hill Pub in Newport features acoustic rocker Tim Gurshin on Friday night at 9, and the rock rhythms of Flew-Z starting at 9 on Saturday night.

Open Mics

The ArtisTree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret will host its next monthly open mic tonight at 7, with Jim Yeager directing traffic.

∎ Ramunto’s Brick & Brew Pizza in Bridgewater hosts an open mic starting at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Participants get a free large cheese pizza.

∎ At Salt hill in Lebanon, Brian Warren and Seth Barbiero will host an open mic tonight starting at 8.

∎ String players of all ages and abilities are welcome at the weekly acoustic jam session at South Royalton’s BALE Commons on Friday night from 6:30 to 10.

∎ Bradford’s Colatina Exit holds an open mic on Tuesdays at 8 p.m.

∎ The Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon runs an open mic on Tuesday nights, beginning at 8.

∎ Jim Yeager hosts an open mic at Hartland’s Skunk Hollow Tavern, at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

David Corriveau can be reached at and at 603-727-3304.

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