By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter
Holly Near filled the Unitarian Society in Northampton to capacity — twice — concluding a rare tour late this past October.
The stop in Northampton was more than luck for local fans. In addition to the appeal of the city’s large lesbian population — a demographic in which Near has had an enthusiastic following since the 1970s — Near has a long connection with the event’s producer, Barbara Allen of Wildrose Productions. The two have known each other for so long neither remembers when they met.
“Holly and I couldn’t remember, either 1974 or 1975,” Allen said, “when I helped produce a Women On Wheels concert in Los Angeles, featuring Near, Cris Williamson, Margie Adam and Meg Christian. Since then I’ve produced Holly individually several times over the years in California, as well as, in the mid ’90s, a sold-out performance at the Academy of Music.”
Near was joined this tour by her longtime pianist, John Bucchino, and Laura Love, a “folk/funk” singer/songwriter and bassist. Together, they performed two sets, sometimes harmonizing, other times letting one voice or musical element take center stage.
“I loved listening to Holly and Laura weave their strong voices in dynamic harmonies,” said Allen. “John’s musical genius on piano was obvious. I felt the energy pouring off the stage and through the audience.”
As a cultural phenomenon for four decades, Near’s been around long enough for several generations to become familiar with — and passionate about — her work. Fans were eager to share the experience with the younger generation, evidenced by numerous older attendees who brought children and grandchildren to the show.
At one performance, Holly Near welcomed a surprise guest: singer Evelyn Harris. Audience members had started to head out of the Great Hall for intermission, but instead stopped and applauded as the two embraced.
“Holly is a true activist and artist in every sense,” Harris said. “She is a thoughtful risk-taker when it comes to her stage show as evidenced by the inclusion of Laura Love. Their voices are the same timbre so they blend effortlessly and her vocals as a solo and a harmonizer filled all the musical spaces.”
“Holly is a trooper, reinventing her career over the decades to stay current and relevant,” Harris continued. Harris’ own acclaimed musical career also began in the 1970s.
For many who attended, Near’s music has played a formative role in their personal and cultural history.
“My mother introduced me to Holly’s music when I was fairly young. I can still remember the bemused looks I got when auditioning for school plays by belting out ‘Mountain Song,’” said local folk singer-songwriter, Arjuna Greist, who attended the recent performance. “Holly has always spoken to me as an artist with a clear vision, a strong voice, and an open heart, who knows how to fill a song with inspiration and information without being sappy or giving a lecture.”
Near is known as much for being an activist and educator as for being an award-winning singer-songwriter. She is proud of the fact that her work has never depended on the support of “big record companies and corporations” — particularly significant during her recent tour, as the Occupy Wall Street/”We Are the 99 percent” movement against corporate greed and economic disparities spread to hundreds of cities across the world. In one break between songs, Near talked about attending one of the recent Occupy protests and sharing concern with a young man about the conspicuous absence of the generation between them.
Greist finds Near’s ongoing independent success inspiring.
“She is the kind of musician I strive to be,” Greist said. “Seeing her give a sold-out concert, alongside Laura Love, another performer I greatly admire, proved to me that independent artists can thrive.”
Near is currently compiling documentation of the music and activism of the four decades of her career. On her website, Near is asking fans to submit their memories from any show in her long history, to help tell the “untold stories.” In tough times, when many wallets are thin and belts are tight, live music performances can seem like a luxury. Holly Near’s music fed a real hunger in her audience.
“Holly is such a charismatic storyteller and political activist, the audience left emotionally filled and re-fueled from this show,” producer Allen said.
“There will always be an audience hungry for good music that reaches beyond the superficial into the places that really matter,” added Greist. “People are frightened and weary these days, and Holly’s concert provided a respite through humor, harmony, and a sense of community.”
In these times, Allen thinks creative works are far more than luxuries. Wildrose Productions is committed to producing cultural works — whether live events or film productions — that have deeper meaning. Though the name may not ring a bell, Allen’s work has been in the public eye for years. Her documentary, “Young At Heart Chorus, The Early Years” can be found online at youngatheartchorus.net.
Now, Allen is codirecting Northampton’s Pride March, “turning it around from marching out of town to marching to Veteran’s Field,” she said. “Currently, I’m working on a film about a gay elder and I am writing a lesbian dramatic film which I plan to produce. … I believe though art and music we can, and will, change the world.”
To learn more about Holly Near’s historical documentation project, visit hollynear.com.