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October 18, 2017

Local bands unite to play Earthfoods benefit concert

Earthfoods Café was transformed Thursday night from an ovo-lacto vegetarian eatery into a hipster hootenanny to benefit Haiti.

The round tables were pushed to the back corner, chairs upended on top. University of Massachusetts-based bands Grex, Bella’s Bartok and The Fine and Dandy Trio were slated to play for a suggested donation of $5 to benefit the survivors of the Jan. 12 earthquake in the small impoverished Caribbean country.

Members of Grex entered energetically just after 7:00, leaving their instruments around the tapestry-covered stage no bigger than a ping-pong table. A small crowd gathered outside the doors, while a few groups of twos, threes and fours dropped their jackets and bags in the front corner and started socializing.

In short time there were 20 or so people, and Tom Matherly and Zack Grey from Grex came in to pump up the audience with a quick banjo and drum set jam – driving bass drum hits and fast-strummed banjo. The talking level rose as more young folks drifted in.

The event was the brainchild of Bella’s Bartok’s drummer Mark Schilling, who first thought up the idea five days after the earthquake.

“I wanted to donate money [for Haiti] but I don’t have much money as it is. I figured I could do much better by using the resources that I had and do something semi-big,” said Schilling. “I really wanted to do it earlier rather than later just because now is when people really need money the worst. I knew if I sat on it, it probably wouldn’t happen.”

Schilling contacted friends from the electro-acoustic experimental band Grex and the Americana quartet The Fine and Dandy Trio. He enlisted the help of Sharon Alvandi, an Earthfoods Café employee, who ran with it to the student collective’s committee, who had to vote unanimously in favor of the event.

“It’s kind of a duty of Earthfoods to be here for the community,” Alvandi said. “So, when Mark called me I was just like ‘Yeah, I mean why not?’ I think that’s kind of what we’re about.”

The event was scheduled for Jan. 28 from 7 p.m. to midnight, and included the talents of Tessa Gifford, a licensed massage therapist, who offered five minute massages for an additional suggested donation of $5. Advertisements went out in the form of Facebook invites and flyers plastered around Earthfoods Café.

“It’s going to the UMass Haiti Relief Fund,” said Alvandi about the proceeds. “All that money is being pooled by RSOs all over campus,” she continued. “All the money is going to go to Partners in Health.”

Around 7:30 p.m. Grex went on in full swing with all six members. Their wild, rolling, driving, flowing beat created by steel and acoustic guitars, banjo and an upturned bucket sent a wave of dancing through the audience, with Ariel Stimson’s violin providing melody, paired with electrified handsaw wailing in the background like a disembodied voice.

Moving from high to low, Grex took the audience from wild frenetic dancing, running in circles and jumping up and down, to sitting in a semicircle in front of the stage, chins on fists, watching Ariel sing an intimate rendition of Alela Diane’s “Oh! My Mama.” Ariel played her guitar accompaniment as she sang the soft, sad lyrics. Soon it was time for their last song, during which Grey screamed his heart out, his face turning red. The crowd dug it.

“Thanks for coming, thanks for giving some money for Haiti,” said singer and percussionist Tony Hall to the enthusiastic crowd. A few minutes later outside he said, “We got asked [to play] and we know that people need help.” Band mate Matherly summarized what Grex is about.

“We only basically play music ‘cause it’s sweet and to try to hook the world up with love. Something like this is an awesome opportunity to use our music to bring people and awareness to this topic,” he said.

After a 10-minute intermission, Bella’s Bartok swung into their first number, “Bucharesti,” jumpstarting the energy in the room as girls and boys dressed in skirts, slacks, jeans and overalls spun and danced to the bluesy gypsy rock stylings of singer Asher Putnam and his gang. Bartok grooved and moved and spun out some interesting sounds with their collection of instruments and musicians.

Although their accordionist and alto saxophonist were hard to hear for most of the show, when they did stand out – for a short accordion break halfway through the set and for a couple of alto-sax solos – they really came through.

At only a few points was there any indication that this was college music – a few crossed horn notes here, a couple of missteps there – and no one in the crowd gave it any notice.

The highlight of their performance was when trombonist Sean Klaiber marched around the room, sliding his horn up and down in the air to thrill the crowd. After an energetic finish with a cover of Tom Waits’ “Hoist That Rag” that got the crowd literally jumping up and down, Bella’s Bartok closed their set.

“Thank you very much – every penny counts,” said Asher Putnam as he left the stage.

People continued to mill around for a moment, with cold bursts of air from the front doors as people left to enjoy the freezing night air and the table of assorted goodies by the steps. In moments, the quartet known as The Fine and Dandy Trio huddled around a couple of microphones, instruments in hand, and the party was again underway.

Playing classic Americana songs ranging from The Band’s “Down South in New Orleans” to the retrospective “Long Way to Go” by Railroad Earth, The Fine and Dandy Trio got the dwindling crowd singing, clapping and stomping along. Louis Freilicher made his fiddle whine with slow slides that conveyed an emotional pain and longing. Tom Wraight’s vocals were smooth and mellifluous, especially when combined with the voices of the three other men.

Banjo player Ben Truboff played a solid plucked rhythm behind Nick Brown’s tight lead runs on the mandolin.

“It’s called awesome,” said Bella’s Bartok upright bassist Steve Torres.

A small area in front opened up for the occasional dancers to cross over, but most of the crowd stood around it, grinning and clapping. Asher Putnam stood back in the crowd and sang at the top of his lungs along with one of their last numbers.

By the time they played their last tune, the crowd was ready to go home. Laughter, hugs and love were everywhere in the room.

Asked later about the experience, Putnam was enthusiastic. When Schilling proposed the idea, the whole band jumped on it. “We were definitely down for it,” Putnam said. “It was fun. We [raised] over $600 and that made me feel really good.”

This was the first benefit show at Earthfoods Cafe this year, according to Alvandi. “But that’ll change. There are many more to come.”

For more information on how to support Haiti, visit the UMass Haiti Relief Efforts’ website at http://www.umass.edu/umhome/haiti/.

To hear more about the bands, visit their websites at http://www.myspace.com/grexisyou, http://www.myspace.com/bellasbartok and http://www.myspace.com/thefineanddandytrio.

Patrick Giddings can be reached at dgidding@student.umass.edu.

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