Last night, I went with my family to Providence for their "Bright Night" celebration. As I have written in an earlier post, Providence is a lower key alternative to Boston for visitors who wish to make the trip in from the surrounding regions. Back when we lived in Danbury, Connecticut, we eagerly anticipated the arrival of First Night in our city, a time when we could walk from place to place downtown and hear music that ranged from Clark Eno's very modern Big Band jazz group to the powerful sounds of a bagpipe ensemble resonating in one of Danbury's large and underutlized downtown churchs.
When we moved to Massachusetts, we had a two year old son and found that the only nearby First Night was in Boston, a large scale celebration that was much bigger than we had in mind. Fast forward to last night... Now, my youngest son is nine and the whole family is beginning to take a liking to Providence. So, when we found out that Providence has a smaller scale New Year's Eve fest called Bright Night, it was an easy sell to get the family to agree we would go, but we weren't really sure what we were in for.
We got off to a slow start. We were looking for the Rhode Island Convention Center, but the signage was not too good. After getting off the downtown exit, we needed to take the first major right, but the signs were only clear from the other direction, after we had made a u-turn a few miles down the road. Coming back toward the town center, the signs were better and we soon saw the large front lobby of the Rhode Island Convention Center ahead of us. We quickly parked and then found our way over to the lobby.
Here, we were greeted by some of the Bright Night volunteers, who were very friendly and helped us get oriented. It turned out we needed to walk about 3 blocks onto Dorrance Street, which is where the physical site of the ArtTix box office is. I'd ordered tickets online, so we needed to pick them up before we could start to attend events. Soon, we were walking by the Bank of America ice skating pavilion, which had a bustling group of people and several ice sculptures. We continued on, past the classic structure of the Biltmore hotel, and soon found the ArtTix office, where we picked up our four wristbands, as well as directions for the various events.
Downtown Providence is a city of small blocks. The center of the city now has several anchors, which include a convention center, civic center, the wonderful Providence Place mall and several rivers crossed by stone bridges for cars and pedestrians. However, most of the venues for Bright Night were to the right as one walks northeast away from the convention center. From Dorrance, we were on the lookout for a church on Mathewson Street, so we started walking south. After a couple of blocks walk, we encountered the amazing brownstone exterior of the Grace Church and entered. In the foyer, home made snacks were available, which we noted, but bypassed for the moment. Inside, the church itself is spectacular, with tall vertical windows of stained glass. Up ahead of us, in front of the altar, a Latin jazz group called Goza played for us. The sounds were good, with a woman's strong Spanish vocals highlighting a South American feel, along with other instruments which included acoustic guitar, saxophone, congas and sometimes a violin. We stayed for about 4 tunes, but our youngest son was already hungry for a snack, so we decided to stop upfront on our way to the next venue. A couple of bags of popcorn in hand, we stepped outside and began to walk. A couple of blocks away, we could see the bright lights from the Providence Performing Arts Center beckoning to us, so we walked in that direction, still trying to get our bearings. Once we got there, the places I was seeking were not quite there, so we turned right and soon another large church loomed, this one of an offwhite color with a large dome. This was the place we sought for the next round of music, a branch of the UCC called the Beneficent Church. We walked up the front steps and opened the thick wooden doors. This time, there were no vendors inside, so we walked up a few more steps to the sanctuary. Unlike the last church, there was no stained glass, but the interior was magnificent nonetheless, featuring a massive three story pipe organ, a wrap around balcony upstairs and a very large crystal chandelier. This time, the music was provided by a younger group, the RIPY Jazz Group Orchestra, which in reality was a qunintet of young musicians who appeared to be of high school age. This group played classic jazz of the Fifties through the Seventies, including tunes like Walkin' from Miles Davis, My Favorite Things from John Coltrane and in their finale, Chick Corea's 500 Miles High. Our whole family enjoyed this group. The drummer was particularly strong, as he laid down a straight ahead groove that had lots of polyrhythms and kept pushing the band forward. The main soloists were two saxophone players, strongly influenced by the Davis groups of the pre-electric era, and a pianist, who wore a weird pink wig, but played with a nice blend of jazz and classical roots.
After this performance, we had a little bit of time and rumor was that there were to be fireworks. As we meandered toward the next venue, we heard loud explosions from the direction of the river, but couldn't really see anything until we stepped into a parking lot that offered somewhat of a cutout view between tall buildings. To the right of the tall Westin hotel, we could now see occasional bursts of fireworks, so we stayed put for a few minutes in the cool evening air watching the show. It was good, but we quickly got pretty cold standing in one place in the mid-thirties (degrees F) temperatures, so we were not too unhappy when the show ended after about 10 minutes. By now, I'd scanned the map enough to try to figure out where we needed to head next. It turned out that we were just a block away from Empire Street, our next venue.
We got to Empire Street and then walked along about one more block, bring us to the tiny Perishable Theatre. It was about 5:45 and the music, billed as a coffee house, was supposed to start at 6:00. We went in and found an impromptu and very casual theater setup, with two adjacent rows of seats going about six deep making up the entire amphitheatre of seating. The scheduled artist, Heather Rose, was already present. I'd found the blurb on the web site about her to be intriguing, as she clearly was a singer-songwriter who had strong rock influences. For more info about her, see her web site.
She is tall and had a punk rocker kind of look, with simple white top and leatherish black jeans. She is also of the rare species, a left handed guitar player, and has a blue acoustic cutaway decorated with her initials. At about 6:10, she began. She did mostly originals. The songs were using basic rock chords, but switched keys via her use of a capo. I rather liked the combination of her defiant songs and her strong vocal delivery. She had no trouble filling this room with her amplified voice and even seemed to deliberately step back from the mike when she wanted to belt out a lyric. She also did one cover, of the song Chasing Cars, which she did well and with spirit.
After about 45 minutes, her set was done and it was time to find a place to eat. This turned out to be problematic. The arts district where most of the music was did not have much in the way of restaurants. We were advised to look for a Mexican place called Cilantro, which fit our desire to have a quick bite and then move on, but alas, after a 4 block walk, the place was closed. Evidently, the local restauranteurs were not counting on business from the many families that were drawn to town by the Bright Night event. We looped back toward the ice rink and finally found a few small restaurants near the river. We chose Citron, which bills itself as a wine bar and bistro. Its main attraction for me was that it was close and had a table for us at a point when we were getting really hungry.
Happily, it turned out well. Our waiter was terrific and quickly sized up our desires for good but quick food and a need to be flexible around meeting the varied tastes of the family. It truly had a bistro style menu, so I suggested we focus on ordering small side dishes as a possible alternative to entrees. However, a couple of entrees caught our attention, so three of us went that route anyway. The surroundings were very comfortable and it was fun being among a group of thirtyish, well dressed people out for a night of fine food and drink. My bruschetta was very unusual but quite tasty and went well with a glass of Pinot Noir that our waiter had recommended. My wife and I also had Scallop Sandwiches, which were actually scallops encrusted by a crinkly birdsnest of potato, tres interresant! My oldest son also had a fine meal of chicken breast, pasta and wonderful artichokes. This hit the spot and we were ready for our next venue. We headed back to the convention center and hung out for a circus performance, which was okay, but not too demanding as we digested our dinner.
Once we were outside again, we walked in the direction of the Beneficent Church, toward the last 2 concerts of our evening. By now we knew the way, so we simply followed the lights of the Providence Performing Arts building, saving several blocks of walking from our earlier jaunts. We arrived to see the last 2 songs of the very loud, but pretty talented jazz-rock fusion group Pen-Epic. The best of their guitarists played in the vein of Al Dimeola during his Return to Forever days and was the strongest of a solid group. The final music of the night was from the Remnants, a group of baby boomers who played in a country folk style. They were good at what they did, but it was late and my family was restless, so we soon moved on into the cool night. We took the long walk back, but all agreed that this had been a great way to celebrate the New Year. We now feel more comfortable with the geography of downtown Providence and will continue our explorations of this very welcoming city in the new year.