Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Del McCoury and Sierra Hull on stage at the Boston Summer Arts Festival. (Addy Shreffler/WGBHArts)
BOSTON — Even though we were listening to some of America’s deeply rooted musical traditions, something new was truly under way in Copley Square Friday night, when the inaugural Boston Summer Arts Weekend took off.
A day of grey skies certainly put an added level of concern into those banking on this to be a successful event; something co-produced by WGBH and the Boston Globe and presented by Citizens Bank. And maybe there was some before-fest hand wringing about the weekly farmers’ market staying open so that the music could not begin until 7 p.m. But here’s the thing: the market provided a built-in crowd which eventually blossomed into about 7,000 people at the free outdoor concert once it became clear the rain was holding off (it was also cool to be able to stock up on some decent eats).
The conditions morphed into an environment reminiscent of the old Concerts on the Common, when a stage in Boston’s biggest public park presented a summer series of pop and rock headliners. Once again, the city itself wove into the fabric of the Summer Arts Weekend performances to create an experience far different from the ones felt when shuffling into and out of arenas and amphitheaters typically used for concerts. People swing dancing on St. James Avenue, for example, was part of the excitement.
And what got these people on their feet? The frenetic rhythms of Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Prez Hall was a lynch pin in the outdoor show, connecting two stars from opposite ends of the generational spectrum of bluegrass and providing smooth lead in to the simmering soul of Irma Thomas.
Sierra Hull and Highway 111 opened the festival. Hull, 20, is a stellar mandolin player, one who plays with a limber dexterity that actually adds a heft despite its ethereal tone. Hull and her band play with a delicate touch, but never sound fragile in the process, as they combine old timey songs with fresh compositions, with Hull’s “Daybreak” a nice bit of folk-pop stirred into the mix.
The venerable Preservation Hall Jazz band followed. Prez Hall sounds reborn with its current lineup directed by sousaphone player Ben Jaffe. The band has a young energy to its arrangements, but at the same time never loses sight of the classic New Orleans jazz style it has become an international ambassador for. Bluegrass legend Del McCoury, who has recorded with Prez Hall, joined the jazz band for a little genre cross-wiring. Hull hopped into the fray too, finding an especially spirited musical foil in clarinet player Charlie Gabriel. Hearing the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away” played in the shadow of Trinity Church was the sort of intoxicating moment this festival served up.
Irma Thomas, at 71, sounds as powerful as ever. Her set was all smoldering soul, a slow boil that built up to a climactic version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”
From Copley Square, the action moved indoors to the Copley Club in the Fairmont Copley Hotel. Hull and McCoury began the action in the intimate, ticketed “After Hours” segment of the festival. McCoury told tales about Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, and Hull, who beamed her admiration for McCoury, drove their joint venture to frenzied heights, ones that reached a spellbinding “Don’t Stop the Music.”
Thomas and her band followed with a rocking little set that covered her hits “Breakaway” and “It’s Raining” before hitting an emotionally charged cover of the Etta James classic “At Last.”
Prez Hall with McCoury and Hull returned to carry the party into the wee hours in high style with some low down boogieing and high-energy swinging that shook the Copley Club with joy.
See the final song that brought Friday night after hours to a close and the crowd in The Copley Club to its feet in wild applause. (11 minutes) Video: Annie Shreffler/WGBHArts