Archive for the ‘Lowell’ Category

Listen in Lowell (Free)

July 22nd, 2008


Regulars here or at Marry in Massachusetts know the deal. Get your lazy butts out of the Boston area and be in Lowell this weekend. This is the third weekend in July and for over two decades that means it’s the (fabulous, fun, free) Lowell Folk Festival.

In my not-so-subtle way, I continue to berate locals here for not trotting the half hour to Lowell for this. Yes, yes, I know that Lowell folk like many residents of smaller cities and towns, as well as those who live in suburbs, are provincial hicks about coming to Cambridge or Boston. We’re the same here. “Yeah, you’ve told me about it, but I’ve never been,” is typical from the insular slugs here.

If you’re real gritty, you can bike two plus  hours, but you can also take the train from North Station. Even if you insist on driving, you can park Lowell-y for about $5.

Let me be plain again. Do it!

By the bye, this is connected to the small-admission-price Lowell Summer Music Series. Those aren’t free but do have a wide range of well-known musicians and the occasional Shakespeare.

You like:

  • Blues
  • World
  • Cajun
  • Gospel
  • Bluegrass
  • Folk (U.S., African, European, whatever)
  • parade.jpgReggae
  • Quebecoise

It’s all there and many other varieties. It’s non-stop on multiple stages. There are workshops. Oh, and there are a couple musical parades.  It’s free.

Can’t make Friday evening? Come Saturday. Can’t do Saturday. Come Sunday. Check the sked and the description of the performers.

We have gone from the beginning and never come home without one or more new favorites — musicians we didn’t know or barely knew whom we continue to enjoy as a result.


The warning is that the conflicts in simultaneous performances in six venues within easy walking distance make for tough decisions. Picking where to be when and sadly doing triage to decide whom you have to skip this time are hard.

It’s tempting to say you get your money’s worth. Just be sure when the pleasant volunteers come around asking for donations to keep the festival going and free that you chip in a few or five or ten bucks. You’re getting a whole day of music. At virtually every stop, you are right by the stage.

This is too good to pass up. If it’s your first time, go. You can evangelize to your friends next year.

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Thumping South and Twanging North

June 5th, 2008

It’s music time again around Boston. Think Great Woods Tweeter Center Comcast Center down in nondescript Mansfield and the peachy keen Lowell Folk Festival.

First, non-harrumphing news is that the TBAs in the huge Lowell festival performance list are now almost entirely announcedl. I’ve been touting this greatest free folk festival anywhere for years. There’s still room for maybe 50% more attendants, so I’ll do it again. Its’ free. It’s easy to get to. It has great known to you and you’ve never heard of musicians. It’s free. It’s two full days (7/25-27 this year)  and change of everything from straight folk to hard blues to world music. Did I mention it’s free?

We’ve been going almost every year for a couple of decades. We have literally never gone without returning with new loves — and the CDs — of a couple of finds. You don’t do that every day, month or even year.violin

Some coverage and commentary from last year are over at one of my political blogs. Plus, when you get up there, you learn about their other music series and get a sense of the restaurants and sites of the old mill city.

I have friends and even co-bloggers who say that Boston gets all the attention and money unfairly. A lot of fellow Bostonians think of Lowell as out-there, hard to get to sticks. I equally ridicule both sets of provincials. Chomp on these fruits and let the juice run down your chin!

To the no-longer-Great Woods, I had a better time at last night’s Eric Clapton concert than I expected. My own prejudice as an early boomer is that too many of me would be there. That was half true. I also figured his opening band would be some clod designed to rouse the crowd but not be good enough to offer him competition. I was dead wrong there.

It was moderately amusing tailgating in the amusingly labeled VIP parking lot (150 yards closer to the constipated exit). There were a lot of boomers playing Frisbee badly with their teen children, and blowing joints without their teens by the portalets. But a surprising number of early 20s and 30s couples were there too.

My adult son as well as my teens at home discovered my Clapton music, both in CD and on vinyl. They’re particularly fond of album covers bigger than dinner plates.

I remember Clapton from the Yardbirds and Cream days. He didn’t do that, didn’t play that last night.

The review in today’s Globe pretty well covered the Clapton end of the concert. He did not play to the memories of people my age and nearly his. He was as bluesy and rocky as a guitar great who loves love ballads can be. The two women with me, my wife and her Brownie Scout buddy, play guitar and really related to the big screens that showed his finger positions repeatedly. Their only complaint was one I shared. I suspect the camera guys were as stoned as the foursome in front of us. The bass player or the women vocalists would be churning for a long time before they’d wake up and pan over to them for a few seconds.

The big surprise was the opening group, Robert Randolph and the Family Band. If you haven’t heard him, click over to his website. You can see and hear over a dozen cuts and videos there, and catch a lot more on YouTube. Make sure you spend 14 minutes with his slamming vocals and hot steel guitar on What you come to do on the audio portion of his site.

Warm weather is hot music around here.

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Doyle’s Infested with Bloggers

May 15th, 2008

Blogger neighborhoodsMore than a clown car load of bloggers showed last night. I pronounce our first (insert period here) Rossie/JP/West Roxbury blogger social meet a modest success.

The rush report on the event is over at Universal Hub. Adam over there and I blame each other for this event. I think it was his idea and he claims I made it happen.

As threatened, we met at Doyle’s and from the comments, enjoyed it enough to have more such blobs of bloggers. I suggest that you try that for your neighborhoods or town.

It was without agenda, other than putting faces with blogs/bloggers and talk about our widely diverse blogs. I think we had 17 attendants.

We depended on the curiosity of strangers (and friends) as online invitations. While UH lists seven West Roxbury blogs, none from his list showed. We don’t know whether wading all the way into JP would be too much of a culture shock, but we’ll try to entice or shame them into coming next time. Maybe we can hold it closer to their safety zone, a Centre Street pub or the Pleasant in Roslindale.

However, we ended up with quite a few from Roslindale and JP. We got our share of what passes for celebrities in our little bloggy world. That certainly includes videoblogger Steve Garfield and media critic/professor Dan Kennedy. Plus we got Globe correspondent and ubiquitous free-lance Justin Rice.

Unquestionably though, the best parts were meeting bloggers whose stuff we read and talking with those whose interests and posts are nothing like ours. To those of us who do political or personal blogging, or in my case both, there were fascinating excursions.

Boston Handmade, for one, is for a crafts collective; Jessica Burko showed her geek chops and brought a laptop to access her site

Drew Gilpin Faust Fan Club has real and surreal posts related to the Harvard prez; I have it on good authority that she doesn’t yet know it exists

Learning Strategies has reportage and musings on like its title reads; as proof we did not discriminate by ZIP, this is from Larry Davidson in Dot

Joseph Porcelli, the cops and coffee mugs guy, attended

My Dedham (Brian Keaney) represented the south-of-Boston contingent; actually he was that contingent and lives in the land of always bubbling politics

9Neighbors had Rick Burnes describing his concept of displaying the most active blogs

Involuntary Slacker Alyssa belied the blog’s name and already posted on the literal symposium

The Boomer Chronicles (a favorite) had Rhea standing up for it

Andy’s Blog blogger Andy (Miller) even appeared; he’s been in his cave to pass the Mass bar exam, which he recently did and surely will become a regular poster again

Roslindale Monogatari with Michael Kerpan on film; he and I share an interest in the Tollgate Cemetery and had corresponded

Disclaimer: I am favorably disposed to the Faust blog, which is the idea and output of my uxorial unit, Cindy Thames.

And so it went. We met, we drank, we ate, and mostly we talked. I’ll put a few pix below. Click thumbnails for a larger view of what real bloggers look like.

Andy and Justin Steve Garfield
Andy and Justin (Rossie and the Globe Our famous videoblogger (JP)
Dan and Michael Rick, Cindy and Jessica
Dan Kennedy and Michael Kerpan Rick, Cindy and Jessica
Jessica, Alyssa and Adam
Jessica, Alyssa and Adam  

As an aside, reporter Justin asked me about blogger gatherings and whether this would grow into a BlogLeft type of activist group. I’m sure not. This was pure social and pure pleasure.

BlogLeft is a flapping loose set of political bloggers, pinko variety. We had a big gathering two years ago when Tim Murray was still mayor of Worcester and about to run for lieutenant governor. He was a guest there. We had breakout sessions and got real serious.

Likewise, we co-sponsored the lieutenant governor debate in Lowell and recently had a long, highly political gathering, also in Lowell. This is a serious and action-oriented group…not so with the south by southwest Boston bloggers.

The next time you see us plug an open, in-town blogger gathering, know it not serious, just seriously social.

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Cruising Lowell Canals with Dennis Weaver

August 16th, 2007

Dennis Weaver as ChesterFlog me with a camera strap. My digital picture box has such a long battery life, I did not bother to charge it…and go caught in Lowell. I was just starting to take pictures on the canal tour when I got the dreaded red battery image. I can’t show you the guide, a National Parks ranger, Amy Glowacki, who surely must be a direct descendant of Dennis Weaver as Chester, nor Motorman Tucker, who drives the trolley to and from the boat launch. Unlike the sharp jawed and wiry Amy, he is rotund with a comically sprouting bushy beard.

I’ll embed a couple of canal shots, but the voyeurism level is low. I am a stupid American.

Nits and Grits: The Park Service has a few canal tours by trolley and boat daily. The 90-minute full version is $8 adults/$7 over 62/$6 for 6 through 16 and free for mites. These tours tend to fill, so you need to call (978-970-5000 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.) and reserve spots. You can park behind the visitors center for free. Details are on the NPS site.

This is a serious geek trip, with engineering and history filling eyes and ears the whole time.

Our guide Amy came complete with a bag of place mats. Actually they were large laminated photos and drawings of Lowell before and after canals, of the dam on the Merrimack River and images of folk working on the projects there.

After a lecture about the history of the river and canals, we took the period trolley a few hundred yards to the boats. The lecture had the typical subversive undercurrent that so many NPS ones there do — after all, this is where trade unions got perking in America. Amy noted that the thumb of land where Lowell is had a few hundred farmers before greedy industrialists saw the waterfalls and knew it mean power and thus money just trying to fall into their hands. They bought out the yokels for spare change and proceeded to plan a huge industrial complex, using water power for the mills-to-be.

James B. FrancisOur next subtle pretext was in our boat, the Sarah Bagley, the only one of the four named for a woman. The next boat was the James B. Francis (the jowly fellow here), who planned the canals for transportation and for water diversion. On the other hand, Bagley was a rabblerouser. She strongly advocated women’s rights, organized labor actions, and was largely responsible for getting the workday reduced to 10 hours.

The tour is a fine leisurely ride on a summer day, but it is also a clear way to visualize how the canals interplayed with the factories. Helping realize the avarice of the capitalists meant some innovative and insightful engineering, under Francis’ direction. Many thousands were abused and overworked in the mills that came with it. Then again, as in the mini-computer industry in Lowell and elsewhere in the last century, this fed and clothed a lot of people and made New England more influential. (Amy didn’t say any of that.)

Lowell canalsBefore the factory-makers arrived, the locals had worked for the Proprietors of Locks and Canals to change the Merrimack. It was impassable by the falls and there was no way to move goods or people on it. Manual labor dug a single narrow canal to skirt the falls and let lumber and farm output get downstream without using carts and wagons. This project took only from 1795 to 1796…with shovels, barrows and pickaxes!

Click on the thumbnail to see Francis’ version of the industrialists’ vision. A dam on the river diverts most water through town, starting in the Pawtucket Canal. A spread hand of canals in town dispersed the water to power multiple mills in many locations. The transportation canal remained to bring in raw materials and take away finished good.

In 1821, the rich guys had bought out what is now Lowell (then part of Middlesex Village). A catalyst for their turning to Lowell was President Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 embargo and the War of 1812. They were sitting on piles of cash that wasn’t earning anything.

We on the Bagley toured the navigable section of the 5.6-mile canal. We passed the backs of brick factories (which don’t look much different from their fronts, minus doors). The mills are largely abandoned, except those that have artists’ lofts.

Francis was damned good at what he did. His turbine that bears his name is still commonly used. As well as being chief engineer for the canals and locks, he was a founder and president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. His old group has a great booklet on the canals and power system here.

Down on the water, you see such fascinating aspects as the construction of the canal walls. The inner side was done by hand. Immigrant laborers moved and fitted large and huge pieces of granite. Like stone walls, they are without mortar and last because of the expertise and raw strength of the masons.

Lowell canal wallsThe other side looks perfectly serviceable, but the stones are much smaller, much more regular. These walls have heavy mortar, which will need maintenance.

The ride passes through one lock at (of course) the Francis Gatehouse. He designed the gates and the lock system for these, as well as the flood gate inside. We passed into a small lock to equalize the water depth between the Merrimack and Lowell sides — about four feet on our day.

While waiting for the lock system to do its seeping magic, you have to revel in what was called Francis’ Folly in 1850. That wacky blueprint guy figured that there was a high likelihood of occasional, unpredictable floods on the plains of Lowell, particularly with the river on one side and the canals in town.

He designed this monstrosity, like a huge wooden guillotine. In the image by Corey Sciuto, you can see part of Francis’ original and the 21st Century upgrade. He took the picture during last year’s flood.

Francis gatehouse

The original was a 25-foot tall curtain of huge wooden beams, rising into the gatehouse. Thick metal chain held it up to the roof. Someone had to climb up to and use a hammer and chisel to release the gate and hold back the diverted river.

The locals didn’t get much time to ridicule Francis. Two years later in 1852, a huge flood filled the Merrimack. The gate came down. Lowell was spared 10 feet of water.

Raising the gate afterward was a big deal, involving many teams of oxen and a lot of workers.

The gate stayed up and loaded until 1936, when another 10-foot flood threatened town. The gatehouse on the dam side of the river still has the highwater mark painted on it. Again, Francis’ plan saved Lowell.

Shortly before Lowell’s 2006 devastating flood, the gatehouse system was updated with a steel beam system, which is in place in the photo. It has the decided advantage of being put in place by using a crane to drop a stack of steel beams into slots in the canal walls. Amy did not say, but maybe they should go back to Francis’ system. Lowell was flooded this time and the water level was only 8-feet above flood level. What can we learn from this?

Leaving canal lock When we emerged from the equalized lock, we tooled up and out to the Merrimack. We went over to the dam, law the still impressive falls, and wondered at the archaic dam itself.

The Pawtucket dam uses some 300 metal bars stuck in granite slabs and topped with plywood. Yes, Home Depot denizens, plywood. An advantage of this is that water forces its way over the plywood, bending it. Of course, twice a year, they have to replace the wood. This anachronistic system involved reducing water flow with dams upstream and sending crews to gather the plywood and bars. A blacksmith shop on the river heats and repairs the bars and crews reassemble the dam.

Before Amy turned us back over to Motorman Tucker, we got our $8 worth. A drain-pipe level tour of the influence of water on the American Industrial Revolution is a better deal than any summer movie.

By the bye, this is a companion piece to the evening adventure in Lowell, a Spinners game.

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Throwing Rubber Chickens in Lowell

August 15th, 2007

Sub-eating contests, a line of chicken dancers, and speaking of, real rubber chickens heaved to eager fans are certainly not the Beacon Hill dignity hallmarks. But up in Lowell, they work real hard to make affordable fun at Spinners games.

I just did an afternoon and evening with my two youngest boys. A report on the canal tour is another post. I had promised publicly to spend more time in our fourth-largest city, and surely to be there for more than my beloved folk festival days at the end of each July.

A friend from Marblehead had long urged me to bring the guys up. Like me, he went to Red Sox games in the 1960s and beyond. We remember when 1) you could buy tickets, any tickets, and 2) when it wasn’t several days’ salary to take a family. Yeah, well, we’re older and remember when the Sox may have fallen apart in August or September, but a game was a great afternoon or evening. Plus everything from parking to tickets to franks was not some sucker’s game.

I can end that rant and just praise the Sox farm team in Lowell.

Perhaps you can’t appreciate the team without tasting the league. This Sox affiliate in sliced a little thin in being in the short-season, Class-A New York-Penn League. They play from mid-June into early September. They play against (with MLB affiliate teams):

  • Aberdeen Iron Birds (BAL)
  • Auburn Doubledays (TOR)
  • Batavia Muckdogs (PHI)
  • Brooklyn Cyclones (NYM)
  • Hudson Valley Renegades (TB)
  • Jamestown Jammers (FLA)
  • Mahoning Valley Scrappers (CLE)
  • State College Spikes (STL)
  • Oneonta Tigers (DET)
  • Staten Island Yankees (NYY)
  • Tri-City Valley Cats (HOU)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters (WASH)
  • Williamsport Crosscutters (PIT)

Almost everyone is under 23 by the rules. They are up or out, advancing to their parent club or selling cars or real estate.

This means that while some great players have come from the league, the average play level is not MLB. There aren’t enough Ks for big-league fans and there are few monsters knocking one over center field walls (400 feet in the Spinners’ park).

I think those are the only drawbacks, other than not being on a subway line. Consider:

  • You’re almost on the field. The park seats about 4,800. There are no bad spots. Many are only a few rows from the baselines. You are part of the game, not part of the distant herd.
  • You get in for change. Hey, I was a big spender. I bought top-end tickets, for (drum roll) $7.50 each. There’s not misplaced decimal — $22.50 for the three of us. The range starts at standing room at $3.50, which is necessary because many games sell out. You just need to hop onto the Spinners site in early spring and grab tickets.
  • Golden wieners. If you want to pay steak and Cabernet prices for a frank and beer, go to Fenway. The high priced beer at LeLacheur Park (named for a local activist) is $5.25 a pint. Hot dogs were like $2.75. Also, in such a small park, a trip to the john or snack bar was a couple of minutes not a death march.
  • No parking thieves. The $20 and $30 parking slots near the Sox are far from Lowell. There you can come early and park next door, park a quarter to half-mile away at game time for free, or pick a lot a couple of blocks away and pay $5.

So the basics out of the way, how about the game? The most important aspect is that everyone seems to have a great time. That must mean that it is less professional than a bunch of rich guys in tight pants taking themselves seriously.

The players do try. Some are obviously more successful than others. Unlike MLB parks though the action is stop and go, with a lot of breaks between innings for those contents, for Ronald McDonald to autograph the free T-shirts they handed kids, for the gator mascot family to throw rubber chickens to eager fans.

By the bye, I sat behind a family whose dad was one of the sub-contest entrants, the winner in fact. It was mom in front of me, three elementary-aged kids, and dad, who barely squeezed into the wide seats. One of the Spinner staffers came to him in the first inning and he nodded. He told her about the contest and said loudly that he thought the kids would enjoy it. After the third inning, he and a sturdy woman headed to a table on the first-base line. Each had half a large, overly stuffed submarine. They had one minute to eat as much as they could. After the judge declared him the most rapacious, he headed up toward us, strands of meat and lettuce dangling from his lips.

I told his wife that he’d be eating that for a week. She said with disdain, “Yeah, this is really something to be proud of.” It was a Simpson’s moment.

Start to finish, the play was good enough to keep us interested. There was some very good fielding of hard-hit balls. The players were clearly hungry for the majors and tried.

Getting back to JP was easy enough too. We were home in 45 minutes or so, probably less time than if we walked to Ruggles or took two buses to Forest Hills. Surely, it was quicker and cheaper.

The Spinners beat the Hudson Valley Renegades 2 to 1. They beat the overall Red Sox experience by a lot more than that.

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