T his weekend, an excellent place to find New Haven-based music acts is 20 miles out of town at the Meriden Daffodil Festival.
New Haven has long been known for its thriving original music scene, particularly in the pop and rock realms. The city once had its own festivals which took advantage of all that creativity and energy.
In the 1990s, the Chapel Street Festival was created to give tourists a reason to come downtown after spending the day watching volleys at the then-new Pilot Pen Tennis Tournament. An awesome organizational feat which closed off Chapel Street between York and College streets to car traffic every night for over a week each year, the festival featured numerous stage areas and dozens of different acts. The Chapel Street Festival was ultimately supplanted by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, whose devotion to local acts is strong (with two a day playing the “Noon to Night” weekday concert series on New Haven Green, plus opportunities for some area musicians to get featured indoor concerts on the A&I schedule), but naturally is overshadowed by that “International” aspect of the festival’s title.
A few years ago, the decrease in venues which featured live music on a regular basis spurred a local music lover, Patrick Mansfield, to start the East Rock West Rock New Haven Music Week. That project, held in autumntime, has been sort of an umbrella promotion tool which celebrates musical events already booked in local clubs and augments those shows with special events. Though most of the offerings are local, ERWRNHMW has also featured major acts such as Snoop Dogg.
Ideat Village, a local band festival which has positioned itself as a grass roots alternative to Arts & Ideas and takes place at the same time in June, has been around for over a decade, but with some vocal resistance from residents and landlords from apartment buildings near where the festival has been held. Last year’s Ideat Village festival ended with the arrest of Ideat co-founder Bill Saunders after police were summoned on a noise complaint. Ideat has always persevered, but seems especially vulnerable this year.
Which makes the Meriden Daffodil Festival that much more crucial to the well-being of New Haven bands. In many respects, this event is typical of the many festivals held in springtime in city parks. It has carnival rides and cotton candy, a fireworks display on Saturday night, non-profit groups running refreshment stands and hosting information booths, activities for kids and a shopping area where craftspeople and entrepreneurs sell their wares. But, where most of the larger such festivals (like Durham’s, for instance) will give over most of its entertainment budget to a single well-known national act, the Daffodil Festival books literally dozens of area bands to whom this gig really means something.
This year, New Haven clubgoers will recognize familiar local faces such as:
• James Velvet, the WPLR “Local Bands” radio co-host whose old band The Mocking Birds has a longtime residency at Cafe Nine, with one of his current bands The Ivory Bills (12:45 p.m. Saturday on the festival’s Bandshell Stage).
• New Haven/Hamden guitar institution Dean Falcone, who’ll be playing with The Manchurians (4:30 p.m. Saturday on the Bandshell Stage).
• Elison Jackson, the young band whose album I Do Believe She Flew Out the Drain Pipe is one of the most acclaimed local band recordings of the last few years (Saturday at 1:30 p.m. on the Welcome Stage).
• Goodnight Blue Moon, a fast-rising folk-pop band which has just returned from a cross-country tour (and who play on the Food Tent Stage Saturday at 7 p.m.)
• Hannah Fair, who’s not an Elm City resident yet is remembered as the musical act at the grand opening of Elm City Market (playing 11:15 a.m. Saturday on the Welcome Stage).
All in all, nearly three dozen musical acts can be found at the Daffodil Festival, most of them playing songs they wrote themselves, and all hailing from somewhere in Connecticut.
The foremost New Haven acts at the Daffodil Festival are assuredly The Furors and Mark Mulcahy. The musicians are old friends and will play back-to-back sets on the festival’s Welcome Stage Saturday evening (The Furors at 5:15 p.m., Mulcahy at 6:15). The Furors are the quirky pop duo of Tom Dans and Derk Holcomb, who started a band while still in their teens in the 1970s. Funny and fetching and high-spirited, The Furors have endured for decades with such cocky tunes as “A Thing for Blondes,” “Hey Joni” and “How Pretty You Were When I Cared.” They were afforded the ultimate accolade in 2003 when over three dozen bands performed their songs on the two-disc tribute album Let’s Get Furious.
Mark Mulcahy played in the same New Haven clubs as The Furors back in the 1970s and ’80s, first when he was the drummer in The Saucers (with local music celeb Craig Bell, who’d then just moved to New Haven from Cleveland, where he’d been in the influential innovative alt-rock act Rocket From the Tombs), and then later when Mulcahy became the frontman of his own band Miracle Legion. Miracle Legion’s self-released EP The Backyard became an international success, and the band toured and recorded for over a decade before record company problems brought them down in 1996.
After three seasons of writing music for the acclaimed Nickelodeon TV show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Mulcahy (now based in western Massachusetts) began a stellar solo career. He collaborated on music theater pieces with cartoonist Ben Katchor. He played festivals in Europe but returned regularly to the Daffodil Festival to commune with old friends from the New Haven scene. When Mulcahy’s wife died suddenly in 2008, he put aside musical concerns to care for their twin daughters. A major tribute album was released to support Mulcahy in 2009, with contributions from Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Michael Stipe of REM and many others whom Mulcahy had influenced or befriended over the years. This year Mark Mulcahy is making a full return to recording and performing, with a new album due out in June, appearances at the Solid Sound Festival at the MASS MoCA art museum that month and at England’s prestigious End of the Road Festival in late August.
Mark Mulcahy and The Furors aren’t the only acts at the Daffodil Festival which date back to the fertile New Haven club scene of the punk/new wave ’80s. The Peacock Flounders are a local-band supergroup of sorts whose members include Ron Sutfin and Kerry Miller of the 1980s rock bands Valley of Kings and Cameraface, Sal Paradise of The Subdudes and Rope, and Mark Mulcahy’s old Miracle Legion bandmate Jeff Wiederschall (whose solo project was Baby Huey).
The Meriden Daffodil Festival is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year and for nearly 20 of those years has hosted one of the largest aggregations of Connecticut-based (and especially New Haven-based) bands anywhere. Its success as a family-friendly festival that encompasses diverse tastes and talents should be an inspiration to anyone (hint, hint) who thinks New Haven ought to have a major local band-based festival of its own again someday.
Meriden Daffodil Festival
Hubbard Park, Meriden (map)
Saturday, April 27, 10am-9pm; Sunday, April 28, 10am-5pm
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Kathleen Cei.