RI Music Awards Winners

Profiles by Bobby Forand, John Fuzek, Marc Clarkin, Bradly VanDerStad, Meg Coss, Tess Lyons, Lee Adrain & Mike Ryan.

There is a helmeted man in a reflective aluminum suit juggling bowling balls in the corner. A gang of mustachioed cowboys coagulate off on the side of a winding staircase, a tall, thin-heeled woman whisks by in a dramatically long fur coat, underneath a man unwrapping aux cords from a blue-lit stage. Bass music alternating with ’90s rock pumps at low volume from the speakers. The main bar is too crowded to get a drink, so a young band member retreats to a side room/bar themed with pink lights and bikini-bottom flowers; here is a low-to-the-ground table full of coloring books and buckets of crayons, where kids and adults sit zen-like, scribbling. A camera snaps in the main foyer, illuminating a glowing, shaggy haired jam-bander. Behind his gnarled blonde head the auditorium chairs start to fill and the folk back at the bar rotate toward the stage. A low, anticipatory hush falls over the horizon of hats and wild hair-dos. The background music stops. The feedback of a guitar being plugged into an amp reverberates through the crowd as converse-donning musicians file in from either side to take their places behind an instrument. Beth Barron takes the podium as the man behind the spotlight swings it on her. The whites of the audiences’ eyes stare back from the one bright light in the otherwise inky-blue room. She takes the mic, a smile breaking across her face, “I’d like to welcome you to the 17th annual Motif Music Awards!”
As PVD’s music scene grows, so does Motif’s RI Music Awards. Sponsored by R1 Indoor Karting and Fête Music Hall, the event’s crowd boasted more than 400 people, there to celebrate roughly 53 categories. A table of crafted Motif award trophies lay in wait on a table to be accepted by victorious hands, reminiscent of a conversational fragment I heard at the bar calling this, “the GRAMMYs of Rhode Island.” I don’t know about all that. What I didn’t see at this year’s awards was the egoism of the Grammys; what I did see was a community that is re-strengthening the bonds that frayed after 3 years of a pandemic where the main victim was this very industry.
The awards had four live performances between nominations, beginning with the reincarnation of Janis Joplin and Guns ’n’ Roses by young members from the Seekonk School of Rock, and ending with the kick-ass, heart-breaking set by Iz and Ly from their band, FINE. The soft, eerie folk of a performance by Vudu Sister lingered after the purple-hazed jam funk from a slamming performance by Appala’s Eclipse.
Encapsulated in the acceptance speeches themselves was the spirit and diversity of Rhode Island’s music scene. From Favorite Punk Act winner Sourpunch’s, “Fucking hippies! We’re playing the after party at Alchemy, which means they can’t throw me out so have a shot with me, Providence!” to winner of Favorite Hip-Hop album Jesse the Tree’s, “RI hip-hop is definitely real. Get in tune. There’s a renaissance going on and it’s worth checking out;” to the prepared, written speech from the winner of Favorite Country Act Jake Hunsinger & the Rock Bottom Band, “Thank you from Texas!” (where they were touring), there was an omnipresent sense that the beauty of PVD’s creative capital stretched beyond the bounds of our state, tapping into the bigger essence of what it means to be artists, and what it means to be human, in this chaotic mess of a world.
As the night wound to an end, the crowd thinned, departing either to their beds or the after-party. I found myself leaned against a corner pillar, holding a luke-warm Narragansett; a bartender chugged an energy drink, and the hallway emptied while cigarette smoke eked in from the outside patio. To a nearly emptied audience, and a few drunk celebrating band members, an exhausted but still exuberant Barbi Jo (92 PRO FM) and Mike Delehanty (Union Station Brewery) took the stage to announce the winner of Favorite Electronic Act. The tall, bustling thin heeled woman in the fur coat from earlier took the stage to accept the award as Jackie and the Wizard. She took the stage and leaned into the microphone, looking out across the tired raw-throated murmurings that comfortably settle after a successful evening, “I want to give this award to every band in RI who keeps booking shows, just to show people what they think… stay free Rhode Island, stay free.” – Mara Hagen

The bustling crowd at the 2023 RI Music Awards (Small Frye Photography)


Favorite Americana Act

I don’t entirely regard The Silks as an Americana act, personally. Their sound is heavily grounded in the blues, which was invented in America… so I guess that sort of counts? The Silks throw in some early ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll (ala Small Faces) and a tinge of country into their sonic cocktail to create a sound that makes it just fun to go out and dance the night away. – MC

World Music

Atwater-Donnelly have been RI stalwarts since they started performing together, shortly after meeting in 1987. Their music is transcendent; simple in nature, but packed with well-thought-out instruments and musicianship. Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly both have beautiful, comforting voices at the center of each song. They make any style they play sound great.
On a personal note, I’ve been seeing Atwater-Donnelly live since the early ‘90s. My parents were big fans and would take me to see them perform at outdoor events and local venues. As a tween/early teenager at the time, I’m sure that I complained, but I always loved watching them perform. Looking back, those performances were priceless family moments. Thank you, Aubrey and Elwood, for unknowingly having a major influence on my musical taste (which is all over the place) and for the wonderful associative memories for my family. – BF

Favorite R&B Act

Steve Smith and The Nakeds have been entertaining audiences in RI and far beyond for half a century. They began as Naked Truth and transformed into Steve Smith and The Nakeds and are now the official band of Narragansett Beer. The ten person band consists of a four-piece rhythm section, a five-piece brass section, and its lead vocalist, Steve Smith. Over the past 50 years the band shared the touring stage and recording studio with Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist, Clarence Clemons for a series of critically acclaimed performances. They have been featured on television, appearing on MTV’s video countdown program “The Basement Tapes”, as well as an episode of “The Family Guy” where their song, “I’m Huge (And The Babes Go Wild)” was featured. thenakeds.com – JF

Favorite Small – Medium Venue

The Parlour has, from day one, provided a place for musicians to work on and showcase their gifts. The Parlour has a kitchen that offers a small but tasty palette of choices. One of the nice touches over the last year was the addition of murals on the outside memorializing three musicians Mike Schiavone, Pete McClanahan, and Nick Iddon, who left us too soon. – MC

Favorite Live Americana Act

The foot-stomping Sasquatch and the Sick-a-Billys are no newcomers to RI stages, and although they haven’t played out as much lately, their long-standing reputation still brings out the superfans when they perform, famously splaying dancers around any venue, with table-top dancing, hair-tossing and hard-dancing hijinks. In addition to performing, Sasquatch has his own venue in Warren called the Galactic Theatre that started as a clothing/thrift store and turned into a full time venue with drinks and food. You can catch Sasquatch opening for the Goddamn Gallows at Alchemy on April 9. – MC

Favorite Country Act

Jake Hunsinger and company refer to their sound as “Powerhouse Americana.” Based in PVD, the band showcases high-energy performances with rollicking arrangements, dynamic production, and serene hillbilly harmonies over Hunsinger’s inspired songwriting. The band embraces a sound that is simultaneously classic and new, traditional and refreshing, and they perform all around New England – and, as we learned from their long-distance texted acceptance remarks, in Texas too!
They released their debut EP, Jake Hunsinger, in 2019, and Hunsinger has spent years since writing a new catalog of songs. – BV

Favorite Open Mic

The Parlour has a great open mic every Wednesday, hosted by Steve Donovan, when he isn’t snowbirding around Florida doing gigs. The atmosphere is very welcoming to all types of music. The signups are usually around 7pm and it’s usually full enough for the music to go all night with a community vibe that’s attracted a lot of top-notch local talent to come out and play. – MC

Favorite Singer/Songwriter

Allison Rose says, “I sing the truth and make you cry.” She is a musician, mental health counselor, mom and dog worshipper. Allison is now a multiple Motif Award-winner and anyone who hears her sing knows why. This singer-songwiter-guitarist-pianist plays songs about life, family and love. A classically-trained pianist and vocalist, Allison grew up on piano lessons and choir rehearsals, eventually choosing music as her college minor. She is a board member of the RI-based nonprofit RISING, which serves young adult and beginning songwriters and musicians by providing music education, mentorship, and performance opportunities. Aside from music, she is a photographer, and enjoys the ocean, a comfy bed, and dropping a good F-bomb. allisonrosemusic.com – JF

Favorite Americana Vocalist

Steve Smith started out as a kid at the beach playing music with his cousin John Cafferty. While he was enrolled at St Philips School, his band, The Nightcrawlers, played. The nun who booked them “caught holy hell for bringing the Devil’s music into the classroom.” When his voice changed he quit music to play hockey, but he would pick up music again during college. He worked at a factory to pay his college bills, but this was taking its toll on him. His friends asked him to join their band Bloody Mary and music replaced the grind of factory work. After a few double bills with another band called Naked Truth, Steve was asked to join them as their lead singer. The rest, as they say, “is history.” As a Smithfield native myself, I saw Naked Truth play many a prom at our high school and I have known Steve for almost all of the time he has been in the band. I will never forget the charismatic Steve coming off stage and jumping on my table at Prom and singing up a storm! – JF

Favorite Bluegrass Band

The Ocean State Ramblers are a four-piece bluegrass band based in southern New England. They have been up for this award before and if you catch their act, you’ll see why. They began as folks jamming together at local bluegrass events when they eventually decided to perform as a group at an open mic night, and the rest, you might say, is history. They can be found playing in RI and surrounding states at various events at farmers markets, bars, and libraries, to name a few. Their sound is upbeat and fun as they play their renditions of some bluegrass standards, or put their own spin on some folk and country tunes along with their own original songs. Listening to them is a pleasure and their varied talents and musical skills are always evident. Their sound is sweet and pure homespun bluegrass. – LA

Favorite Jazz Act

Evening Sky
is a Jazz/Roots quartet featuring Chris Brooks on pedal steel guitar, Joe Potenza on bass, composer Gino Rosati on guitars, and producer Eric Hastings on drums. They’ve been performing around RI for as long as most of us can remember and are always supportive of other acts and bands – and the members also take part in a number of other musical undertakings. Joe Potenza even headlines any number of configurations.
The band combines elements of jazz, folk, R&B and country to form a unique, spirited sound. They perform their own original instrumentals, and released a few original albums in 2022. Recently, they have been releasing a series of “Plus One”s, where they play with a local guest musician. They also reinterpret classic songs and collaborate with guest singers and instrumentalists. Currently, they have a monthly residency at The Parlour in PVD, which means you can catch them there live on the second Saturday of any month. – MR

Favorite Concert Photographer

Local shows were always judged a success if Favorite Photographer Lisa Gourley was in attendance. Even if no one else was there, having Lisa at the front of the stage using multiple cameras to photograph and take video (often at the same time) made for a great night with plenty of footage to share. Lisa has documented the highs and lows of the RI music scene. There are few people that she doesn’t know, and she is well-respected by the community.
Lisa has dedicated her life to her art. She is passionate and bands in almost every genre have had to pleasure of feeding off her kindness, whether it’s through a swig of the Jim Beam she keeps in her trunk or the dessert she’ll bake for to celebrate a birthday. The world has a lot of great photographers, but only RI has a Lisa Gourley. This community is incredibly blessed to have her. – BF

Favorite Blues Act,
Overall Favorite Americana Act

Neal & the Vipers have become one of those deeply loved local legends that never disappoint. They’ve won enough of these awards to count as “legendary” status, which means they won’t be nominated last year, just to give someone else a chance.
The Vipers are Steve Bigelow on bass, Dave Howard on vocals & harmonica, and Mike LaBelle on drums. They have released nine albums over the years and been recognized with many other honors.
Neal Vitullo is still making great music and wowing audiences with his guitar chops. For over 30 years, the Vipers have been playing blues, roots, rockabilly and surf music around RI and beyond. They’ve torn up stages with music legends like B.B. King, Roy Buchanan, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Albert Collins, Greg Allman, Jimmy Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Dixon, Johnny Copeland, Robert Plant, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. And that’s just a few. If you patronize outdoor festivals during the warm weather, Neal & the Vipers are in a dead heat with Steve Smith & the Nakeds for the band you’re most likely to randomly find performing, getting the crowd on its feet and dancing. nealandthevipers.com – MR

Favorite choral act

Providence Gay Men’s Chorus
is always a pleasure to hear and watch perform. They are not strangers to winning this award, and with good reason. They are a diverse group of talent, delivering messages of equality and uplifting messages of empowerment through song. Their joy of performing always shines through and they take their audience with them on their musical journey from beginning to end. They have been delivering their touching, sometimes playful and lighthearted, joyful, exuberant, and always top-notch performances for over 25 years now, and they only get better. Their musical interpretations are fun and unique. Their focus on positive messages through musical excellence continues to make them a PVD treasure. – LA

favorite folk act

Allysen Callery
writes music that has found a home in the ghost folk style – in fact, one recent album is titled Ghost Folk. She has a mesmerizing sound to her songs that draws the listener in and captivates them. For the longest time her tag was “quiet music for a loud world.”
Her style is that of folk from the British Isles and is compared and influenced by Sandy Denny and Kick Drake. She often tours Europe and has a dedicated following overseas. Allysen is a multiple Motif Award winner and has taken home trophies of different sorts many times over the years. She is a board member of the Rhode Island Folk Festival, where she curates the Songbird Stage. allysencallerymusic.com – JF

Street Band/Brass Band/Marching Band (Mobile)

Providence Drum Troupe
marched off with this honor this year. They took the trophy by only a few votes, but that’s still quite a trajectory for a group that was birthed during COVID, and largely by accident. Their organic growth from a collection of stir-crazy quarantiners who found a musical outlet together, but six feet apart, by drumming on the new PVD Pedestrian bridge, to one of the most spatially activating acts in the city, has been nothing short of epic.
Known for their boisterous presence and ability to turn anything into a funky, memorable party, they have become regulars at many major events around RI and beyond. Under the leadership of photographer/drummer David Lee Black, their exact members will vary from gig to gig, depending on who is available and up for having a good time, but their vibe will always include surprises, audience interaction, funky hats and costumes, angel wings. And, of course, drumming. – MR

Large Instrumental Ensemble (Stationary)

The Ocean State Pops Orchestra
is a nonprofit 60-piece touring group of talented musicians performing over six annual concerts throughout Southern New England. It was established to enhance the cultural vitality of the region through performances of great music and through educational programming.
Founded in 1993, the Orchestra’s repertoire includes a broad variety of light classical pieces, movie and show compositions, patriotic music and big band pieces.
Music director Dr. Brian Cardany is in his second season as the OSPO’s director, in addition to being the director of the American Band of PVD and the director of bands at URI. – BV

Favorite Americana Festival

The Rhode Island Folk Festival
is a free annual festival that celebrates local folk, acoustic, and Americana acts. The event takes place at the waterfront Rose Larisa Park in Riverside. It began in 2014 as the Providence Folk Festival, and its following and growth necessitated both the move across the Seekonk and the change in moniker. This year’s festival includes three stages of acoustic-themed music for bands, soloists, and for an unjuried open-mic, and the event is supplemented by local food and art vendors to entice all the senses.
The event is produced by Hear In Rhode Island, a nonprofit organization founded by RI native, musical community leader and Motif contributor John Fuzek. In addition to writing a music column and several of the profiles in this very article, he is our publication’s podcaster-in-chief. Take a listen to his regular Roots Report Podcast! – BV

Favorite Americana Album

Mark Cutler’s Side Effects is a stripped down album of folk and blues which really allows Cutler’s stories to breath. I dig “Jimi Hendrix Changed His Own Strings” for the way Cutler relates the oddity of a rock star changing his own strings to meeting a new neighbor. “Queen of the Dive” is blues romper. “I Didn’t Know” is another favorite with some excellent slide guitar work.
You can check out Side Effects on Bandcamp. You can also check out Mark Cutler and the Men of Great Courage at Askew on April 21. – MC

Favorite Music video

NOVA ONE is the musical project of Roz Raskin and their friends. Their winning music video, “Feeling Ugly” captures Raskin with their signature peachy colored bob, dressing a mannequin to look like them while performing their dreamy song “Feeling Ugly.” NOVA ONE just finished their April tour so be on the lookout for future local dates! – TL


favorite alt-rock act

The Quahogs
suffered a debilitating blow in the last year with the passing of their drummer and brother, Nick Iddon. Nick was just the sweetest human I’ve ever encountered and you’d always see the band hanging out together when they weren’t performing. Fronted by the raspy voiced Stev DelMonico, The Quahogs remind me of ’70s rock in the spirit of Gram Parsons. The Quahogs haven’t released new music in a bit but they are working on a new album that is due later this year. You can catch The Quahogs opening for Lydia Loveless at Askew on May 7. – MC

favorite jam band

Over the past several years, Jabbawaukee has become one of the top jam/funk bands in PVD and New England. The group consists of bassist and vocalist Brendon “Low B” Bjorness-Murano, guitarist and vocalist Dave Hobson, keyboardist and vocalist Jack Skiffington and drummer and vocalist Stu Taylor.
Jabbawaukee released their debut full-length LP Family Tree in late 2021, followed by the release of the video for their first single, “Ting Pop (Time Flys By).” They are quite familiar with the local music festival circuit, performing regularly all over New England, including at RI festivals Rhythm and Roots and Block Island Music Festival. – BV

indie rock

Ravi Shavi also lost a brother and drummer in the passing of Nick Iddon. Ravi Shavi are one of the most exciting bands around to see live. Their sound tends to evolve – in their early years, it was more trashy garage rock. When I saw them last fall they played a lot of new stuff that had a definite Prince feel. It has been a couple of years since their last album, Special Hazards, so I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. You can catch singer/guitarist Rafay Rashid opening up for Matthew Logan Vasquez (of The Delta Spirit) at Askew on May 19. – MC
Favorite Alt/Rock Live Act
A Z-Boys performance has the rush of a supersonic rollercoaster. The Z-Boys play frantically as if on an endless quest to keep the wheel in the sky turning with a sound that merges surf rock, funk, and rockabilly. They have a new single, “The Spice,” coming out soon. Also keep your eyes peeled for upcoming shows as The Z-Boys play out fairly regularly. – MC

favorite reggae act

has grown from three to six people in the last couple of years, and in this past year there have been months when the Motif team assembling our event listings thought they were a typo because they seemed to be playing everywhere, all at once.
They’re no typo, it turns out – the band has really gotten out and about with their jazzy approach to reggae, and they have a subspecialty in taking tunes traditionally in other genres and reggaeifying them to produce a whole new feel, both recognized and new. And very danceable.
Dudemanbro jams out of the South County area and venues like the OMist, but like we just said, they seem to get out a lot, so keep an eye out for shows near you. – MR

favorite ska band

The Agents
have broken the nearly-ten-year reign of The Copacetics in taking the best ska band. It feels like the fall of the Roman Empire of ska bands. The Agents aren’t exactly upstarts – in fact, I believe they date back to the 1900s. That hasn’t slowed down the party as they still play out regularly and are always a blast. Get out your dancing shoes and catch The Agents live at Askew on April 22. Get ready to experience the band “from the small town with a big sound.” – MC

favorite garage band, breakthrough alt act, overall alt act

Ziggy Gnardust
is fronted by Ziggy Coffey, long a renowned drummer in a number of local acts, including Favorite Alt Live Act 2023, The Z-Boys. Many of these bands are known, in particular for their energetic drumming.
While a drummer-frontman combination is a bit unusual in the universe of bands, Ziggy has transcended any Spinal-Tap-style expectations and broken out of the drummer-box, performing vocals and guitar with the same long-hair thrashing gusto that has characterized him as a drummer. It’s certainly working for the band, as they’ve been booking a lot of smaller venues and acquired enough fans for Gnardust’s gritty rockers to get more votes, overall, than any other alt act this year. – MR

favorite noise band

Department of Teleportation
brings the noise with slashing riffs and punk rock energy. When I reviewed their self-titled EP, it reminded me a little of the band Helmet. Department of Teleportation have a new EP, Lifestyles of the Spatially Unreasonable, out on all the streaming services as well as cassettes available through their Bandcamp page. – MC

favorite pop-punk act

The Dust Ruffles
identify as pop-rock or power-pop, but nonetheless this category was the next best thing and they’re grateful either way. Fronted by vocalist Tammy Laforest, with drummer Alvaro Diaz and SexCoffee’s Sharlene DeNardo on bass and backup vocals, The Dust Ruffles have played everywhere in Rhody from the Pride Fest Main Stage in Downtown PVD to the Galactic Theatre in Warren. Catch them performing live around the East Coast and listen to their EP Innocent Filth. – TL

favorite punk act

made a loud comeback after many years dormant. They added lead guitarist Bob Kadlec, released their five-song EP, Meet Me at the Bar and won Favorite Punk Band. Their rambunctious brand of garage-punk rock & roll easily gets people moving, whether they realize it or not. They already have a dedicated fanbase and have been winning over fans at will.
“I just want to say “thanks” to everyone who took the time to vote and show their support,” says drummer Doug Metivier of winning the award. “And an even bigger “Thank You” to everyone who comes out to shows ready to dance and have a good time!”
Congratulate Sourpunch at Nick-a-Nees on Saturday, April 1 with The Birkitt Transmissions. Show is free and starts at 9 pm. – BF

favorite hardcore act

The Hammer Party
mixes noise rock and post-punk – there are no perfect boxes for their art. They put out an EP last year called Earth Abides from which I really like the track, “Walk The Walk.” Its dissonance creates a trippy vibe. Lead singer Dan St. Jacques is a force of nature as a frontman. If you like your music loud and jarring, keep an eye out for upcoming The Hammer Party shows! – MC

favorite metal act

is metal with quite a few hyphens: doom-metal, rock-metal, stoner-metal. Their hard sound comes from Zigmond Coffey (drums, vocals), Dillon Stankowitz (guitar, vocals), Jonny Sage (bass, vocals), Greg Aaron (guitar, lead vocals), who got together just pre-pandemic – which means it hasn’t been too hard to find inspiration for lyrics of doom and gloom. And yes, here again you will find the steady drum work of Ziggy Coffey. We’re trying futilely to find a local rock band that doesn’t include Ziggy.
Princess’ first, eponymous album was released less than a year ago, with old-school vibes, by PVD-based Yuggoth Records. – MR

favorite prog/emo act

People Eating Plastic
have been voted first in this award before, and have been bringing their math skills to the stage for quite a few years – remarkably, their diet doesn’t seem to have harmed them yet, and they continue to thrive in this challenging style of rock. It’s an experience to see this trio play live, and they will experiment on your ears and other senses. Meanwhile, you can always talk to the folks at EcoRI about the hard to digest statistic that the average person will eat over 40lbs of plastic in their lifetime. That’s scary math. – MR

gothic/post-punk act

Joy Boys
shade more to the post-punk side of the coin than goth. They crank out sludgy anthems about the likes of the “Cleveland Browns,” “Tuxedo Boy,” and “The Fucker.” It’s been awhile since we got new tunes from Joys Boys so hopefully that is in the works as well as more shows! – MC

favorite cover band

Take It to the Bridge
is a cover band with a devout following and a versatile selection of covers from many different styles. Pre-pandemic, they were mistakenly nominated under Favorite Jazz Act, and were extremely polite in pointing out that, while they do some jazz covers, the category didn’t really seem like a fit. They were gracious about it, and several odd years later, our process finally put them into the right category and karma took them to the win.
Take it to the Bridge can be found on a regular basis in South County at locales like the Charlestown Rathskeller, getting audiences on their feet to whatever classics fit the mood of the night. They were born as a wedding band nearly 10 years ago, and come in seven, five and three-person configurations that may include Greg Marcotte, Christyn Marcotte, Carl Bugbee, John Richards Jr, Josh DeFedele, Colby Geaber and Scott Roddick. – MR

favorite tribute band

The Winehouse Project does a great job of re-creating the magic of Amy Winehouse’s music. I’ve seen them a few times over at the Met Café and definitely will keep coming back. The Winehouse Project will be at Chan’s in Woonsocket on March 31. – MC

favorite alt/rock vocalist

Julie Rhodes
is a powerhouse when it comes to singing blues and soul. She is reminiscent of Janis Joplin, but different. She can pull off doing something like Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” and hold the room hostage with her voice. Definitely a must-see performer – which one can do, when she opens for Sarah Potenza at the Met Café on May 13. – MC

favorite album

Three years in the making, The Benji’s Kitty Pills barely made the cut, coming out right before the nominations. My favorite cuts are “Skate” and “Good Living” which are both up-tempo rockers. The Benji’s don’t really fit in a box, description-wise. They are somewhere between new wave and punk-pop, while being none of the above at the same time. The Benji’s are one of my favorite local bands to catch live, so I’m looking forward to the Kitty Pills release show, whenever that may be. – MC

favorite karaoke night

The Parlour’s
karaoke night is Friday and has been running for years. I’m not sure what makes a night the best karaoke night – is it just that the people that frequent are more passionate? Anyways, it is on Fridays. Karaoke. The Parlour. Got it? – MC

favorite alt festicval

PVD Fest
was the clear winner this year, and it’s hard to know what to say about about this megafest, except that it might have outgrown this category like Newport Folk Fest. The Creative Capital’s show piece has survived a few reinventions over the years, most notably during COVID, but the City has always kept the lights on and the music and art flowing, and recent years have sought a fine balance of local acts and national ones to keeps its multiple stages rockin’ over several days. – MR

favorite sound person

You’d be hard-pressed to find a venue or owner/promoter that Soundperson of the Year Kris Hansen hasn’t done sound for. He has been doing sound for an incredibly long time and built a strong reputation along the way. While he knows his way around a mixing board, it’s his personable approach that puts him over the top. He is easy to work with and quick to lend a helping hand that will make the band sound as strong as possible. He always has a kind word to say and treats everyone with the respect of a peer. He has a keen ability to listen to the band’s requests and accommodate as much as possible, and clearly loves his job.
“I see Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Lennon, The Beatles, The Who, Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash, Harry Nilsson, Joni Mitchell, DiFranco, Floyd every single night,” Hansen says excitedly. “The absolute equivalent, and beyond! They are performing at our local bars and venues. They are giving the best there is and all you must do is leave your house. Instead of being spoon-fed another greatest hits album or the next overpriced tour, please go see the new Elton before he was signed… or the New Regina Spektor before she was discovered. I know these people on the local level. Undiscovered heroes, go and check out your local scene. Take another chance on all of us.” – BF

favorite promoter

Rob Duguay has become an RI fixture since moving here from CT to attend Rhode Island College in the late 2000s. He has become a prolific music writer, penning articles about local and national bands for various publications. He also started booking shows under the Top 5 Fiend moniker, which has successfully earned him back-to-back Motif Awards as Favorite Promotor.
“Rob is the kind of guy that is really cool to work with and accommodating towards newer or lesser-known bands,” says Jarrod Pimentel of Today is Tomorrow. “He gives them a chance to hang out and show what they’ve worked on to a new audience.”
Duguay books shows all over RI, with The Parlour, News Café and Dusk among his favorites. His April birthday coincides with Autism Awareness Month, which leads to a birthday weekend of benefit shows. Go congratulate him on his award in person at the next Top 5 Fiend show, a “Thuriety” show at The Parlour on Thursday, April 6 with The Sleds, The Bluechips, and (Writer’s Pick winners) Balloon Thief. – BF


Favorite Hip-Hop Act,
Favorite Hip-Hop Album,
Overall Favorite Electronica

“I was born at Women & Infants in 1991, the same day Magic Johnson retired [due to] AIDS, but we don’t have to include that in the thing, that doesn’t matter,” said Jesse Ramos, aka Jesse the Tree.
Except it kind of does matter. Because with a lyricist like Ramos, the more you know, the richer the experience. His lyrics unfold like a litany of observations masterfully interentwined to provoke gut-punch moments of reflection, like when you’re recalling something past and able to feel it in the present.
He stitches basketball references alongside the likes of Hey Arnold, David Berman, Shawshank, and Mary Oliver to tell you who he is and what he thinks and how he’s feeling. He’s driven by a writer’s hunger to comprehend and rectify matters of the heart and troubles of the mind. He falls down rabbit holes of curiosity, piling reference upon reference to create his own symbols that open doors to larger worlds and deeper understandings. He’s a poet. And poetry’s all about the details.
“Writing is my most healing avenue in life and always has been… In some ways it’s a strange introverted path of, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything, you gotta go listen to the album.’ Emotional catharsis is the best way to describe the writing process.”
Born to a music-loving family, Ramos’ traces influences from Nas, Gang Starr, MF Doom, Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, to Neil Young, Pink Floyd, Bill Callahan, The Grateful Dead, and Zappa.
“Music was always present and somehow intertwined in life at all times…. A combination of all that stuff is what’s going on in my brain. It’s like psychedelic, sad, jaded ’90s sitcom, boom bap rap.”
In 2020, Ramos signed to Strange Famous Records and in 2022 he released his label debut. The album name, Pigeon Man, is a nod to a Hey Arnold character who lived on a rooftop with a family of pigeons, a character exhausted by life yet somehow still hopeful.
“Pigeon Man had some gems when he was talking to Arnold, he’d be like, ‘I’m tired of people, it’s people.’ As a kid I was like, ‘Oh my god this is me and I’m way too young to be feeling like this.’ That scene of him flying off into the sun, being carried away by pigeons, that stayed with me. I was thinking of using it as a stage name but I named the album that and essentially it’s me saying, this album is about me.”
Ramos is an artist who acknowledges the blue side of life and the destructive toll of emotions when felt in high doses. On “Blue Dream,” a track off Pigeon Man, he walks you through a family history that begins in Florida and leads to Rhode Island. He tells of his dad laboring on a farm then lyrically sends you to his parents meeting in the Southwest (his mom was singing Joni Mitchell, perhaps peyote was involved) to the birth of his sisters and his adoration for them, to finally his own birth and eventual pursuit of finding catharsis through writing. I heal through conveying a poem you can feel, he says.
On the subsequent track “Miss Tonin” Ramos raps against the toxicity of a cruel and tiring society with untenable expectations, and tells listeners they don’t have to be alright, then extends a compassionate line worth putting into practice, We can all try to walk each other home.
On “Fuzzy Orange Headband,” a track fromoff I’m Fakin’ My Own Death Just to Get Some Rest, an album done in collaboration with his friend Andrew, a Philadelphia-based artist who makes up one half of the sleepingdogs duo, Ramos pays homage to the Silver Jews, citing what he calls that “’90s drawly ehhh sound” as a huge influence.
“David Berman was the master of saying something very simple and then something really fucking intense that you’re almost uncomfortable with. There’s a lot of Elliot Smith influence, too. We both like that droney sad stuff, and we both super love hip- hop, so we wanted to bring those together.
That album is us being like, ‘Let’s be ourselves and see where it goes.’ It’s super near and dear to me, and I think people are getting it. People are like, ‘This is the happiest saddest album I’ve ever heard.’”
Ramos is currently pursuing a masters in social work at Rhode Island College, a field of study he shares with his mom.
“She and I are both social workers, we’re very interested in learning how to care for others and for ourselves.”
Recently, he won Motif’s award for Overall Favorite Hip Hop/Electronica artist and described the ceremony as akin to a high school reunion.
“There’s a lot of people around here who’ve been so supportive and helpful and engaged, and that can be hard to find. It definitely takes a village. Somebody’s gotta record you and somebody’s gotta help you get it out into the world, you need collaborators. I’ve met a lot of people here who’ve been instrumental in keeping this dream alive.” – Meg Coss

Jesse the Tree accepts his award on stage (Small Frye Photography)

Listen to Jesse the Tree and support his music at jessethetree.bandcamp.com. Follow him on IG @jessethetree for current info. And visit threedollarpistol.com to purchase the happiest-saddest album you’ll ever hear.

breakthrough hip-hop act

is the solo project by Mike Jencks, frontman of Toad and the Stooligans. Jencks has been creating ToadStool projects for a bit, but seems to have gathered steam in the last couple of years, with about 20 releases of various lengths since 2020. With clever, quick-thinking and quick-moving lyrics, this condensed Toad is hopping along at a pace that fans clearly want to keep up with, and he shows no signs of slowing down. – MR

favorite dj

For a someone with a name that sounds really tough, Pauly Danger is a super sweet guy. Pauly plays a mix of reggae and dancehall that gets the room moving. He has been DJing for years on Monday nights at The Parlour’s popular Reggae Mondays as well as other spots like The Hot Club, Troop, The Ocean Mist, and more. – MC

favorite dance night

I think all it took was for the POW Indie Dance Party to return for the first time in years to get a nomination and win the damn category. Pretty impressive feat, pulled off by DJ Handsome Pete Lima. POW is a night of indie and electro dance bangers from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. At that edition in February, Handsome Pete shared the decks with DJ Desirenegade so she’s really a co-winner. I’m not sure if that is the plan going forward, or even if there is a plan to go forward, but I’m hoping for something POWerful. – MC

favorite electronic act

“I love Rhode Island Music.”
Artist Jackie and the Wizard prove that dedication and hard work pay off. They have made a name for themselves with energetic and entertaining shows to go along with their dancy, hypnotic songs. Not ones to sit still, the two are either performing or in the audience supporting their peer musicians.
“I’m very thankful to be part of the music scene and be appreciated by so many,” Artist Jackie says of their second Motif Award for Favorite Electronic Act. “Not very long ago I would just daydream about being part of something like the Providence music scene and now we won 2 years in a row. I really think it comes down to if you invest in others, they will invest in you. Winning isn’t just because of the music we make, though we do kill it every time. It’s also because we have The Artist Jackie Show showcasing talent from Rhode Island and I’ve made over 500 videos of bands, rappers and singer-songwriters. We’ve given a lot to Providence music over the past five years so it’s really nice that our efforts have been recognized and appreciated.” – BF

RI is for Hope: Kathleen Bellicchi of Bellicchi’s Biscotti

It was 34 degrees out on the first of February in Warren. Clouds were sparse, the sun was shining, and the air was sharp as a paper cut. I stood on the beach in my bathing suit with Kathleen Bellicchi, founder of Bellicchi’s Biscotti, and three other women who’d all come together for an afternoon dip in the ocean.

We called ourselves selkies. Selkies are similar to mermaids. They are seal maidens who appear in Celtic and Scottish folklore. Versions of selkies appear in stories told in cold, northern countries and regions such as Iceland and Siberia, and in tribes of the American Northwest. Selkies tell stories of where we come from, what we’re made of, and how we use instinct to find our way home.

Swimming in the ocean is something Bellicchi does every month of the year, often multiple times a week.

“I’m a summer swimmer, winter dipper,” she said.

Bellicchi sold her first box of Bellicchi’s Biscotti in 2015 on her 68th birthday at the schoolyard market behind Hope & Main, RI’s premier food incubator, where Bellicchi got her start.

“I was there for five years and you have your ups and downs. I’d come in and be in tears feeling like, ‘Alright, I’m at the end of the line, I’m not doing it right, I can’t figure it out.’ And they would say, ‘Kathleen, you’re doing great, look at you, look at this, what do you mean?’ They were always there if I was doubting or in need, someone was always there to take me seriously and listen.”

Bellicchi founded Bellicchi’s Biscotti to honor her husband Eric, who passed away in 2013 from early onset Alzheimer’s. Baking biscotti was an activity they enjoyed and one they continued to enjoy even as Eric’s Alzheimer’s progressed.

“He was diagnosed in his fifties, but as he lost his capabilities, he could still turn biscotti. So we’d put on some jazz, get out the KitchenAid, and bake more biscotti than we could eat. It was like stealing him back.”

It was Bellicchi’s first husband’s mother who taught her about biscotti.

“I’m Irish and Polish, I’m one of nine children. We ate a very meat and potatoes diet. I loved to cook, to bake cakes, but I did not know biscotti. I learned so many wonderful things from my mother-in-law. She couldn’t cook a ham; she couldn’t cook a turkey; she couldn’t cook anything that wasn’t Italian, but you could not beat her Italian cooking.”

Bellicchi’s mother-in-law taught her to use fennel instead of anise when making biscotti, she taught her about the science of baking, about the benefits of exactitude and size.

“Anise gives you an overpowering licorice taste, but with fennel you get a crunch of almonds and a blast of fennel, you get a different taste with every bite… If your biscotti is too thick, it tastes kind of powdery when you bite into it. Ours has a crunch that’ll stand up to a good dunking. Our tagline is: Dunk, crunch, yum.”

At 76 years old, Bellicchi teaches executive presentation skills, is training for an Alzheimer’s memory run, takes spin classes twice a week, and attends a yoga class 4–6 days a week. She donates a portion of Bellicchi’s Biscotti profits to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, which she has done since day one, and hopes to launch a new line of biscotti by the end of the year: Nona the Stonah’s Cannabiscotti.

“The name created itself. Cannabis. Biscotti. Cannabiscotti! My grandmother name is Nona, although cannabis has never been my thing, I really only got paranoid; however, my son-in-law said, ‘Nona the Stonah’s Cannabiscotti!’ and of course the name was born.”

Bellicchi was the last to leave the ocean. She wore a pom-pom hat, special water gloves and booties, and talked about the boats bobbing behind us; they reminded her of her time in Alaska, when she worked aboard a boat her brother captained. In 30-degree water temps, amidst a background of glaciers and moraines, she’d go for a swim, take a dive off the dock, swim ten strokes out and ten strokes back in water so cold it felt warm.

I focused on Bellicchi’s words; she spoke of “Alaskan sunshine,” the crew’s term for when it rained. My thoughts kept to my breathing – the moment felt familiar, like we’d talked about Alaska and boats before, but I began to come out of it. Around the three-minute mark, my toes stiffened and I shot out of the water, my torso exposed, and Bellicchi said, “Don’t stand like that for too long.” We were warmer in the water, she said, which I didn’t understand, but knew to be true.
Bellicchi’s Biscotti is available at Whole Foods in RI, MA, and CT, and at Hope & Main’s new Downtown Makers Marketplace at 100 Westminster St., PVD. To view a complete list of locations visit bellicchisbest.com.

Interviews with the 2023 Spoken Award Winners

What is Spoken Word?

Some say spoken word is an umbrella term under which poetry and storytelling call home. Some include stand-up comedy under this umbrella, others say spoken word is not comedy. Some say spoken word is lyrical and without musical instruments, others say spoken word is music. Consistent throughout each definition is sincerity. 

Spoken word is words spoken out loud by an artist who engages an audience with moments of pain and triumph, of amazement and joy, of thoughtful examinations and retellings of personal and collective histories, of mythologies, dreams, ideas, observations, and jokes, all intertwined with heartfelt truths that, when communally acknowledged, make a room so quiet you can hear a pin drop.

On February 3, on the eve of an arctic outbreak, in partnership with Funda Fest, Motif held its inaugural Rhode Island Spoken Awards at R1 Indoor Karting. While tweens and teens and professionals of all ages played arcade games and raced go-karts around an indoor track, beloved RI performers were in a giant function room being honored for their excellence in the spoken arts.

I asked a few winners what they hope to capture with their words and how to describe the spoken word artform. Below are excerpts from their responses.

Len Cabral performing at the Spoken Awards

Len Cabral

Winner: Favorite Interactive Storyteller & Overall Favorite Spoken Performer

I want the words to create an image that the listener can easily place in the story. I want the words to evoke compassion, empathy, fear, understanding and more. Most important is engaging the listeners. I talk about the 3 E’s: Entertainment, Education, and Engagement. Without engagement there is no entertainment or education. 

I want the listener to experience storytelling in such an enjoyable way that they want to retell the story to friends, tell their own stories, become better listeners, ask others about their stories or interview family members. 

Often when a storyteller announces that he or she is a “Storyteller,” a person will say, “Oh you read books to kids?” Nowhere is reading mentioned, neither is the word kids. (Refer back to better listening.) Storytelling is not just for children, sometimes adults need to hear stories more than the children.

LenCabral.com / lencabral@gmail.com

Val Tutson

Winner: Audience Award, Storytelling

First, I think it is important to say that while I do “write,” I don’t “write a piece.” I think of storytelling as “writing out loud.” I use the “tools of writing” to help me outline, organize, map my storytelling.

When I perform I want to take people on a journey with me. I want us to have a shared experience that only really can exist in that moment. Because when it’s over, it’s over, and all that remains is the memory of it… kind of how the scent of perfume lingers after someone passes by.

FB: Valerie Tutson // IG: RIBlackStorytellers

Liz Moniz

Winner: Favorite Stand-Up Comic

My goal for my standup material is always to resonate with the underdog. I have a new bit I really love about what it’s like going to the doctor as a fat woman. I use the term “fat” specifically because I want to take the shame and stigma away from that word. So many people have said to me, “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” That joke is my way of saying I am fat AND beautiful, and here is a glimpse into what my life is like living in that space. I, of course, always want to accomplish the goal of making people laugh, but I also want audience members to say, “Wow, this has happened to me too, and no one has ever made me laugh about it before.”

For me, spoken word is the most difficult artform, because your words are the entire show. You’re standing alone with nothing but your voice to elicit a response or reaction from the audience. People underestimate how difficult that is. It’s very powerful stuff, and when it works, it’s almost magic.

IG: @LizzMonizzComedy

Dutchess Southside

Winner: Audience Award, Comedy

I’m a freestyle comedian… I feel the crowd’s energy, then the words take over. My goal is to bring joy, happiness, and electricity into the room with just the words that come into my head.

[Being at the awards] felt like home, I saw familiar faces and genuine smiles. And oh my goodness, the words! The words that came out were so moving.
IG: @Southside_Dutchess / FB: Janaya Gonsalves / dutchesssouthside@gmail.com

Mr. Orange

Winner: Honorable Mention Favorite Spoken Word

Spoken word is any art form using words as its medium such as music, comedy, poetry, storytelling, etc…Poetry is a part of spoken word but poetry is more than just words on a page. 

We use poetry in many different forms and career paths. Teachers use poetry, politicians use poetry in speeches, preachers use poetry, it’s seen in the Bible in psalms, and theaters, ads and more all use poetry in one form or another. There are 52 different types of poetry and many different uses.

IG, TikTok: MrOrangeLive / FB: TellYourTruthRI / mrorangelive.com

Kleo Sincere

Winner: Audience Award, Spoken Word

The “professional” in me would describe spoken word as an oral performance of some type of literature, primarily poetry. The artist in me, well, I’m unsure. I have yet to think about this. I guess the way I would describe spoken word is what you do when you feel like the words you have written, the ones circling in your head all day, become more than the paper you’ve written on, and are now demanding to be said. 

Spoken word to me, is not a choice. It is a decision the poem makes for me. Some poems want to be appreciated in different ways. Some want to be read and some want to be heard. Spoken word is where your poem comes to life and becomes larger than you.

IG: @SleepyBabyKleo

Chachi Carvalho

Winner: Favorite Social Justice & Favorite Hip-Hop/Narrative Music

When I write, I hope that my words remain true to my authentic self. There was a time when I felt I needed to stretch the truth and present a version of myself that I was not proud of in order to be accepted. Over the years, I have learned to embrace the different versions of my personal development, and I hope that my art serves as a way for folks to hear my story. 

When I perform, I hope to connect with somebody. I hope to lock eyes with even just one person, and I patiently wait for that look in their eyes that tells me that they see me, they hear me, and they relate. If I do that everytime I touch the microphone, I did my job and accomplished what I aim to do as an artist.

IG, Twitter, TikTok, FB: @ChachiHipHop / chachihiphop.com / chachihiphop@gmail.com

Tyler Hittner

Winner: Favorite Live Performer

Public speaking is the number one fear among people and most people dream of doing stand-up but are afraid to try… I show the audience that not only can they do anything they also don’t have to fear getting up on stage. What my stand up accomplishes is that anyone attending my show will come away feeling, “If he can do it, so can I.” Not necessarily comedy, but to overcome any adversity they may be facing.
FB: Tyler Hittner // IG: Wheelz1990

Shyam Subramanian

Winner: Favorite New Voice, Stand-Up

I started performing regularly in 2017. Throughout my life I knew I wanted to do some form of entertainment but didn’t know exactly how to get into it. Around 2015–2016, one of the biggest things in my life that helped me start performing was my therapist. Going through therapy allowed me to remove some of the self barriers I was putting on myself to do what I wanted to do.

IG: @InstaShimmy

Fallon Masterson

Winner: Favorite Personal Storyteller

Spoken word is a pretty big umbrella, but if I’m trying to describe what I do, or what I try to do with Stranger Stories (the storytelling show I produce), I think of it like stand up, but without the obligation to be funny. 

Some pieces, being funny might be the point. But others, maybe the emotion you’re trying to evoke with the audience is nostalgia or embarrassment or jealousy or falling in love…. But when it’s done well, it still feels immediate and unpredictable, like live theater…. With author readings, we’re usually just getting an excerpt – and it’s generally not something that was written with the intent of being performed. Comparatively, I think you see that barrier between the audience and performer drop with spoken word pieces. If a book reading is an excerpt, a spoken word performance feels like its own full serving. Come to Strangers Stories!

IG, FB: @StrangerStoriesPVD / StrangerStoriesPVD.com

For the complete list of Spoken Award winners visit: motifri.com/2023-inaugural-spoken-awards-winners.

Rhode Island is for Hope: Martha Tsegaye, Ethiopian eats

In 2010, Martha Tsegaye and her family immigrated from Ethiopia to Virginia; it was her first experience with snow.

“I had only seen snow in the movies or on television and then I got to touch it.”

Ethiopia is mountainous with high plateaus and dry lowlands, with a climate that ranges from arid in its northeastern and southeastern deserts, to wet and humid in equatorial rainforests running along the south and southwest; yet Tsegaye says of Rhode Island, “It seems like my country, I love it. I love the fall. In Virginia, it was so hot or so cold, here there are the seasons.”

She grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a place she describes as diplomatic, full of diversity and culture, “It is so big, everything is there”; as a place with heavy rains in winter but not the cold. 

“When I was a child it was suitable weather, but globally, everything has changed. Even my family has told me, ‘It’s so cold and so wet now.’ After the rain you can feel the coldness, but before, when I was a child, we went out and played in the rain… we enjoyed the rains.”

When she lived in Ethiopia, she and her older sister ran a restaurant. Tsegaye did a little of everything, from front of house to back of house, but she was always the one people wanted to cook. 

“I mostly handled the kitchen, I was the one cooking. They begged me to cook, holiday food, everything… They loved when I cooked.”

In 2015, her husband’s work brought her and her family to Rhode Island. During the move, one of their movers warned her of “big Rhode Island snows,” but living in Virginia had prepared her. 

Once in Rhode Island, her sons encouraged her to turn her passion for cooking into an opportunity. The only Ethiopian restaurant in Rhode Island had just closed, and her sons wanted her to do what she loved – to cook. And to sell what she made best: vegetarian Ethiopian cuisine — soft, spongy injera, stuffed jalapenos, seasoned beetroot, spicy misir wot, aromatic atakilt; unique stews and salads of creamy brown lentils, onions, cabbages, carrots and potatoes to scoop up with strips of tangy injera and share communally with family and friends and savor with the piquant warmth of comfort food.

“We have a culture of feeding others, it’s called gursha, so you can express your love by feeding… We share, we talk, we laugh, it is so amazing, you can connect with each other. That’s the way we eat.”

Like many Ethiopian Orthodox Church members, Tsegaye fasts nearly 200 days a year — every Wednesday and Friday, and at various dates throughout the year in observance of religious occasions. As fasting requires abstaining from meat, dairy, and eggs, many Ethiopian dishes are packed with nutritious plant proteins.

“Ethiopian food is fairly unique, aromatic, and spicy… It starts with our flatbread, injera, which is made from teff flour. Teff is an ancient grain we’ve been eating for thousands of years… Berbere is a blend of different spices and creates an exotic flavor. Beetroot is cooked with onions, tomatoes and turmeric. It has a spicy flavor but the seasoning of different types of garlic and ginger give it a full taste. Brown lentil salad combines cooked lentils with raw vegetables… There’s a lot of jalapenos, garlic, ginger, and olive oil. We put it on top of the injera, roll it up, and eat it with our fingers. Our bread is our utensil and it is also our meal, so the taste when combined is very different.”

With the encouragement of her family, Tsegaye enrolled in business classes at CCRI. There she found a supportive community of professors. “They made me feel comfortable, they encouraged me, it was so amazing.” 

When she graduated from CCRI, COVID hit. It was too risky to open a restaurant, so she took to the internet to find another way to start her business. Through a process she calls “digging,” her term for searching the world around her until she hits upon what she wants (“I’m not a quitter, I dig.”), she discovered the culinary incubator Hope & Main.

“I didn’t waste any time, I jumped into my car and drove. I didn’t even call. I went there and spoke to them and they gave me an appointment… I started there and the response was amazing, everybody was so excited.”

At Hope & Main she found the support and resources she needed to turn her passion into a business, and just over a year ago she did it — Tsegaye founded Ethiopian Eats, the only place in RI serving Ethiopian food. 

If Virginia is for lovers, then Rhode Island is for hope.

Tsegaye currently sells her cuisine every Saturday from 9am–1pm at the Farm Fresh Providence Farmers Market. Late last year, she was one of six finalists in the Sam Adams’ Brewing the American Dream Pitch Contest, a contest that helps local food and beverage entrepreneurs gain access to capital, networks, and business coaching. She hopes to expand her presence at farmers markets and, when the moment’s right, open her restaurant.

To connect with Martha follow @ethiopian_eats or visit ethiopian-eats.com.

Dusk’s Danielle Teller: From Karate Kid to Motif’s 2022 Favorite Bartender Award Winner

Danielle Tellier doesn’t care what you drink. 

“You want something fruity? Do you like vodka? Gin? Tequila? You want a Long Island Iced Tea? I’ll make you one in 45 seconds. I don’t give a shit what you drink, I don’t care if it’s the grossest thing in the world, I’ll make it for you. What do I care? I’m not drinking it. Here’s your Fireball & Cran.” 

She grew up in Woonsocket, lived for a year in Louisville, Kentucky then spent a couple years in Ohio before returning to Rhode Island.

“The midwest was nice but it never felt like home. I was landlocked and everyone was a little too polite. I believe in being kind but it was always like Why are you being so nice? What do you want? There wasn’t a sense of urgency and I like a sense of urgency. I’m a New Englander.”

In kindergarten, she wrote a book about who she was and what she liked and on the last page she drew who she wanted to be when she grew up. “The Karate Kid was real big, so that’s what I drew, I wanted to be a black belt in karate.”

She saw her first concert, Fleetwood Mac, at the Providence Civic Center when she was six and saw Slayer when she was ten. “I was the weird kid… I’m a little less angsty now, but all-in-all I haven’t changed much.”

When she runs into people from high school and they ask what she does for a living she tells them she bartends and manages a music venue and they say, “Oh, that makes perfect sense. Of course you do.” 

In her downtime, she relaxes as hard as she works. “If I’m not working I’m literally sitting on my couch consuming media.” She likes horror movies, fantasy movies, comedies. “I really like dragons and wizards… I have Dark Arts tattooed across my knuckles and it’s not a Harry Potter reference. I don’t want to defend against them, I want to use them.”

Her style remains unchanged year after year – oversized black band T-shirts, black pants, hair swept over one eye. “You can’t see half my face at all times.” She didn’t go to college because she didn’t want to waste time on school when she didn’t know what she wanted to study, but she knew whatever happened, she’d figure it out. 

“I’ve always had a job. I had a part-time job when I was in high school and in the summer it became a full-time job, whether it was Burger King or the grocery store, I’ve always worked.”

She thought she’d work at H&M forever and work her way up to district manager. “You know in your late twenties, early thirties you’re like Okay, this is a career path.” But then she found bartending. 

“Dusk was my first bartending job. Rick [Sunderland] gave me a chance.” On her first shift she learned how to pour drinks and picked up the rest from there. “I don’t believe in coincidences, it fell into me because it was supposed to, I was supposed to be there with those people in that place at that time.

I don’t plan on stopping but it’s a little scary because can my body keep doing this? In nine years I’ll be 50, can I work 60 hours a week when I’m 50? Can I bartend until two in the morning when I’m 50? I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.” 

She approaches life with an outspoken gratitude, regularly acknowledges her good fortune, and writes off her work ethic and ingenuity as necessities. 

“I don’t have a choice… I’ve been lucky but that can change at any second. So I’m going to do what I can while I can because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, we just got through a fucking pandemic. That was scary shit.” 

Even when COVID restrictions began to lift, Dusk faced logistical challenges.

“We’re a live music venue and we couldn’t have live music because performers had to be 12 feet from the audience but our stage is 12 feet from the bar, so the audience would have to be behind the bar with me.”

To earn extra cash, she took on a second job. Now, she works two days at a salon and three nights behind the bar at Dusk, picking up shifts when she can and managing Dusk’s socials and helping with the booking. 

“For almost a decade I’ve gotten to do this and pay my mortgage, how lucky is that? My job is going out and hanging with friends and seeing live music, I’m just lucky.”

Dusk is back at full capacity with a lineup of hardcore, black metal, death metal, post-punk, soul, burlesque and more. 

“We have such a great music scene here, people are like Hey, can we have a date and put a show together? Fucking hell ya you can!”

Follow @dusk_providence for show info, and stop by Dusk on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night to meet our favorite bartender, Danielle Tellier.

Revive the Roots: Rootstock ‘22

Recently I stood in line at the Ace Hardware by Shaw’s and people in front of me talked about how America was “going to hell in a handbasket.”

One person said it was because Congress is full of attorneys and, “Attorneys have never worked a day in their life.” To which another responded, “That’s what I’ve been saying, if you want to run a country, you need a businessman in charge.” 

I didn’t agree with their assessment, but I felt their pain. Sometimes it feels like we’ll combust, spontaneously yet predictably, and sometimes it feels like most of us don’t care. But all it takes is a willingness to unplug, look up, and listen, to remember: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong. There may be a fiery hand basket, but there’s also a verdant garden.

Located on the Mowry Commons in Smithfield, Revive the Roots is a non-profit that creates ecologically regenerative and dynamic social spaces through the education and practice of permaculture. More simply: it’s where people come together to learn from one another, where they grow food and share resources, where they act with intention by building co-supportive systems.

Revive the Roots’ community builder Hannah Martin says, “This is a place where if you have an idea, if there’s an activity you want to see take place, whether that be to grow dye plants or learn mycology, then you can do that here. We want to be a resource for information, we want to be a community of collective learners.”

Since 2013, Revive the Roots has worked to rehabilitate the Mary Mowry House, a piece of property central to the organization. Mowry was a schoolteacher and lover of the outdoors who left her home and 5-acre property to the Smithfield Land Trust upon her death in 2008. The rehabilitation of her home included exterior and interior painting, plaster repair, refinishing period windows and rebuilding its 1850s-era porch. 

Today, the Mowry House serves as Revive the Roots’ headquarters complete with offices, workshops, and living space for curators who steward the 23-acre Mowry Commons. Just recently, Revive the Roots purchased the Mowry House from the Smithfield Land Trust; Rootstock ‘22 is a celebration of this achievement and more.

In 2022, Revive the Roots grew 415 lbs of produce to support hunger relief through their work with Hope’s Harvest; they began a 15-week CSA to provide food for RI families and individuals; they hired a production manager (their first paid position); and, they welcomed learners of all ages to Mowry Commons through art classes, tours and workshops. 

Rootstock ‘22 is a celebration of the purchase of the Mowry House, the aforementioned achievements, and an homage to the people who made Revive the Roots possible and continue to help it thrive.

“Rootstock is an event we’ll put on annually, but it’s definitely more of a celebration this year,” says Revive the Roots board member Jennifer LaPreste. “We’re celebrating these achievements and inviting the community to share in the excitement.”

Rootstock ‘22 boasts an afternoon of music, art and activities. The lineup includes live musical performances by Rafay Rashid, Swamp Birds, Holiday Music, and Hann Cassady; painting and art workshops by The Artist Exchange, and art educator Casey Miller; plus, there will be tours of the Commons and educational talks, including one on beekeeping and honey harvesting from Revive the Roots beekeeper Alex Harmatz.

“We invite people to come and spend a day at the farm,” says LaPreste. “Last year, some people came for the music, others came for the vendors, some just came to wander the grounds. It’s a great day for families, for all ages, really. It’s a great day to see what goes on here.”

Rootstock is a free event with a $10 – 30 suggested donation to help sustain Revive the Roots and its practices of ecological healing, enriching community and securing sustenance.

“The most important aspect of community,” says Martin. “Is the ability to share resources and at its most joyous, it’s people you just see and they put a smile on your face, that’s community… when everyone has the potential to operate in a sphere of supporters.

“Working the land is a challenge. Being out in 90-degree days farming is hard, so when we get to get together and enjoy music and art and food that’s what supports the philosophy of permaculture… celebrating the work that’s gone into the season and regenerating the connectivity that feeds the soul of a community.”
Rootstock ‘22 takes place Sat, Sep 10, Noon – 8pm. For tickets and more information visit revivetheroots.org.

Photo courtesy of Revive the Roots

Rhythm & Roots Goes On: A brief history in Tradition

It’s 1978 and Chuck Wentworth is lugging vinyl records to WRIU to host his Monday night radio show Traditions. For the next 37 years, as the host of Traditions and WRIU’s roots music director, Wentworth will broadcast a weekly dose of renowned and emerging roots music from the towers of WRIU to the radios of RI.

“You know the thing about vinyl,” says Wentworth. “Back then all the stuff that came out was produced by maybe 20, 25 different labels… so you knew when you got some vinyl from one of these record companies it was gonna be good stuff and it was gonna be high quality.”

In 1998, when the opportunity arose to revive a long-running Cajun and bluegrass festival facing bankruptcy, Wentworth partnered with Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival producer Mary Doub to purchase the festival, and together, Wentworth and Doub founded Rhythm & Roots. 

After spending a year in the festival’s Escoheag location, Wentworth and Doub relocated Rhythm & Roots to its current location at Charlestown’s Ninigret Park. With a smoother, more level landscape and ample space for multiple stages, overnight camping and three days of festival parking, Wentworth and Doub were able to elevate Rhythm & Roots to the event they wanted it to be. 

“My company is Lagniappe Productions,” says Wentworth. “It’s a Cajun-French term similar to a baker’s dozen, meaning you get more than you expected. That’s our attitude in terms of working with the public, they buy a ticket to the event and we go above and beyond what they’d normally get in a festival experience.”

Like Traditions, Rhythm & Roots offers listeners everything roots music has to offer—blues, Cajun, zydeco, country, swing. “You name it. It runs the gamut. We try to put a diverse sampling out there for people.” 

Wentworth also assembles festival lineups in the same way he structured his long-running radio show. “I’ve used that knowledge to put together lineups. When I set a daily schedule, I try to get a diversity of styles going and somehow keep it all connected, to find a way to start with a bluegrass band, then go to some country music, then to blues, then some Cajun music, and just keep producing daily lineups like that. The festival has a great vibe. People come here year after year, they meet up with old friends…

“There’s no pressure, people just get to hang. They bring chairs and blankets and spread out. We’ve got about a dozen food vendors. We sell beer and wine and you know, people just relax and wander the grounds. We’ve got three stages, so you can get up and go from stage to stage and listen to different kinds of music.”

In 2015, Doub decided to dedicate her attention to producing the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival full time and sold her share of Rhythm & Roots to Wentworth. Wentworth continued to build the festival, staying true to his philosophy of giving people more than they expected, of giving them a better festival experience. 

In 2021, health concerns forced Wentworth to step away from Rhythm & Roots and cancel the festival; however, just as he and Doub came to the rescue of that long-running Cajun and bluegrass festival years ago, shortly after announcing the cancellation of Rhythm & Roots, Wentworth received dozens of inquiries from prospective buyers.

“I narrowed it down to this one group out of Hartford, CT, GoodWorks Entertainment. I looked at their history, we talked at length, and I felt they were on the same page with what I’d been doing. Their philosophy is pretty much the same and they’re expressing an attitude that they don’t want to change anything. They want to come in for at least the next couple of years and observe. They’re a family business, they’re active in their community. Those are the major philosophies that I saw and said, ‘Alright, this can work.’”

Although not at the helm for the first time in 24 years, Wentworth played an active role in the booking and logistics of the 2022 lineup; he focused on securing local and regional bands while GoodWorks secured national acts. “They’re handling about half the booking and I’m doing the other half. I’m very comfortable in the role I’m in now, a lot of the stress has been relieved.”

This year’s festival brings together over 20 artisan vendors, a dozen food vendors offering cuisines from all over—Korean chili bowls, Cajun and Creole specialties, Middle Eastern fare, gyros, tacos, ribs, chowder, clam cakes—and most importantly, a lineup of over 20 high quality rhythm and roots musicians from across the country, including Little Feat on their Waiting For Columbus 45th Anniversary Tour. 

“Friday night we’ve got an all New Orleans night… We’ve got four bands that are all from New Orleans, they’ll be kicking off the festival. I’m excited about that night,” says Wentworth. “You know, it’s a pretty solid year. I’m looking forward to seeing this thing go on.”

Rhythm & Roots Festival: Fri, Sep 2 thru Sun, Sep 4 in Ninigret Park, Charlestown. For more information and to purchase individual tickets or festival passes, visit rhythmandroots.com.

The Building of Good: A conversation with Karen Gager

If you’ve spent time working for nonprofits, chances are you’ve come across a break room refrigerator magnet with the quotation: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. The quote is attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead. Whether Mead ever uttered those words is subject to debate, but the passion and validity of their meaning is not; although, change for the good rarely happens without support.

Insert Karen Gager, executive director of PVD-based 134 Collaborative, a 501(c)(3) that unites nonprofits and like-minded programs and services under one roof — the roof of Mathewson Street Church in downtown PVD, to be specific. “We are building collaborations for social good,” says Gager. “That’s our tagline.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain the connection between 134 Collaborative and Mathewson Street Church?

The organization was started by the church to oversee the secular programming happening in the building. For years it was overseen by a church member, then the church decided they wanted to have a separate entity with a separate staff; that’s where I came in.

How did you get involved with this work?

I’m a clinical social worker by training. I have a master’s degree in Social Work and back in 2000 I was laid off and this consultant opportunity came along. An organization was looking for someone to evaluate the programs happening in their building and see what else could take place. I interviewed for the position and was hired as a consultant. Then they got funding to hire an executive director and asked me to step into that role.

How would you describe the programs and services you offer?

Most of the programs I’d categorize as social justice or social action programs that serve underserved populations, whether it’s people who are food insecure, housing insecure or financially insecure. Many folks are on disability and not able to work full-time jobs; some have substance use challenges. 

Programs and services we offer need to fit into our mission, which is to bring together social justice and social good organizations and their communities under one roof. They need to fit into that mission and have a willingness to be part of a collaborative. Sharing spaces, working together, supporting one another, those are some of the criteria we look at.

We also have folks who are not necessarily part of the collaborative but rent space in the building such as our black box theater. For example, Brown/Trinity MFA program rented that space and used it for a directing class and some rehearsals. 

What does “community” mean to you? 

Community to me means diversity, people of different backgrounds and experiences coming together to learn from each other, to support one another, to have conversations with each other. Certainly you can have challenges and disagreements, and you may not be on the same page all the time, but community is also an opportunity to figure out how you can work together and respect each other’s opinions and thoughts.

What do you think are the needs RI communities need answered most? 

Homelessness and mental health services. We have Oasis Wellness & Recovery Center in our building and they provide peer-to-peer support for people who are facing mental illness challenges. They have a drop-in center, as well as virtual support groups. As a clinical social worker, I completely agree that there needs to be more mental health services and support for everyone. And not only for people who are homeless or going through other challenges in their lives, but for our whole community, we need a place to go when we’re in need of support.

Having access to affordable food, particularly with sky-rocketing food prices, is definitely another big need. And, opportunities for creative expression and opportunities to engage in conversation are just as important. They’re not necessarily considered basic human needs, but they absolutely contribute to a person’s well-being. As a clinical social worker, I think it’s therapeutic. It’s a kind of counseling in a different venue. Sometimes people just need to share their story in order to heal and move on from trauma. It’s important to tell your story.

Do you ever think about hope? Are you hopeful for the future?

We need to have hope. If we don’t have hope then what motivates you? Hope is essential.

I like the saying: Take it one day at a time. A lot of the folks use that phrase when they come in. Take it one day at a time. And I think that’s a great phrase to keep in mind. Today may not be a good day, but tomorrow can be a better one.

To learn more about 134 Collaborative, including information on its upcoming silent auction, dinner, and fundraiser, Dining for Downcity; how to rent the black box theater; and, how to join the collaborative, visit 134collaborative.org or contact Karen Gager at 401.331.1069.

My Part-Time Life: A horse farm & a farmers market

Last year, I left my full-time job and stitched together a series of five part-time gigs that keep me mentally and physically stimulated, and far, far away from Microsoft Teams. One of my jobs is taking care of horses for McSoley Equestrian on Morning Star Farm and another is managing the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market. When Motif needed a piece on RI farms and farmers markets, I knew just where to turn.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Cara McSoley

Owner McSoley Equestrian & Manager/Head Trainer of Morning Star Farm

When did you start riding?

When I was five I started playing violin but I also really wanted to ride, so my parents said, “If you practice your violin for 100 days in a row, then we’ll get you a riding lesson.” 100 days is a long time for a five-year-old and at one point I got really sick and had to stay in bed and was like, “Bring me my violin!” So I think by the time I started riding I was cusping six.

That’s dedication. 

It’s perseverance. Everything we do is driven by passion. You have to love it.

You have a degree in communications, why’d you make the switch to horse lady?

After college, my goal was to take the burden of my horse off my parents. I got a job and found a farm to rough board, and one day a woman who worked at a different facility saw me riding and asked me to check out her horse. I ended up moving my horse and working there part-time, while also working this e-commerce job. 

I was offered a promotion at the e-commerce job and the director’s position at the equestrian center. I went back and forth: Do I want to have enough money to fuel this habit? Or, do I want to make this passion my career? 

On the morning I decided to give notice to the equestrian center, I got a call and learned my horse had a terrible accident. He kicked his legs through the bars in his stall and pulled the whole iron-frame down. He lost a ton of blood. It was going to be a long rehabilitation and in my mind I was like I was going to quit this. I knew I couldn’t put my horse’s care into someone else’s hands. I hold my horse care to such a high standard and I knew then that was something I could offer others.

I’m glad you chose horse lady.

Well, it was e-commerce for Medicare. I had people calling me like, “I can’t install this bed rail!” And I was like, “I’m 22!”

I’ve learned so many lessons on the farm that apply to the everyday. What are some of your favorite lessons? 

One of my favorite concepts when it comes to horses is passive leadership. When we observe horse dynamics, we see bossy mares pinning their ears and chasing horses away from the hay pile. And we also see the quiet, confident, relaxed, stoicism of a horse that allows others to eat from the same pile. One thing I tell my students is: Be someone that someone else wants to follow. Don’t be a leader because you can chase someone away. Be someone who helps people grow and thrive. 

How do you get up after taking a fall that — even if it’s not physically traumatizing — is mentally jarring?

When you get back on with no mounting block and a busted ego, you have to replace your nerves with positive experiences. It’s so mental. You have to stay calm, even when you haven’t taken a fall, but you’re going through a lot. 

Let’s talk about the pandemic. People want to be with the horses and have that alternate reality at the farm where life is how it should be, but there’s a lot going on. People are sick, people’s family members are sick, and that weighs on you. Mental and emotional neutrality is super important.

What would you say to someone who’s interested in riding but may feel intimidated?

If you truly want to ride, you’re going to spend more time on the ground than in the saddle. A big element of horsemanship is understanding you’re not going to be galloping through fields all the time, there’s a lot more depth to it.

Another of my sayings is: Replace nerves with knowledge. If you’re intimidated, remember: Horses are prey and you’re predator. There are ways we can communicate with them and build understanding, and that knowledge will take the nerves out. Horses are captivating. They really are awesome creatures. 

McSoley Equestrian/Morning Star Farm offers riding lessons for all levels and summer horsemanship camps for ages 6–13. Summer camps run Jun 27–Jul 1, Jul 11–15, Jul 25–29, and Aug 8–12. Pony rides for the whole family will take place on Jun 11, Jul 16, and Aug 20. For more information, email cara.mcsoley@gmail.com.

Grace Feisthamel

Food Access Operations Manager at Farm Fresh RI

How many farms are in RI?

There are a surprising number. I wish I had a number for you, but it’s a really hard number to track. RI has some of the most extensive farmland in the country. There are farmers who’ve been farming for generations and there’s a strong, growing group of younger farmers. And by younger I don’t necessarily mean age, but people new to farming and farming very intentionally for food justice. 

What’s meant by food justice?

I think of food justice as people’s access to food, which is a consistent access to food as well as access to culturally appropriate food that people want to eat. Eating is a basic part of being human, and people should always have access to what they want to eat in a way that’s consistent and reliable. Increasing ways to access food and creating connections with people who grow food is an important part of that. 

What type of foods are available at Farm Fresh farmers markets?

The seasonality of the local food that’s offered follows the natural rhythm of what grows in RI. In the summer, there’s a lot more produce. In the winter there’s not a lot of produce, but we’ll still have farmers, as well as value-added products. 

We sell everything from mushrooms to meat to fish to cheese, prepared foods, donuts, pastries, sometimes there’s someone who sets up a table and makes balloon animals. There’s a wide-range. We always try to curate what makes sense for the farmers and vendors so they feel supported, and our customers feel a sense of ownership and belonging to their local market.

Can you explain the market coins? 

We run a token system called Fresh Bucks. There are three main types of tokens. One is related to credit and debit purchases. When farmers don’t have the technology to accept cards, our system allows customers to swipe their card with us, receive tokens and spend the tokens with the farmers. 

The two other tokens are related to food stamps. We provide a dollar-to-dollar match for every food stamp dollar spent at our markets. Bonus tokens can be used on fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. It helps increase access to local food and creates new access to different customer groups for farmers. It’s a win-win.

Is there an ebb and flow to food assistance programs depending on the administration? 

The SNAP program I believe is written into the Farm Bill, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere. But the amount of money per household income is slightly political. 

Through the CARES Act, Rhode Islanders who were already enrolled in SNAP received an increase in funding and a lot of new folks were enrolled for the first time. So that is slightly tied to the current administration. With the CARES Act, Rhode Islanders saw an increase in access to more SNAP money on their cards and we experienced that at markets, too. 

Last summer we had a 99% increase in EBT sales, when compared to the previous summer. Across the state there was an increase of about 55% of EBT money spent on people’s cards. The number of transactions was up 72%. And redemption numbers, which is when the customer spends tokens with the vendors and vendors return the tokens to Farm Fresh for reimbursement, those numbers were up 75%. 

It was a summer of massive growth and really exciting to see people who were new to farmers markets or people who’d been shopping for years and started coming more regularly or spending more. 

Congratulations, that sounds like a lot of work. 

Thank you. It’s been difficult on the back end to track and prepare. We actually ran out of tokens and had to order more. All good problems, all good things. But a lot to wrangle our minds around.

We also recognize there are people who aren’t on SNAP but have limited access to local food. So, we partner with organizations to offer paper vouchers, which is another incentive that can be spent at markets. It’s another growing piece of farmers markets and an exciting part of increasing access to local food for people who may otherwise have limited access. 

Can you describe your perfect market day? 

I enjoy coming to a market and listening to live music, and scheduled events, like bike day. Themed events are fun, they encourage people to come and stay a while. At some markets we have spots for community groups, like libraries or organizations who want to share information about the work they do. That’s another really important piece of farmers markets, it helps create ownership and identity for the different communities where markets are held.

WaterFire, Beyond the Lighting: A conversation with Peter Mello

Clear Currents Participants Circle the Basin (Photograph by John Nickerson)

When I moved to PVD my aunt asked, “Have you gone to WaterFire?” I had no idea what she was talking about, and the pairing of words seemed incongruous. So she and my uncle drove down from MA and took me. 

The sky threatened rain all day. But it held off until the sky turned black and a boat named Prometheus came down the river with a torch of fire. A brazier was lit. The sky opened up. It poured. And it was perfect.

All along the river people ran for cover and did so while laughing and smiling. We shared umbrellas and huddled together watching the bonfires roar and the firelight flicker atop the water rippling with raindrops. The air smelled of cedar and pine, and drums beat like a unified pulse.

WaterFire is now in its 28th season. This year there are seven full and six partial confirmed lightings. Lightings attract an international audience and are a significant driver of the local economy. A 2012 economic impact report found WaterFire activity drew approximately one million people to Providence and created $114 million of economic impact, which in turn generated over nine million dollars of tax revenue and supported 1,294 jobs in the community. That study was conducted 10 years ago, and WaterFire, like PVD, has grown since.

To learn more about WaterFire’s growth, I spoke with Peter Mello, managing director and co-CEO (with founder Barnaby Evans) of WaterFire Providence and the WaterFire Arts Center.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It seems like despite the 19-month break during the beginning of the pandemic, WaterFire managed not only to survive but thrive.

That’s true. The WaterFire Arts Center was part of our strategic plan to diversify from just being the event downtown. It’s an incredible exhibition space that’s unlike anything in the region, except maybe Mass MoCA. We just closed the exhibition Planet Earth, the Environment and Our Future (link to storyxxx) , which featured a 23-foot-diameter sculpture of the Earth by British artist Luke Jerram. It was a spectacular show. 

We also have about a 22,000 square-foot gallery, which is currently displaying T-shirts from 1936 all the way to present day. One of the artists is Joe Perez, who designs for Kanye and other really high-profile performers. 

Last year we created WaterFire Accelerate to provide a year of professional development to artists under 30. They’re given a stipend and attend meetings that help them with things they don’t learn in art school. We had one where we introduced the artists to a CPA who talked about bookkeeping and taxes. We had a session with a major collector, probably the most important art philanthropist in RI for the last fifty years. They’ve had the ability to spend time with Jordan Seaberry, who’s an extraordinary young artist. We have a session coming up on NFTs. 

That’s the type of programming we’re doing at WaterFire that people don’t really know about. Our brand is the event downtown, but the WaterFire Arts Center is a spectacular exhibition space and we’re super excited about these programs.

What other organizations or art forms might people encounter at a WaterFire lighting?

We collaborate and partner with all kinds of cultural institutions and performing arts organizations. We use the hashtag #ArtForImpact, because that’s what WaterFire really is, we’re creating art for impact, both cultural impact and economic impact. 

Years ago we partnered with Dr. Lynn Taylor, who received a grant to try and eradicate Hepatitis C from the state of RI. We approached her and said, “We have the ability to connect you to a greater audience than you might otherwise have the ability to.”

It’s a silent epidemic, a lot of people don’t even know they have it. We partnered with her and Festival Ballet and did testing at WaterFire. Festival Ballet used music that would appeal to the boomer generation, because they’re the demographic most susceptible, and designed a whole bunch of dances set to Beatles music. Anyone who tested positive received a call from Dr. Taylor the following Monday letting them know they tested positive and most importantly letting them know it was curable and how to get on the path to recovery. 

WaterFire Accelerate Artists 2021 (Photograph by Peter Mello)

We’re always providing organizations with a platform to an audience that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, including the RI Philharmonic. When we had the philharmonic, we broadcast their music throughout WaterFire, and that was the largest audience they’d come across. This is an instance where people who might not buy a ticket to see the philharmonic got access to the experience for free. 

That’s one of my favorite parts of WaterFire. Public art is where it’s at.

You have to realize none of the buildings existed downtown when WaterFire started. The mall wasn’t there, the IGT building wasn’t there, Blue Cross Blue Shield wasn’t there, the Waterplace Towers weren’t there. The only building that was in the process of being built was the Citizens building, but otherwise all those big buildings didn’t exist. 

Barnaby often tells the story of when the mall was being built he ran into a construction worker, and when Barnaby introduced himself as the creator, the guy said, “Oh wow, last weekend we came to WaterFire and brought the whole family. We always take two cars when we travel as a family because you never know what’s going to happen when we go out together, we get into a fight and next thing you know someone’s going home. But we had the greatest time. WaterFire’s amazing.” And then he said, “You know, I don’t want to insult you or anything, but that WaterFire thing — it’s kind of like art.” In this instance, somebody went to experience something, never thinking they were experiencing art.

I love that. People say they’re not into art or don’t see themselves as artists, and it’s like “No, you love art! Look at your fashion, look how you’re styling your hair. You’re listening to music. You’re surrounded by art!”

You’re absolutely surrounded by art. Everything you touch or come into contact with has had the fingerprints of an artist. There’s nothing that isn’t touched by art. Even your cereal box, a graphic designer designed the cover, a product designer designed the box. When kids think about careers they don’t really think about art like that, but lots of kids like art, right? It’s important for them to understand they can make a career being creative.

To learn more about WaterFire’s diverse offerings, including how to apply to WaterFire Accelerate, visit waterfire.org.