“More into Music Now Than ever”
By James Gillis
Newport County musicians return to the limelight as a scene re-forms
It’s a Wednesday night and, as usual, Dave Flamand is playing music.
The venue is The Tavern on Broadway. Flamand mixes covers with originals.
Some of the covers are contemporary-ish (Oasis and Billy Bragg/Wilco) and others reach back a bit. So you hear “This Boy” and “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown”) by the Beatles as well.
“It’s great to be able to go out and play music again,” Flamand said during a set break. “The local music scene was great in 2016 and 2017. It got a little tougher as venues changed. Covid (in 2020) closed everything down.”
Flamand and friends Bill Bartholomew of Providence and Randy Robbins of Charlestown play each Wednesday at The Tavern in a round robin (or round Robbins, if you like) format.
“It’s nice to have a regular place where we can play,” Flamand said. “People like to see consistency and continuity. Some club owners stop music when summer ends or they just book performers from time to time. You need to build a scene. The Tavern is our Wednesday home. We’re happy about that.
”Newport is slowly rebuilding its nightlife post-pandemic, and local bands are finally seeing more gigs.
Newport’s current music climate
Jimmy’s Saloon, 3’s, the Blue Pelican and Harpo’s are long gone. Fastnet, Buskers and The Tavern have regular bookings and open mic nights. Pour Judgement and the Parlor (once THE spot for local sounds) are more sporadic.
The music begins at The Tavern during dinner and continues well past dessert. The crowd consists more of talkers than rapt listeners, but there’s nothing rude.
Flamand, 39, works a day job at a Bellevue Avenue music shop and is an accomplished carpenter. When the pandemic hit, he focused on writing and virtual shows. He then held house/yard concerts as things eased, and he also hosts a podcast called Tuesday Tunes from Analog, his home studio. And he plays with Bartholomew in a band called Fave.
A multi-instrumentalist, he grew up outside Worcester, Mass.in a musical family. He’s lived in Newport about 10 years, also spending time on Block Island.
You can find his music on Instagram.
He’d love to see someone in Newport open a music room, dedicated to listening. “There are probably people with the money to do it,” Flamand said. “I think it would be popular.”
A full-time gig
While Flamand is a music veteran, the pandemic temporarily derailed the fledgling music career of young Mary Ellen Hawkins, who performs as Mel (MusicbyMel.com).
Hawkins, 24, grew up in Middletown and lives in Newport. When Covid came, her career was a scrubbed launch.
Today she is a local rarity, making a living as a full-time musician. Through good marketing and promotion, she enjoyed a busy summer, including a record eight gigs one weekend.
Hawkins has never shied away from work. At times she’s worked three jobs at once.
When Covid hit, she was running the computer lab at the Community College of Rhode Island’s local campus.
During the pandemic she wrote and recorded at home while working remotely. Her recorded voice carries an echo-like quality, calling to mind singer Hope Sandoval on Mazzy Star’s1990’s hit “Fade Into You.”
Hawkins holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental and natural resource economics from the University of Rhode Island.
It’s a nice fallback as she gains purchase in the music business. As a young girl, she suffered from stage fright (“Only my bedroom walls heard me sing. And maybe my parents through the walls”). Now she gobbles up live show invites when offered.
When the pandemic thawed, she charged into action, playing covers and honing originals.
When it became safe to play, she’d drive two hours to a gig after classes or work — or play farmer’s markets for free.
Covid was a speed bump, a chance to write and stay safe. “There weren’t a lot of chances to play,” she said. “And I didn’t want people coming to see me play and getting sick.”
Playing full-time excites her. She hopes the worst of Covid is over.
“I’m never sure how long I’ll be able to stay full-time but I’m happy to be able to float it for now.”
Cee Cee and the Riders coming back
When Covid hit Rhode Island in March, 2020, the blues band Cee Cee and the Riders were looking at a solid calendar of bookings. Then the gigs vanished as fast as a rimshot.
“It was cancellation after cancellation,” singer Leslie Bruneau-Grimes said. “We were down to nothing.”
The band specializes in blues with some R&B and rockabilly tossed in. The set list favors the sounds of the old Chicago-based Chess Records (Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf).
And in seven years, the group is a steady draw in Newport, Narragansett and the rest of the state.
At an August show, Cee Cee and the Riders filled the shady parts of King Park, part of the annual NIMFEST series. The free concerts are funded through a charitable trust and are among Bruneau-Grimes’ favorite gigs.
On this day, temperatures were about 85 degrees but felt cooler by the water. The crowd was enthusiastic if subdued, save for a drunk couple who stumbled their way through something resembling a dance.
Bruneau-Grimes’ husband, Matt Bruneau, is a blistering guitarist as he displayed during a rave-up version of Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go.” Bassist Roy Sauvageau and drummer Donn Watson make for a strong rhythm section.
Bruneau-Grimes grew up near Wrentham, Mass. but moved to Newport after college. Her family has deep roots here. “We visited all the time when I was a kid,” she said. “It was natural that I’d end up living here.”
With her strawberry-blonde hair and pale skin, Bruneau-Grimes hardly looks as if she came from the Mississippi Delta. But her bluesy voice is at home anywhere.
At the recent Broadway Street Fair, she belted out “Got My Mojo Workin’” outside City Hall. Waters himself played it at the1960 Newport Jazz Festival. (Log into reverbnation.com for music samples).
Bruneau-Grimes said she spent part of the pandemic devoted to her day job, working as a specialist with autistic children with behavioral problems — a job she enjoys.
Her husband works for a plumbing supply business.
The drop in Covid numbers means an increase in bookings.
“Our outdoor shows really helped us during the summer,”Bruneau-Grimes said.
But their main musical home is the Narragansett Cafe in Jamestown, which books roots bands. Cee Cee and the Riders have built a fan base there.
“It’s a great spot,” she said. “We play on Sunday afternoons. People have lunch. They love to dance. It’s a fun atmosphere.”
Bruneau-Grimes and her husband live in Portsmouth. She loves playing regular gigs again, but she’s not ready to pronounce Covid dead. As much as she loves playing live, the singer said performers and audience members (both Bruneau and Sauvageau contracted Covid recently and recovered) still need to be careful:
“Sometimes we share mics (with other acts). We’re all vaccinated. The guys can wear masks onstage but obviously I can’t. There are always adjustments.”
Finding online exposure
When Covid temporarily put the music on hold in 2020, Jonathan Santos, of Middletown, worked on songcraft and immersed himself in the finer points of the music business.
An accounts manager for internet technology companies, Santos, 35, has played in bands such as Designated Driver and Uncle Chubby. He now plays as Jon River and sings most Friday nights at the Pub at Two Mile Corner in Middletown.
He’s excited about finding venues for his recorded music:“ You have YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. I think YouTube is the most successful.”
He loves picking up fans across the globe. But if locals hear his music, they might turn out for shows at the Pub at Two Mile Corner.
If more performers take this approach, it might rebuild a scene. Santos, a Portsmouth High School graduate, said promotion sometimes requires a financial investment from musicians.
Record companies still show interest, but the days of mega-deals for Whitney Houston have passed.
“Record companies want you to carry yourself to the 50-yardline. If you do, they’ll take you the next 50 yards,” Santos said.
Santos said he missed playing during the pandemic, but used the time to study how things work.
“I think these days I’m more into music now than ever.”