By Jeanné McCartin
Posted Apr 18, 2019 at 3:01 AM
On Thursday, April 18, Beat Night will celebrate its 20th anniversary of shared thoughts on love, angst, humor, an imaginary last will, et al, offered in tandem with a live band.
Over the decades, hundreds of poets have taken to the stage, commingling their words with the notes of the Beat Night Band. The monthly session has moved three times, had numerous hosts and experienced other changes along the way, but is still going strong, with a special year in the offing and possible additions on the way.
Beat Night was founded by Larry Simon, a New York City transplant. The idea of combining multiple arts into a single project was a longtime interest of Simon’s. So when the owner of the Crazy Cat Lounge asked if Simon’s band Groove Bacteria was interested in being its house band, he pitched the idea of a jazz and poetry night.
“I’ve always, as a musician, been involved and interested in doing more than music. Before I moved to Portsmouth, I worked with film-makers, dance companies and others,” he says. “So when I moved here in 1996, I thought, ‘Here I am in New England, which has this reputation for great poetry, I’m going to look into starting a music and poetry thing.’”
Crazy Cat, located in the old Elvis Room space on Congress Street in Portsmouth, went for the idea. (Fun fact: “The band played its first gig ever at the Elvis Room just before it closed,” Simon says. “That’s its roots.”) Simon reached out to poet Mimi White who directed him to interested poets. Things came together, and Beat Night was born. Before the year ended, the project moved to the Press Room and stayed there until it closed for renovations in 2017, which is when the sessions moved to the Book and Bar on Pleasant Street in Portsmouth.
Simon’s Beat Night tenure ran until about eight years ago when he returned to New York. He returns on occasion to perform, and plans to be in the band line-up for the 20th anniversary celebration.
“I put a lot of effort into Beat Night. I earned the nickname ‘The Emperor,’” Simon says. “We even had a tiny theme song the entire audience learned! The song was my email so future readers knew how to reach me to get booked. It was a kind of bogus Gregorian chant about 15 seconds long,” he adds. “It was really fun to have everyone sing it in two-part harmony.”
Typically, the place “was pretty packed,” he says. “I used to keep things exciting by working hard to keep it fresh and always get new people involved.” “Cool stuff” has happened at the event over the years, Simon says. Beat Night inspired people to write, and a few who met there went on to get married, “and who knows what else.”
It produced “Beat Nights at the Electric Cave” 15 years ago, with some of the top regional writers at the time. Some things have changed, he says. But one thing remains the same: The arts intertwine.
The evening is unrehearsed, always has been. What makes it come together is listening, Simon says.
“The best (poets) actually feel like a member of the band. We work off of each other’s energy. When they crescendo, we react, and so forth. It is really like jazz, it works best when everyone is really listening and checks their ego at the door,” Simon says. “One of the biggest reasons I think my guys in the band work so well with poets is that they aren’t egotistical. The ‘art’ comes first, not themselves.”
Musician Frank Laurino has been with the band since shortly after Beat Night began. Today, he’s joined by Mike Barron (drums) and Scip Gallant (keys) from the original lineup, Dave Tonkin (guitar) and Chris Stambaugh (bass). Laurino handle’s percussion including the bongos which he picked up after joining 19 years ago. The regular “guests” are Cynthia Chatis on flute; Don Davis on horns and Scott Solsky on guitar.
There are no rehearsals between spoken word and musical artist. They’re all out there without a net, Laurino says. “It’s all one, two, three play,” he says. What makes it work is trust, he says.
“The best performances are when the poet feels comfortable that these guys behind them are amplifying what they say,” Laurino says. “We’ve worked at this so long – 20 years now – we can turn on a dime, read each other’s minds. So, I think they’re generally surprised that there is this soundtrack to their work.”
The band listens and tunes into the poet’s words, changes and intent. “The trust goes three ways. Poet, band and audience are equal partners in this.” Laurino says. “I think everyone comes together with the hope that something amazing is going to happen and nine times out of 10, it does.”
After Simon moved back to New York, Bruce Pingree, who was involved and had been supportive since year two, took over for a time. Pingree was followed by a number of different hosts and organizers over the course of a few years. In 2014, Mike Nelson, who served as Portsmouth’s Poet Laureate for 2017-18, stepped in to take over the duties.
The project experienced a few other changes over time. Only two featured poets present these days, and the Book and Bar is now its permanent home. Nelson says attendance was up in the new location, and grew quickly. He contributes it to an influx in the under 21 patron, who no longer required adult accompaniment. “We thought the move was temporary, but the renovations took longer than expected,” Nelson explains. “We were there so long and it was going so well, and the fact younger people could come was a deciding factor. We couldn’t imagine going back to the Press Room and losing that younger audience. I don’t know that Beat Night would survive into the future without a young crowd.”
Sticking with tradition, the second half of the night is an open mic. People interested in performing sign up during the break, after the feature poets perform. As many as 20 artists are packed into the second half.
This month’s Beat Night will present an all-female featured artist lineup. The idea is an extension of Nelson’s laureate program which focused on the under-heard voices of the community.
“When you look at publishing statistics women are still less heard from than men,” he says. “I wanted to extend the all-women theme to Beat Night for its 20th year.”
Ayanna Gallant and Maya Williams will do the honors for the 20th anniversary Beat Night on April 18. Both poets appear in “Lunation: A Good Fat Anthology of 114 Women Poets.” The collection, co-edited by Nelson and Wendy Cannella, is Nelson’s last Portsmouth Poet Laureate project, and was published in March by Bee Monk Press.
Over the years, Beat Night added a number of “big” annual events, Nelson says. In February, it holds the Erotic Poetry Night, “one of the biggest of the year.” There’s the popular “Undead Beat Night,” equally as well attended. ″‘Undead Beat Night’ was started by Bruce Pingree, and he still hosts it,” Nelson says.
These special theme events have proven so popular, organizers are considering additional ones in the future. First is the big anniversary session, Nelson says, with a seven-piece band for the gala, and Simon, “The Godfather,” in the house.
“I’m hosting Beat Night now, but it’s not mine. It’s the result of a lot of people over the years,” he says. “I stick with it because it’s an amazing community. Because it would be a shame to let it go and let it die. Some people have their religion and go to church on Sunday. This is my religion, this is my church.”
By Jeanné McCartin