Friday Night Folk founder has faith in the music of change

Nick Evento stands in the sanctuary at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016. Evento, a musician, singer and songwriter in his own right, helps run the Friday Night Folk program that holds its performances at All Souls and is an active member of that congregation.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Nick Evento stands in the sanctuary at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016. Evento, a musician, singer and songwriter in his own right, helps run the Friday Night Folk program that holds its performances at All Souls and is an active member of that congregation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Nick Evento takes his Guild acoustic guitar — a gift upon his retirement from Fitch High School, where he spent many rewarding years as a special education teacher — and plays the first verse and chorus of a tune he wrote in November, just after the election.

It's a simple, strummed structure using basic chords that have provided the foundation for folk music since its inception.

"I was feeling so downhearted when I heard that he had won

It was hopeless, it was all over when I realized what I had done

You can't feel sorry for yourself — you got to get out and help someone."

Evento is not a professional musician or songwriter and he doesn't play for money. But he does perform occasionally in local churches or synagogues, in coffee houses or at benefits and acoustic music gatherings, and he does so, he says, "for fun and therapy."

He's also involved in music in a much larger capacity. Evento founded the long-running Friday Night Folk series based in New London's All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where he and his wife, Clare, have been members for more than 40 years.

"This church is so much a part of our lives," he says. "There's such an energy there, and Friday Night Folk seems to fit so well in that building."

In addition to the presentation of local and national folk and acoustic music concerts on an aesthetic level, Evento has always seen Friday Night Folk as an example of the direct correlation between music and activism — all seen through the prism of faith. As part of the mission statement says, "Friday Night Folk is to joyously support social and environmental justice" through music.

"Ultimately, I believe in people," says Evento, who lives in Waterford. "There's something within us that, given the opportunity, we naturally try to do good. We might come from different backgrounds or perspectives, but at heart we're good."

Now 63 and with the slight build of a long-distance runner, Evento has a quick smile and welcoming hug, and he speaks with a soft but tangible energy and a sense of conviction. Conversations are clustered with the names of colleagues and friends who are active and vibrant in the community and church — and, of course, musicians and song.

The musical aspect of his personality goes way back. Evento got his first guitar at the age of 4, and he grew up loving Elvis Presley. As he got older, he became fascinated by the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, early Bob Dylan and, later, the Beatles, because, he says, "I was amazed and moved by how music could bring about change."

In that spirit, in 1988, Evento conceptualized Friday Night Folk at All Souls.

"I didn't have a clue how to do something like that," he laughs, "but a lot of people were very helpful and I jumped in. I started it as a monthly thing — and I quickly just burned out. I thought, 'This has been fun, and it's been a nice run, but I'll do one more and it'll be the last one.'"

As it turned out, that was when Evento booked his most prestigious show, folk luminary Bill Staines, who drew about four times the average turnout. Not only that, but Staines' stage persona and iconic songs — "The Roseville Fair," "River," "Sweet Wyoming Home" — generated a massive crowd sing-along that reminded Evento of his conviction that music is a rousing force. Staines ended up spending the night after the concert and shared anecdotes and stories.

Ultimately, Evento decided to keep Friday Night Folk going with five to six annual shows — a schedule that's proved much more sustainable. Though he relinquished reins of the series in 1996 when he became president of All Souls, Evento remains a member of the Friday Night Folk board of directors and is active in the booking process.

"Nick is a deeply caring folk music enthusiast, promoter, performer and community-minded citizen," says local musician Ben Parent, who, with his wife, Nancy, and their band, The Rivergods, are frequent performers at the church for a variety of events and causes.

"The tireless work he does for Friday Night Folk at All Souls speaks for itself," Parent says. "The line-ups are consistently top-notch, year after year, combining the best regional and national talent. Beyond that, Nick is just a sweet, salt-of-the-earth, humble individual who's always contributing to whatever needs to be done at All Souls."

"What draws me to folk music is its simplicity; it is the music of the people," Evento says. "Woody Guthrie knew that. The Weavers knew that. Anyone can play three chords and think they're musicians, and that's not always the case. But there's an essence to the simplicity. You know, great composers of classical music have often looked to simple folk themes for inspiration and ideas."

Evento is excited by the evolution of folk music.

"The genre is changing. At Friday Night Folk, we're riding the wave," he says. "So much exciting stuff is happening in what's referred to as Americana or roots music. Seeger recognized that Dylan changed folk music in the ′60s, and now we're seeing it change again. This is huge in terms of expanding the appeal to a younger audience. We also feel we haven't done enough in terms of multiculturalism, and that's so important and something we'll focus on."

In terms of activism, the Friday Night Folk concerts almost always have some charitable or activist component. After Pete Seeger died in 2014, for example, the series inaugurated its Seeger tribute nights. The 2015 tribute benefitted Save the River-Save the Hills, an all-volunteer nonprofit that seeks to protect and preserve the Niantic River and the Oswegatchie Hills.

This year, the Seeger tribute was dedicated to F.R.E.S.H., a New London outfit that focuses on issues such as health and food through a resurgence of local agriculture.

The 2017 Seeger tribute show, scheduled for Feb. 17, will benefit Start Fresh Inc., the New London-based refugee resettlement organization responding to the humanitarian crisis resulting from the civil war in Syria.

While Evento found great fulfillment in his teaching career, he says, he remains appreciative of retirement and the time it's afforded him to work on social causes beyond the parameters of the music series. He's particularly proud of 2015's "Walk for Peace," a journey Evento undertook with New London residents Glennys Ulschak and Vic Marolda to honor those killed in the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

During the two-week, 200-mile trek from New London to Newtown and back, the walkers were joined by numerous others for varying distances. They visited many playgrounds dedicated to victims along the way and spent each night in a different congregation of different faiths, including Congregational, Methodist and Evangelical churches and an Islamic center.

"We didn't do it as an anti-gun protest," Evento says. "It was a walk for peace. We wanted to have conversations and open doors of communication. To say it was anti-gun was a guaranteed conversation stopper and, in today's times, we need conversation more than ever."

"It's too easy to put people in the right pocket or the left pocket. Share experiences and hopes. We're humans. We have a common ground," he said. "Ultimately, I believe that, if you do what you need to do, and do it with passion, good things will happen."

r.koster@theday.com

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