Bringing the music to Hamburg Fair
By happy definition, all carnivals, circuses and fairs are bountiful in senses-working-overtime fashion. Sometimes it seems the sights, scents, tastes and tactile textures of the experience are almost overwhelming.
The Hamburg Fair in Lyme, with a distinct, hilly layout and idyllic charm, provides all of the above. There's amusement rides, games, food kiosks, animal pens, agricultural contests and Grange Hall with exhibits of photography, quilting, baking and so on, is no exception. It's kaleidoscopic.
So much so, in fact, that the auditory nature of the fairgoing experience — the missing sense, as it were — is almost relegated to a background role.
If you think about it, though, the cumulative musicality of a fair is distinctively grand in its clashing sounds and rhythms — from a midway calliope to the shrieks of children on rollercoasters to rock or country acts to marching bands to the hoarse, strident cries of the barkers.
At the Hamburg Fair, which, in its 116th year, runs Friday through Sunday, organizers have made a conscious effort in the past few years to make quality live music programming a major and integral part of the whole experience. Since 2014, renowned musician/educator Ramblin' Dan Stevens, who, in addition to his career as a touring rural blues artist, owns and runs, with his wife Gail K. Stevens, Nightingales Acoustic Café — home to the nonprofit MusicNow Foundation that nurtures young musicians — has been in charge of coordinating the live tunes at the Hamburg Fair.
While the event has always featured performers on the stage hard to Grange Hall, Stevens' conceptual scope and range of acts has brought an added element to the fair. For example, Friday evening's performers, Katie Perkins (6-8 p.m.) and Branded (8:30-10:30 p.m.), reflect a country-pop theme. In a new spin starting last year, the Friday concerts will take place in the Pulling Ring where, on Saturday and Sunday, the traditional pony, horse and oxen pull competitions take place.
"It's a beautiful natural amphitheater with virgin trees, and we put a big stage in there with concert-quality sound and lights," Stevens says. "It adds a different texture to the weekend."
On Saturday, from 1 to 5:45 p.m., there's an eight-act showcase boasting up-and-coming musicians from the Nightingales/MusicNow program: the Rossi Sisters (1 p.m.), Galen Donovan (1:20 p.m.), Chris Gregor (1:45 p.m.), Clara Klimaszewski (2:10 p.m.), Chloe Morgan (2:35 p.m.), Sophie Spaner (3 p.m.), Greta Stroebel (3:25 p.m.), Conn3cted (3:55 p.m.), and headliners Jake Kulak and the Lowdown featuring Braiden Sunshine (4:45 p.m.).
In the evening, veteran country band Plywood Cowboy (6-8 p.m.) and jazz group the Shiny Lapel Trio (8:30-10:30 p.m.) take the stage.
On Sunday, honoring a revered Hamburg Fair tradition celebrating archival down-home sounds, the Bluegrass Duo (noon-1:30 p.m.), Eight Mile River Band (1:45-3 p.m.) and the Old Time Fiddlers (3-6 p.m.) will hold court.
"It's a great lineup across the weekend, and we're really excited about it," Stevens says. "A lot of fairs have bigger name country acts or older rock acts, and that's fun. And we considered getting a few tribute acts because that's a big thing right now. But they're very expensive.
"We're not trying to be the Big E. What we're doing is on a shoestring budget, and we decided to focus on the community aspects of the fair and feature quality local talent. The headliners each night are very competitive and well established in the region. (17-year-old blues prodigy) Jake Kulak, for example, just played at the Cincinnati Blues Festival. His career's going up like a rocket. Braiden Sunshine (semi-finalist on 'The Voice") is known all over the world. Across the board, there's not a lot of difference in the talent level with bigger name acts, frankly, and this is a great opportunity to see really good young artists on their way up."
Stevens says fairgoers have responded enthusiastically to the gradual musical changes and last year's inaugural MusicNow showcase, saying, "The whole effort has been to bring a bit of a twist, and the crowds have been really getting into it. The Friday night shows in the amphitheater went over really well, and the community is very supportive of the younger artists — particularly when they see the level of professionalism."
As for the MusicNow artists, the opportunity to play a fair or festival — with bigger crowds and with a competitive sound and light component — is a big part of their education as growing artists. Stevens says, "Part of what we do at MusicNow is to expose young artists to seasoned professionals or at least folks a lit further along in their careers. At the fair, it's a real-deal stage with professional lights and sound, and they get to interact with sound men, do sound checks, play to big audiences. It's their first chance to do a big show. And the crowds might come in thinking, 'Oh, look at those cute kids' — until they see and hear them play. And it hits them: They're really good."
The Hamburg Fair, 5-11 p.m. Fri., 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat., and 9 a.m-6 p.m. Sun., 1 Sterling City Road, Lyme; $7, free for kids up to age 12, $5 for seniors and for active service men and women with I.D.; hamburgfair.org.