Write On Grrrl

Voice of Empowerment. Not reason.

Adios SoundSession: A Fan Says Good-Bye

I sent this to the Providence Journal last week as an Op Ed piece. But the good thing about having your own platform is you never have to wait for someone else to print your words...


Providence Journal Op Ed

Adios SoundSession:  A fan says good-bye

by Dawn Keable


I never thought I'd be having this conversation.

"Hey, did you just come from SoundSession?" asked the woman in a fedora.

My eleven-year-old niece and I were downtown Saturday night, waiting for the light at the corner of Weybosset and Chestnut streets, when the woman and her party approached from the opposite direction. They were buzzing with excitement.

Their giddy anticipation? Something I understood perfectly. For the past eight summers, I also looked forward to SoundSession. What was not to love? This incredible celebration of music from around the world, described as Providence's own Mardi Gras, had introduced me to some damn fine musicians: Trombone Shorty, Plena Libra, the Youngblood Brass Band.

SoundSession had been a highlight on our July calendar since, 2004, when my husband Andre and I wandered into the inaugural festival. Granted, the crowd was a bit sparse that first year, it was drizzling, after all, but even with the spotty attendance and sprinkles, there was still a unique energy in the air. We understood we were witnessing the birth of something truly special--something that our small city had been long overdue in receiving.

And as we sipped mojitos, bought from one of the fold-up tables lining the street, I remember feeling sad that so few people were there to experience this with us.

I didn't feel a bit of sadness--for another eight years.

"Yeah," I answered, without any enthusiasm in my voice.

"And you're leaving?" she asked clearly puzzled. "Why? 'Cause you got a kid?"

"No. No. It's not that," I said, trying to choose my words carefully. "It's just not the same. No one's there."

"Oh. But it's still early," she said, still trying to make sense of the situation. The reality, I began to piece together for her? Clearly, it was something that she did not want to believe. And I didn't blame her. But the truth was, while it was technically early in the evening, I was doubtful that the passing of time would greatly impact the size of the crowd.

I could tell she too was a SoundSession veteran. And was familiar with the vibe that magically transformed Westminster Street for a couple of days each summer. I understood that she, like me, desperately wanted to believe that SoundSession, like all of the other tried and true Rhode Island institutions, from the Bristol 4th of July celebration to Del's lemonade, was the same.

But it wasn't. And it will never be again.

The politics of how we got here? The hows and whos and whys? Fans don't know much. We all knew that last year was a transitional year for the festival. That another entity, Roots Cafe, had taken over the reins of SoundSession, from Providence Black Rep, the creative founding vision, who was responsible for the festival's incredible growth.

And, as with any new 'owner', whether it be of a music festival or a house, they were free to put their stamp on what didn't originally start out as their vision. No matter who agreed with them. Or who didn't.

"We're leaving because they canceled the procession," I said.

"Oh. But that's not until later--around ten," she said.

"Yeah. Usually. But this year, they canceled it," I said.

I thought the procession would always be part of SoundSession. It was written up as a highlight of the weekend in the Providence Journal (Music fest SoundSession stays close to its Roots, Providence Journal, July 12, 2012) two days prior to the festival. There were changes: a new route, a new time, but the marchers were the same. Or so it said in the official program. A festival volunteer gave us the bad news, when we inquired about the route, gesturing in the direction of the Hotel Providence, saying that tenants complained.

Canceled?! Wow. Aren't we forgetting that innovators like SoundSession were not only here first, but are a big part of the reason there's life downtown to enjoy.

I could tell that the woman in the fedora understood what this meant.

The procession was, to me, the soul of SoundSession. It lead concert goers from Waterplace Park, where an evening of free music typically kicked off the Saturday night festivities, through the streets of the city, to the heart of the celebration: a block party on Westminster Street, where the evening really started to get magical.

Here, under the white lights strung above the street, folks, of all races, ages and economic means, came together to literally dance in the streets. If you've lived in Providence for any piece of time, or the state of Rhode Island for that matter, you know this does not happen here.

Every year I was in awe of this collective spirit. As well as incredibly proud to be part of it.

But last weekend, something big shifted, because, as Lisa Champagne, of the host venue, The Roots, explained in the same Thursday, July 12th article in the Providence Journal, "the dancing-in-the-street aspect of SoundSession was getting uncontrollable. "

I'm sorry. I thought that was the point.

So streets were blocked off. And admission was charged. And so many people who once came out in droves, stayed home.

"And no one's there," I told the woman in the fedora. "No one wants to pay $7 to get in."

"Oh, but it's still early." I could tell that she was still holding out hope that my assessment was all wrong.

And then her friend pipped up. "There's a great saxophonist on at 9pm."

I knew what they were doing. How they were trying to find the positive in the situation. But I didn't have a bit of brightness to give them.

Then the woman with the fedora, decided we had chatted enough and it was time for them to move on. To see, and judge, the situation for themselves. She said, "Okay, then. Well, you have a blessed day, anyways."

I thanked her, wished her the same, then crossed to the other side of the street where my husband was waiting.

And I wondered. When the women retraced their path later in the evening, what were they feeling? Were they content with how their night played out, or had they decided the same thing as me?

That it was time to thank SoundSession for the memories--and then say good-bye.