by Russ Grazier

When Music Hall Executive Director Tina Sawtelle reached out to me a while back, excited to share that Brandi would be coming to play a one-night solo benefit show for TMH, my immediate thought was “this is amazing, how can we get some aspiring musicians over to meet her?” But I didn’t even have to ask that question, because she was calling to invite our students to come, and to meet Brandi at her soundcheck before the show. This was no surprise and I want to share why:

PMAC and TMH have had a partnership, often called an Explore+Learn partnership, for nearly the full twenty years of PMAC’s existence. We’ve brought students to meet dozens of artists. Our music students have had hour-long conversations with Joshua Bell and Philip Glass, hung out with Kamasi Washington, Regina Carter, and Bruce Hornsby, played on the TMH stage with no audience present for Maria Schneider (who conducted a group of students from York Middle School on a snowy winter morning) and The Bad Plus, and performed on the stage to sold-out audiences with Pink Martini, Dan Zanes & Friends, and the NH Symphony Orchestra. And there are dozens more – hanging with Bobby McFerrin, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and so many others. The Music Hall really is more than a partner. They are planting seeds and we’re going to see future artists headlining there who were just kids at these special moments. It’s already happening.

This partnership was started by a small leadership team years ago, led by the amazing Thérèse LaGamma, and embraced by then Executive Director Patricia Lynch. And it has been carried forward seamlessly under Tina’s leadership. I’ll forget many people, but others at TMH who have been integral to making all of this happen are Chris Curtis, Monte Bohanan, Ashleigh Tucker Pollock, Zhana Jennifer Morris, Gail VanHoy Carolan, and one of the newest additions to their family, Mary Beth Johnson.

This recent opportunity was made possible by some generous arts supporters – the PMAC student and faculty tickets were provided by Anne and Mike Ambrogi and Rachel and Anthony DiLorenzo.

The Brandi Carlile concert was different than many of our previous experiences, in that it felt like Brandi was coming home. The students were just a part of the soundcheck gathering before the concert, but they were given VIP treatment, seated in the front two rows that had been specially reserved for them by Tina and Mary Beth. Brandi shared stories of her life as a 16-year old high school dropout musician with an alcoholic father (now 20+ years sober) and a burning passion to tell her story through music. About how she would print and post every poster for every gig when she was a kid in Seattle, how she played every open mic night until her open mic sets were too long and they invited her to come play her own shows as long as she brought another band to headline, a band that would be able to fill the 30-seat capacity of the little venue, because they didn’t think she could on her own.

These are the stories young musicians need to hear, especially from people they see performing at the Grammys or as musical guest on Saturday Night Live.

This is the only photo that was able to be taken with Brandi during soundcheck because with over 100 people in attendance (many major donors supporting the Emerging Artist fundraiser) the pre-concert gathering could’ve quickly devolved into an hour of selfies that I’m sure she would’ve welcomed with a smile (her assistant earned her keep, keeping the night on track). Twas taken by a professional, from the stage looking down at the audience, as Brandi stood in the center of the front row, with each arm tightly around the shoulders of a young PMAC student, as the gathered crowd stood behind laughing and smiling.

(Photo credit: Will Zimmerman)

We were given a couple of rows in the balcony for the 2 1/2 hour show, which featured a guest appearance by Brandi’s wife. She regaled the audience with many stories, some of which I mentioned above, and her set was powerful.

You could see why her rise has been meteoric – she has that special connection with an audience that is rare and held by the top in her field.

The kids took videos, photos, clapped and sang along, and were recognized by Brandi before her final song, The Joke, which she dedicated to them, the emerging artists of the future. She gave them so much positive energy and hope. And as that happened, I thought, this is one of the main reasons I and the whole team at PMAC do what we do, and why Tina and her team does what they do. It was a special night, but in reality, just one of many. Can’t wait for the next one.

Special thanks to PMAC’s Director of Education, Michelle Shoemaker who organized everything on our end, and for teaching artists Jim Dozet and Jason Crigler (Jason came last minute because Katie was sadly home with a cold I passed to her – my bad, so sorry for the Valentine’s cold!!!)