Five years ago, Montauk’s own Nancy Atlas came up with a brilliant way to help the Hamptons make it over the off-season hump. She planned a concert series with her band, the Nancy Atlas Project (NAP), that would also feature special guests at each show. It would take place at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater and be sponsored by Dan’s Papers, and would run weekly through deepest, darkest winter.
The series, called the Fireside Sessions, was instantly a roaring success. And yes, it’s coming back for its fifth consecutive year this January. Expect that great rockin’ music, fabulous guests and sold-out crowds. And expect to be amazed once again by Nancy’s kick-ass band. Whether it’s a funk show, a reggae night or a country-style hoedown, they always deliver.
For NAP bassist Brett King, a Sag Harbor native, the series at Bay Street Theater brings back a rush of good memories. “It’s like full circle for me,” King says. “I played there back in the ’80s, when it was the Bay Street nightclub.”
Yes, this goes back a ways, but longtime Sag Harborites surely remember Bay Street Theater’s ’80s-era incarnation as an East End destination for touring musicians. In those days, King not only opened for such national acts as Johnny Winter, the Dead Milkmen and Robin Trower when they appeared at the venue, but he also got to see national acts like Tina Turner, Level 42 and B.B. King at Bay Street.
“I remember getting to meet Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy and Buddy Rich down there,” King recalls. Now, over the years, with the Fireside Sessions, King has again had the chance to share the Bay Street stage with some of his musical heroes: among them Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, guitar god G.E. Smith and Mike Reilly of Pure Prairie League.
But it’s not all just a trip down memory lane—the Fireside Sessions shows require work, particularly when it comes to learning new songs, often on very short notice. “Every year, Brett and I start laughing on the phone,” says NAP guitarist Johnny Blood. “It’s time to do our homework.”
The two musicians work out chords and arrangements over the phone—in-person rehearsals often don’t happen until the day of the show, because that’s when the guest performers arrive. And each time, Blood likes the challenge. “It stretches us out, makes us go beyond what we usually do.”
NAP drummer Richard Rosch echoes his bandmates’ enthusiasm for Bay Street Theater as a music venue. “As a musician it’s a great place to play. It’s not too big, so it has an intimacy, and it’s a good-sounding room.”
When the Fireside Sessions started, nobody knew what to expect as far as public reaction—nothing like this wintertime series had ever been attempted before—and the immediate embrace was so warm that the band knew it had something special. “People are there to hear the music, which isn’t always the case everywhere we play,” Rosch says. “So the fact that it sells out is a good feeling.” That positive energy translates from the band to the audience every time—these shows are love fests, plain and simple.
And what’s not to love? Perhaps most lovable of all, many fans say, is Neal Surreal, the bayou boy who wields the accordion, harmonica and multiple keyboards in the band. “I like playing that venue a lot,” Surreal says.
That is, when he can find his way to the Bay Street stage. “I’m lost about half the time I’m there,” Surreal adds, half-jokingly. “But that was mainly early on in the series,” he clarifies. The dimly lit corridor from the dressing rooms to the stage took some practice for him to navigate, but he thinks he’s got it down now.
And we all want Neal, Brett, Johnny and Richie to find their way to the stage again this winter, because, as Atlas says without any restraint whatsoever on her trademark enthusiasm, “these guys are the best!”
Time to pull up a seat by the fire.
Fireside Sessions with Nancy Atlas & Friends Presented by Dan’s Papers returns to Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Saturday, January 5, and runs consecutive Saturday nights through January 26.
For tickets ($35), showtimes and more information, visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500. Hurry, these shows will sell out!