By Sonya Vartabedian
You can easily call it the area’s biggest music festival of the year — more than 40 musical acts of all genres, from veteran entertainers to aspiring musicians, performing on three stages over seven days.
If you attend Newburyport's 53rd annual Yankee Homecoming celebration, which kicks off Sunday and runs for one week through Aug. 1, you're bound to find yourself stopping to listen and perhaps even swaying or dancing to one or more of the acts featured in the festival's downtown entertainment series.
Homecoming volunteer Tammy Jennings has had the job of coordinating the daily downtown entertainment for the past two years. With three stages to fill — located in Market Square, along the Inn Street pedestrian walkway and on the central waterfront in Market Landing Park behind the Firehouse Center for the Arts — the job requires some skillful planning.
While the nightly waterfront concerts are reserved for some of the more big-name powerhouse performers, Jennings said the lineup for the daily entertainment is focused on fun, family entertainment.
Requests to perform at this year's festival started coming in just as last year's celebration was ending, Jennings said. She tried hard to find a slot for everyone, making sure to remember the longtime entertainers for whom performing at Homecoming has become a tradition while also bringing in new faces and giving them a shot at some exposure as well. All of the acts perform for free.
"There are so many forms of entertainment and some truly wonderful talents, it's hard to choose," Jennings said. "This year, things filled up quick, and many people wanted to go on a waiting list or just to forward their names for next year."
Newburyport native Toni (Reda) Knott grew up going to Yankee Homecoming and wishing that she might someday perform during the festival. Now the vocalist will get that chance.
She teams with guitarist-vocalist Marc Smith for a set on the waterfront stage on Friday, July 30.
The acoustic duo known as 2 Tone performs a little bit of everything — from Sonny and Cher covers to The Doors.
Knott, who also leads her own classic rock band, said she's excited to play her hometown.
"It's a neat feeling," she said. "I'm hoping to see a lot of people I know."
Local guitarist Scott Ouellette, who is originally from Georgetown and now lives in Rowley, has been a fixture on Homecoming's downtown entertainment stages since 2003.
After playing the Inn Street stage for years, Ouellette will be the first act to take the stage in Market Square this year. He'll be performing a program of upbeat selections with Hong Kong native and percussionist Anna Fan and guitarist Bilgehan Tuncer from Turkey on Sunday morning.
"The (Homecoming) crowds are always receptive," Ouellette said. "I do this because I want to share my music with people and take them out of the world for a little while."
After an impromptu go of it last year, Connie Salerno of the St. Salerno School of Music on Inn Street is taking over the Inn Street stage this year. She's turning it into a showcase for students and instructors from her school as well as Bella Voce Performing Arts Studio, The Musical Suite, Eric Clemenzi Guitar Studio and Zach Field Drum Studio, all in Newburyport, and the Newbury School of Music.
Performers will fill the stage daily from 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., with younger students in the spotlight earlier in the day and older performers and instructors taking their turns as the day goes on. All music styles and levels of talent will be featured.
"It's a chance for students to play their first outdoor concert," Salerno said. "It's a neat thing for the younger students especially, because that opportunity doesn't come around too often."
Salerno's goal is to keep the entertainment in line with the ambiance of the pedestrian shopping area of Inn Street. She has rented some chairs to place around the stage for people who want to sit down for a breather and enjoy a little music.
"It's a very low-key stage," she said. "It's nice to be able to showcase what is happening with the art scene in Newburyport from a teaching perspective, and I couldn't think of a better way to do it. This lends itself to that particular venue."
A special addition to this year's entertainment will be a performance of the national anthem every day at 6 p.m. in Market Square by a different performer. The singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" builds on something that was informally started last year.
"Everybody loved it last year," Salerno said. It's a good kickoff to the evening events."
Jennings said she's excited to welcome back crowd favorites like rock-'n'-rollers Motown Dave & the Assembly Line, Don't Call Me Shirley, Overboard and The Shadows and Shorty Hill. The North Shore classic rock band Silver St., which is new to Yankee Homecoming but not new to the community, is one of her personal favorites, and has drawn the coveted slot of performing the final Sunday of Homecoming, Aug. 1, in Market Square.
But beyond the familiar names, Jennings is looking forward to showcasing young performers like Alex Nett, who started out on the Youth Talent Showcase stage; Amesbury-based teen bands Errata and Audio Rush, and 14-year-old harpist Anna Lucia DeLoi, who will play with fellow teens Nash Rider on violin and Keith Williams on cello.
"Everyone in the band is really excited for it," said Logan Piercey, who together with Casey Surgent, Caleb Grot and Evan Grissino to form the alternative rock band Errata. "I think we're going to have fun doing it."
While music is the primary focus of the three stages, Ocasio's True Martial Arts in Haverhill will be presenting a showcase on Thursday on the waterfront stage, and comedian Tony Briefcase, aka Anthony Kareckas, will deliver his shtick on Friday in Market Square.
Although she couldn't accommodate everyone who wanted to perform at Homecoming, Jennings hopes to treat the public to a diverse selection of entertainment to enjoy as they're taking in the city's summer celebration. And she promises those who didn't snag a slot on the schedule that she will try to put them into consideration for next year.
"I think the music really sets the mood for Homecoming for the day," she said. "I just want everyone to have a good time because it really is about family fun and everybody coming together."