Room for Music - Michael Witthaus
After Linda Carmichael introduced Natalie Turgeon to the crowd at Mill Fudge Factory, the beaming singer proclaimed, “Linda’s like a sister to me.” But a better description for the gregarious, Scotland-born Carmichael might be fairy godmother.
The candy store and restaurant she co-founded in Bristol is a destination for travelers with a sweet tooth or hunger for farm-to-table cooking. It’s top-rated by Trip Advisor and adored by foodies nationwide. But Carmichael’s passion is the weekly original music series she runs from late spring to early fall.
For performers, The Back Room at the Mill is an oasis from noisy bars that too often regard them with indifference. It’s all about the singer and the song for the 40 or so people seated in the 18th-century building perched above a roaring brook. When the band stops playing to let Turgeon hold an a cappella high note, the respectful silence greeting her is a joy to behold.
A former film and television actress, “for me the vision for this was a performance center,” said Carmichael during the break. “It’s an exchange between an audience and performer. … I think it’s lost on a lot of people how special it is to come in and listen, to have that social community.”
As evinced by Turgeon and her band, musicians love the compact listening room, with its open beam ceiling and solid oak floors reinforced during a yearlong remodeling effort prior to opening in 2006. Friday open mike nights, a regular feature from the start, are a magnet for area players drawn to the great acoustics and attentive crowd.
For seven years, Carmichael has strived to book an eclectic mix of acts, with a common thread.
“All of our performers compose their own music,” she said. She smiles and demurs coyly when pressed to name a favorite.
“You’re asking a mother to choose between her babies! I love everyone who plays here, because I work really hard to get the
Early on, live music was a labor of love and loss leader.
“In the beginning, we’d have four or maybe six on a Saturday night,” said Carmichael.
Buoyed by store and restaurant success — the line for signature hot fudge sundaes typically runs out to the street — she kept at it. Persistence paid off.
“This season, there has only been two nights without a full house. Usually, we average around 30 people,” she said.
The remainder of 2014’s lineup reflects Carmichael’s musically open mind. Jandee Lee Porter brings a decidedly country sound — and a new album — on Aug. 30. Folksinger Audrey Drake appears the following week (Sept. 6), bringing a coffeehouse vibe, storytelling songs and rootsy guitar playing.
Genre-bending mandolinist and Emmy award-winning arranger August Watters performs Sept. 13. Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki, a versatile fiddle player who excels in several styles, reimagines traditional Celtic music with his talented trio on Sept. 20.
Bluegrass takes the spotlight on Sept. 27, as Morris Manning and Steve McBrian from the Crunchy Western Boys perform a duo show.
The season finale on Oct. 11 will be an experimental first, as Jonathan Lorentz arrives with his latest project, Soul Revival. The power trio specializes in blues, gospel and New Orleans-inflected jazz. Lorentz plays saxophone, with Andy Carballeira on a vintage Hammond B3 organ, joined by drummer Brooke Sofferman.
“Over the years we have earned a great reputation as a listening room and are constantly approached by musicians to play at our venue,” said Carmichael. “It’s never about the money, but the connection they make with an audience. It’s a rare thing that too few people truly appreciate.”