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Organizers of the Lowell Summer Music Series draw influential acts to its stage while keeping its for-the-fans mission intact.

Whether your musical taste runs more toward The Rascals or The Wallflowers, the Lowell Summer Music Series is one cultural institution that can make all of its patrons feel like they belong. As the event approaches its 25th anniversary next year, music fans impressed by the historic outdoor venue, state-of-the-art sound system, and top-shelf talent have been known to corner festival director John Marciano, asking him to book their favorite musicians.

Standing in front of Lowell’s Boarding House Park, left to right, John Marciano, Peter Aucella, Chris Fendt “One person asked me to get Janis Joplin,” says Marciano with a smile. “I said, ‘I’m good, but I’m not that good.’”

But the fact remains that Lowell Summer Music has grown immeasurably since Marciano, a longtime National Park Service employee in Lowell, assumed a full-time role as the series director in 2004. What began in 1990 as a modest local companion to the Lowell Folk Festival, situated in a former parking lot, has become a nationally recognized summer program that can lure acts as big as Buddy Guy and Boz Scaggs—two of this summer’s scheduled headliners—and far-flung fans, such as the two Glaswegians who snapped up premier seating for country stars Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell as soon as they went on sale this spring.

As an outdoor concert series, Lowell Summer Music operates under a unique partnership. The stage was built as the centerpiece of the city’s Boarding House Park, part of the restored 19th-century Boott Mills complex, a cotton mill that was once a prime example of Lowell’s internationally renowned hydropower system. The grounds fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which partners with the non-profit Lowell Festival Foundation to book the acts, hire seasonal employees, and sell tickets.

“Every national park does two things— [it] preserves and interprets a resource,” explains Marciano. Lowell National Historical Park, established in 1978 to honor the city’s central role in the Industrial Revolution, was the first urban National Park with a third mandate, to protect and enhance cultural resources citywide. The Summer Music Series, says Marciano, is a direct result of that initiative, improving the quality of life downtown and attracting visitors on behalf of all the city’s businesses.

Massachusetts residents of a certain age will recall a time in the recent past when the revitalized factory city was not so vital. When the National Park was first legislated, Marciano says, “downtown Lowell wasn’t a place you went.” But then the city had its “Kumbaya” moment. In the years 1987-1989, in the midst of Lowell’s overdue urban renewal project, the itinerant National Folk Festival set up shop in the city’s National Park for its customary three-year run. The free-of-charge National, as it has been known since its inception in the 1930s, set attendance records during its stay in Lowell, celebrating its 50th anniversary in the process. That led to the establishment, in 1990, of the Lowell Folk Festival and the affiliated Summer Music Series.

Joan Baez, Lowell Summer Music Series

Joan Baez, Lowell Summer Music Series

For years, all shows in Boarding House Park were free, underwritten by the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, a consortium of community advocates and business owners. Times changed, though as recently as 2005, they were still charging just $15 per ticket to see Dr. John or Little Feat.Today, the economic reality of the entertainment world is such that the series has been obliged to raise ticket prices—$30 for veteran British guitarist Richard Thompson, $47 for folk queen mother Joan Baez—in order to secure those acts. Still, with no online ticket fees (the Festival Foundation runs its own ticketing enterprise, right down to the personalized customer service), that’s a grand bargain compared to the concert business norm. Marciano points out that face value for a ticket to see the Rolling Stones at Boston’s TD Garden in June was well over $500—and that’s just for a seat in the third balcony, behind the stage.

“There are inherent problems with the [concert] industry,” says Marciano, sitting in his nondescript third-floor office across the street from Lowell High School. “Increasingly, it’s music for the rich.”

To help pool the resources of like-minded independent promoters around the region, he co-founded the New England Booking Collective a few years ago. By offering a touring act of multiple shows within driving distance, the group has been able to reach another tier of quality in terms of headlining talent.

For the 24th season of the Lowell Summer Music Series, Marciano has landed a few plum acts he’s long sought, including Baez, who came up in the Cambridge folk music scene, and Scaggs, the soulful San Francisco singer who became a superstar in the mid-1970s with the album Silk Degrees. “There are folks you work on for years, and then something finally lands the right way,” says Marciano.

Given the big business that the concert industry has become, the core team that operates the Summer Music Series is absurdly small. “We all wear several hats,” says Chris Fendt, who works for the Lowell Festival Foundation but keeps a cubicle just outside the door of Marciano’s office in the National Park Service building. “It’s a fairly boutique operation for an entire music series.” Also on site is series founder Peter Aucella, who is the festival’s budget and marketing manager. All the money goes through him, and the underlying goal, as Marciano puts it, is for the festival to continue to be “self-sustaining.” Other than salaries for Marciano, Aucella, and support staff (such as the park system gardener), the series operates as a non-profit, with no financial backing from the government.

 

Meanwhile, the Lowell Festival Foundation provides the invaluable support of Fendt, who got his start on an internship with the Folk Festival while still a student at UMass Lowell in 2006. He was (and remains) a jack-of-all-trades: On show days, he would help set up the sound system and work security at the admissions gate. When Marciano’s assistant left the job three years ago, Fendt filled in, and he has been part of the team ever since. In addition to developing the series’ online presence—the website, a Facebook account, and other ways for ticket buyers to connect—he has begun to learn the ropes of wooing corporate sponsors.

Lowell Summer Music Series Performers at the Lowell Summer Music Series

Fendt, a bearded 20-something, represents the series’ younger demographic. Besides Pearl Jam, his favorite band is Cake, the wry-humored California group that played the stage at Boarding House Park in 2010. Marciano says that in addition to market-tested veteran acts such as Scaggs or former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, the series tries to book a handful of bands each summer that appeal to young adults. Last year, they reserved one night for the up-and-coming Amesbury band The Brew. This year, they’ll expect post-college crowds for folk-pop songwriter and novelist Josh Ritter and The Ryan Montbleau Band, an infectiously funky, hard-touring act led by a warm-voiced Peabody native who now lives with a few of his bandmates in a big old house in Lawrence.

For Montbleau, who has been recording in New Orleans, it will simply amount to a hometown gig. “You follow the river, basically,” he says of playing in Lowell, just down the road from his house. He’s excited to headline at the same venue where he once listened to acts, including Spearhead and Amos Lee, as a member of the audience. “[Lowell Summer Music has] awesome production[s], and they get amazing acts,” he says. One of his occasional band members, the percussionist Yahuba Jose Garcia-Torres, is a Lowell native who once sat in with Los Lobos at Boarding House Park.

Montbleau’s dad, who grew up in several towns on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley, considers Lowell his hometown, says the singer. His parents, who have retired to Florida, are hoping to move their annual summer trip back up to the area to catch Montbleau’s Summer Music Series show on August 2nd. “My father’s all psyched about it,” he says.

For the team behind the Lowell Summer Music Series, it’s always been a family affair. Children 12 and under get in free; one of them, Marciano’s daughter, can’t wait to see the young San Diego songwriter Tristan Prettyman. “She’ll be happy as a clam,” says Marciano.

For artists and fans alike, it’s an intimate experience every summer in Lowell, and Marciano and his colleagues intend to keep it that way.

“Everyone pretty much walks away with a smile on [his or her] face,” he says.

 

Summer Schedule

Tickets for the 24th season of the Lowell Summer Music Series can be purchased at loweallsummermusic.org. More shows to be announced.

Friday, June 28 – Joan Baez. $47-55 (day of show)

Saturday, June 29 – Richard Thompson. $30-35

Friday, July 12 – Boz Scaggs. $58-65

Saturday, July 13 – Michael McDonald. $48-60

Thursday, July 18 – Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. $48-60

Friday, July 19 – Kenny Wayne Shepherd. $27-35

Friday, August 2 – Ryan Montbleau Band. $25-30

Saturday, August 3 – Buddy Guy. $44-50

Friday, August 9 – Tristan Prettyman. $26-35

Friday, August 23 – Great Big Sea. $28-35

Saturday, August 31 – Solas. $29-35