BY JULIA CIRIGNANO
The Narrows Center for the Arts is a unique concert venue accompanied by two visual art galleries and visual art studios. The Narrows is a non-profit organization with an intimate, casual setting. It is located at 16 Anawan Street on Fall River’s historical waterfront, and hosts concerts for bands within various musical genres. The Narrows annually hosts around 140 concerts per year — attended by about 30,000 music fans annually. The Narrows Center is currently celebrating its 15th Anniversary.
The Narrows Center is run by three full time employees, many volunteers, and last but certainly not least, Executive Director Patrick Norton, who co-founded the Narrows with Burt Harlow 15 years ago. He has held the position of Executive Director for the last nine years. While the center now has some full-time employees, Norton said, “We were an all-volunteer organization for the first eight years of our existence.”
Norton discussed his vision when he founded The Narrows.
“We have a vision, it’s always been to bring great music and art to the Southeast and Massachusetts and beyond,” he said. “We had very modest goals when we started, you know, make it sustainable. We’ve been able to achieve the sustainability piece [….] we had a large vision but we wanted to do it modestly. Meaning that, we didn’t go into debt to build our facility. It’s been a slow build right from the get-go. We improved every year, a little bit. And now we have a state of the art rec center. You know, it started ground up, bricks and mortar, modest…”
Norton explained that The Narrows is known for being a concert hall, but they are also passionate about their Arts and Education Center.
“School districts bring kids in to look at our art exhibits, give them tours,” he said. “Art has really been minimized in the public schools.”
He explained his frustration by saying, “I think it’s a short sighted view of the universe.”
Norton hopes to fix what he, and many other people, believe is a flaw within today’s education system.
“The Narrows has been able to pick up some of that slack, on some level. We always want to do more, because we think music and arts education is good for the brain, it’s good for kids,” he said.
The Narrows is known for its casual atmosphere. The setting is intimate, the parking is free and everyone can bring their own food and drink. The Narrows is both a place to party, and a safe, family-friendly concert venue.
Norton reflects on The Narrows success, “I think it’s always been the unique combination of the visual and the performing arts [….] music is a much more accessible art than the visual arts. Music is a universal language. I think everyone can agree with that. ” Norton proves his point by saying, “When little kids hear music, you can see them get excited.”
Norton is aware that the visual arts are less accessible to everyone. Although, Norton is proud to say that the people who come to The Narrows Center for concerts, are typically into the visual art too.
The Narrows is very unique because they have managed to sell rock shows as family-friendly events. They have also managed to draw in music fans from far and wide, and to host concerts within many different musical genres.
“I think it’s the mix of shows that’s been one of the reasons we have been so successful. Because we’re blues, rock, country, folk, jazz, whatever. We’re not genre based,” said Norton. “I always say, we’re quality based.”
Norton is proud to say that The Narrows hosts concerts for all types of music, but the music is always good. “There’s two kinds of music, good music and bad music.”
Norton believes in the arts, and also the sacredness of live music. “Live music is so unique, it’s hard to replicate in your living room. So I think we will be able to be alive and well for a long time. [….] music is such a unique experience. So I think people want to be in a room with other likeminded individuals and listen to music.”
Norton talked a little about how he picks each act for The Narrows to host. He admits that anyone in his position would be influenced by his/her own personal preference, but he followed up with, “I think the preference is good versus bad. I think it’s just quality control.”
Norton explained that a wide variety of music genres, bring in a wide variety of people to come watch the shows. The more diverse and all-inclusive The Narrows shows are, the more people will come, and the more shows can be put on.
“We try to attract the widest group of music people as we can,” he said. “We’ve been doing comedy for a while. It’s just another way to broaden the brand, get new people in the door, and we always say, ‘if we can get you to come to one show, we can get you to come to many shows.’”
Norton endorsed The Narrows by saying, “We’ve got a great product, the emphasis is on music, it’s family friendly, it’s mild to wild!”
After hosting 1,500 shows, Norton said one of his favorite shows was when The Narrows hosted the late Richie Havens in 2004. He talked about how important this show was not only for himself, but also for the venue as a whole. Before this show, The Narrows had only been hosting bands that were regional, and not well known. This was due to their lack of money. But when they hosted Havens, things changed. The Narrows chose to take a risk, and were successful in their mission to put The Narrows on the map.
“With Richie Havens, he was kind of a big shot,” said Norton. “$5,000 for him guaranteed the first time, and the most we had done previously to that was $1,000. So it was definitely a leap of faith.”
That concert was just what The Narrows needed. The show sold out, and many music lovers first stepped foot into what would soon become their favorite venue.
“I think it gave our venue a jumpstart. Kind of put it on the map for some people,” he said.
After the Richie Haven show, The Narrows Center had finally made a name for itself.
“And Richie, as a human being is such a beautiful man, [….] he’s all about peace, love, and honor. And that’s kind of some of the qualities that we try to portray here too.”
Since 2004 and his death in 2013, Haven’s played at The Narrows many times. “He brought a certain spirit. He captured what we were trying to exude,” said Norton.
Another important show The Narrows hosted was when the Continental Drifters played there. Although the band wasn’t as big an act as Havens, they played an important role within the creation of The Narrows.
“The very first show we had here was a band called the Continental Drifters. And what was special about that was we had just been kicked out of our previous home, and within a couple of months we had a new place. And I can tell you, from the very first note, I had a good feeling because it sounded really good,” said Norton.
This was a very important moment, because Norton, up until that moment, was not aware of The Narrows excellent acoustics within the building.
“We’re known for having really good sound, and really good presentation at our shows,” he said.
The Narrows is also known for attracting many volunteers and donors. “What we didn’t have in financial resources, we try to make up for in human resources.”
Norton talked about how The Narrows has managed to acquire and keep so many volunteers.
“We have a great commodity. [….] It’s great music. Volunteers get to come here and enjoy some great music. And then, I think, as it grows, it’s the comradery. We’re like a family now. You know, all the volunteers. We probably get about 40 volunteers now. Many of whom, have been here for over five years.”
Norton also talked about how The Narrows, being a non-profit organization, has gained such a significant group of generous donors, “When people give money to The Narrows, they get to see firsthand, that the money’s being used wisely.”
The Narrows Center has an annual drive and commonly receives grants, but a big portion of their money comes from generous donors.
Norton explained a situation he once found himself in. For the first seven years of The Narrows existence in their current building, they didn’t have a passenger elevator. Norton was saddened by the people who couldn’t attend the shows because they couldn’t get up the stairs.
“If you couldn’t climb 27 stairs, unfortunately, you couldn’t come to the show, which was hard for us, you know, on a bunch of levels,” he said.
Norton explained that when he chose to raise money for this specific item, and was public about what the money would be used for, The Narrows were successful in raising the amount they needed since it was clear that the money was going towards something important.
Norton also talked about raising money for an air conditioning system. Once again, the need was obvious, and the donors all saw immediate results due to their generosity. Norton has built trust and solid relationships between his donors and The Narrows. It has, “a track record of doing what we say we’re going to do,” and a handful of donors who are willing to help their cause.
The Narrows Center will be hosting two 15th Anniversary shows this November. The first show features headliner Samantha Fish on November 9th, while the second features Girls, Guns & Glory and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys on November 11th. Norton said he found these artists to be a good representation of The Narrows, and they have all played there before. He said that he chose these bands because they’re great acts, and they are bands that he and his associates love. He also said that he will be adding more acts to those events, and those names should be up on their website soon.
Additionally, The Narrows will be hosting their 15th Annual Narrows Festival of the Arts this Sunday, September 11th, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. This year’s lineup includes headliner Amy Helm, Paul Cebar and Tomorrow Sound, Alexis Suter Band, Tim Ray Trio, Roy Sludge, Ghosts of Paul Revere, Butch McCarthy, and TJ’s Music Allstars. This event is free to the public.
“What people can look forward to is a good time,” said Norton. “The Narrows Festival is the one day of a month we show people what we do here all the time. It’s a mix. We’ve got eight bands, and those bands are a mix of blues, rock, jazz, folky, bluegrass kind of stuff. We have the art vendors. We got food trucks. Stuff for the kids. So it’s family-friendly. It’s a dance party. We show some fun dance bands that are playing. And you know, it’s free. It’s our kind of thank you to our fans and the City of Fall River.”
As to his future goals for the Narrows, Norton said, “We would like to purchase the building and expand our offerings. If you’re not growing you’re dying. You really have to hustle this thing because there’s a lot of competition out there.”
For more information about the Narrows Center, visit narrowscenter.org.