Sound Session lives on

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 12, 2010


Donald King, former artistic director for the Providence Black Repertory Company, gets the queries quite frequently these days.

“There’s really serious looks of concern and excitement: ‘Sound Session is going to happen, right?’ ” he says.

Sound Session, for the uninitiated, is a summer music festival that is, perhaps, the closest thing Rhode Island has to Mardi Gras.

Launched out of the Black Rep six years ago, in partnership with the city of Providence, it began as a two-day event and has turned into a weeklong carnival of what King calls the sacred and the profane.

It starts with a morning prayer along the water — everyone dressed in white — and ends a week later with a raucous parade of the loud, bright, and scantily-clad.

And those looks of concern? Well, the financially troubled Black Rep went into receivership in September. And while an interim board works to revive the performance space, there has been uncertainty surrounding the Rep’s signature event.

King, who is offering his services to the board, and Lynne McCormack, the city’s director of arts, culture, and tourism, say the show will go on — from July 18-24. “The city decided it’s made a large investment in this event and we need to work hard to make it happen,” says McCormack.

Sound Session, she says, draws significant numbers of out-of-towners, adds some life to downtown Providence in what can be a slow period, and brings together the diverse strands of the city. “It’s really kind of a snapshot of Providence,” she says. “It really looks like the whole city.”

The budget for the event has hovered around $120,000 in years past — about half put up by the city and half by corporate sponsors. And at least one major sponsor, BankRI, has pulled out this year.

Organizers say the main elements of the festival — the parade, the big outdoor concerts — will be in place. But McCormack says organizers will build slowly, in keeping with the budget.

King says there are already some cost-cutting measures in the works: instead of an expensive, large stage on Westminster Street for the culminating event on Saturday afternoon, there will be three smaller stages in the Kennedy Plaza area. And planners are inviting local promoters to stage some marquee events this year, and share in any proceeds.

But King says locals should never truly be concerned that the festival, which is co-sponsored by the Phoenix and draws some 45,000 on the last day, will die. It has become bigger than the organizers. “They should never wonder whether or not Sound Session is going to happen,” he says, “because it is a product of their will — the will of the people.”

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