It started with drumming. Back on September 28, 2002, we opened our very first Common Ground Coffeehouse with a communal circle of bongos, congas, dumbeks, tambourines, and assorted other percussion instruments. Then came the singing, led by our featured artists for that inaugural evening, The Walkabout Clearwater Chorus, founded by Pete Seeger in 1984, and dedicated to promoting environmental awareness and social action through song.
For more than 20 years and over 300 concerts, Common Ground has nurtured the seeds of community – musical and otherwise – that we planted back in 2002. As a program of the First Unitarian Society of Westchtester’s social justice committee, we raised over $30,000 for progressive causes and other charities. In our early years, members of the Unitarian Society frequently took the stage for nights of opera, storytelling, jazz, and teen open mics. Audiences hit the dance floor with the First U Rock and Soul Revue, our in-house R&B band, led by Ray Castoldi, the legendary stadium organist at Madison Square Garden.
On May 22, 2004, Common Ground hosted the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Preview Tour for the first time, beginning a long-standing relationship with that beloved festival. The annual tour, which we welcomed every spring from 2005 through 2009, featured then-“emerging” artists voted by audiences as “most wanted” to return to the festival. Some of those artists, including Red Molly, Joe Crookston, Meg Hutchinson, and Anthony DaCosta, have been invited back over and over, moving from our more intimate stages to our larger ones as their careers have blossomed. Around the same time, we began presenting many of the established Falcon Ridge headliners, and the years 2008-2012 featured artists like The Kennedys, The Nields, Vance Gilbert, Tracy Grammer, Chris Smither, and The Slambovian Circus of Dreams for the first time.
As exciting as it was to welcome established, nationally touring folk artists to our stage, I’m proud of the fact that we continued to offer a diverse range of experiences. There was Electric Junkyard Gamelan, a four-member ensemble performing rhythm-driven music on invented instruments; Luminescent Orchestrii, a gypsy band whose music also incorporated elements of Middle Eastern, punk, and Appalachian music. And speaking of punk, who can forget Uncle Monk, a bluegrass duo from the Catskills, led by one of the founding fathers of punk music, Tommy Ramone?
Through it all, our audiences grew, mostly by word of mouth, and we responded by producing nearly 30 concerts a year, branching out to many additional locations and new series. Common Ground Downtown (2008-2011) took place at the village community center in Hastings-on-Hudson, followed by Common Ground Folk Series @ Lewisboro Library (2011-2013), Common Ground @ South Church (2011-2014, 2021-present), and Irvington Theater (2011-2020), among others.
Over the past decade, Common Ground’s formerly frenetic pace has slowed down — with about a dozen or so concerts annually, primarily as part of our original monthly Common Ground Coffeehouse series or, for larger shows, in Irvington. One especially memorable evening took place on October 1, 2016, when a multi-artist line-up presented a tribute to the music of Linda Ronstadt as a benefit for the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. As some of you know, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013. Although there is no cure for this progressive disease, I’ve always found music to be the best medicine, especially when shared. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — my absolute favorite moment as a music presenter comes when I step to the mike and before I get to introduce the artist I think “These people are about to get blown away!” I don’t take it lightly that Common Ground regulars have often told me that they often buy tickets to Common Ground concerts with artists they’ve never heard of before because they trust my taste. Thank you for that trust.
There’s no denying that the last few years have been tough on all of us. The global COVID pandemic took from us our ability to come together in musical community for nearly two years, during which time a major flood damaged beyond repair the First Unitarian Society, Common Ground’s flagship location. Thanks to our friends at South Presbyterian Church, we found a new home for part of our 2021-22 season and all of our 20th anniversary 2022-23 season. Meanwhile, Irvington Theater closed due to COVID in 2020 and as of this writing, remains closed for highly anticipated renovations.
After much thought, I’ve decided that now’s the time for Common Ground to go on an indefinite hiatus. My hope is to be able to return to Irvington when the theater re-opens, and, if circumstances allow, to produce the occasional special event elsewhere, as well. Let me emphasize: this is NOT the end of Common Ground Concerts. It’s a transition to a new phase, still to unfold. In the meantime, my deepest heartfelt thanks to the hundreds of artists who have graced our stages over the past 20 years, to the best volunteer crew in the world, and especially to you, the Common Ground audience, my fellow travelers on the music highway. I hope to see you down the road! – Carter Smith