Samuel James on Thursday will perform songs from “Already Home Recordings Volume 2,” which was commissioned by Portland Ovations. Katie Day/courtesy of Portland Ovations

Samuel James said he hasn’t felt this anxious to play music for people since he first started performing live two decades ago.

“Maybe I’ll look back on it with a little romance, but right now, I’m nervous. And I’m usually really comfortable up there,” the 43-year-old Portland singer-songwriter said last month.

James will present his latest work, “Already Home Recordings Volume 2,” at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Brick South Beer Garden at Thompson’s Point in Portland. Other than a handful of outdoor shows last year, he hasn’t toured much, hence the apprehension.

The upcoming concert, and the creation of new music, was made possible through a partnership with Portland Ovations, a local nonprofit arts organization. During the summer of 2020, after the pandemic disrupted the lives of performing artists everywhere, Ovations used some of its funding to create a program to commission five projects to support artists in Maine. They include music, theater and dance with a commitment to showcasing diversity.

Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director of Portland Ovations, said the organization has commissioned work in the past, but the economic impact of the pandemic made supporting local artists even more important.

“We wanted to give artists a way to have money in their pocket when they might not otherwise be able to perform,” she said. “We wanted to invest in their creativity.”

Advertisement

Two others selected for commissioned work were dance choreographers Riley Watts and Heather Stewart. They will present their collaboration, “Hour Wolf in the Lighthouse,” for three shows on May 18-20 at historic Mechanics’ Hall.

The performances also mark the debut of Little House Dance Company, which Stewart founded in 2020 and which Watts has since joined. Portland hasn’t had a modern dance company in more than 20 years, and Watts and Stewart said support from Ovations was instrumental.

“As an artist, it’s so valuable to feel a level of trust,” Watts said. “They trusted us to come up with an idea and also gave us the time to develop it. That was really freeing.”

For many months during the pandemic, Watts had to put his dance career on hold and work as a gardener just to pay bills. Now, he’s creating again.

Stewart said support from Ovations for her work also has allowed her and Watts to connect with others in the community about additional sources of funding and collaboration.

“We’re artists, so we’d still be doing this is some way, but this has allowed us to gain momentum,” she said.

Advertisement

THE RIGHT TIME

In the spring of 2020, James, like so many other musicians, watched his entire touring schedule evaporate.

“It wasn’t postponements either, it was just gone,” he said. “I had to really think about how to build that momentum again.”

For artists, there is the creative side and the business side, and they don’t always align perfectly, even in non-pandemic times.

Portland Ovations, which had worked with James in the past, came along at a good time. The organization was looking for local artists to support with a new program that built on past success of commissioning work.

“I had already done this project, ‘Already Home Recordings Volume 1,’ and they asked if I was interested in furthering it,” he said.

Advertisement

James, whose dynamic finger-style guitar work and gravelly voice often merge blues and folk music, had increasingly been thinking about American roots music and how his own story fits into it. Born to a Black father and white mother, he said he was drawn to traditional pieces of music that “have ownership in Black and white American folk traditions.”

His father was a musician, and he grew up learning the drums, piano and, much later, guitar. He also found refuge in older country blues styles that he used to dismiss as his dad’s music.

“A lot of music dies because of fads or trends. That’s not what happened to this music,” he said. “It fell out of favor because of the Depression, because the people who were making it had to go to work.”

There are some similarities between that time and the pandemic, when performers’ livelihoods were disrupted.

With the latest project, James took traditional songs and made his own arrangements. As part of the concert, he will play some solo acoustic music, which he’s been doing for years, and some alongside recordings of him playing other instruments, which will create the feel of a full band. He’ll also tell stories, which have become as much a part of his performances as his music.

“They really just said, ‘What do you want to do?’” James said of Ovations. “I’m an artist, so I changed my mind a couple times, and they just rolled with everything.

Advertisement

“Just the relief of saying I can do this thing and not panic about the road or presentation or whatever. That’s as much support as I’ve ever had creatively.”

James said that, during the pandemic, he was cautious about playing in crowded spaces. If, as an artist, he was the reason people were gathered, he didn’t want to be responsible for sickness, or worse.

He said he’s fortunate audiences have still supported him, and he knows what they’ve been missing, too.

“I did a show last summer in Biddeford, and there was someone who came up to me crying, flat-out crying after the show. Just because they got to come out and see a live show,” he said.

COMING TOGETHER

Watts, who grew up in Bangor and now lives in South Portland, spent most of his time before the pandemic touring as a professional dancer, both across the country and internationally.

Advertisement

When performances ended in the spring of 2020, he took a landscaping job to pay the bills.

By the time fall rolled around and Portland Ovations was looking for new work to commission, Watts was somewhat out of practice.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” said Watts, 37, a graduate of the Thomas School of Dance in Bangor and later of the Julliard School. His most extensive experience comes from dancing with internationally acclaimed choreographer William Forsythe.

Stewart, meanwhile, had only recently moved to Maine from Canada following the death by suicide of her collaborator and composer, Marc Bartissol, with whom she had worked for a decade or so. Then the pandemic hit.

“I had sort of stopped dancing and spent much of the pandemic in therapy sort of taking care of myself,” she said.

Stewart, 32, had recently gotten a grant, too, from the Canada Council for the Arts, somewhat unexpectedly. She had applied a year before and wasn’t selected but then was contacted when additional money was made available.

Advertisement

“I wasn’t even sure I wanted to make dance again,” she said. “I had really transitioned more to choreography.”

Choreographers Heather Stewart and Riley Watts will present “Hour Wolf in the Lighthouse,” the collaborative dance work they created through a commission from Portland Ovations. Photo by Juliette Sutherland/courtesy of Portland Ovations.

But Watts, who knew Stewart through the dance community, contacted her and they started spending time together in the studio at Casco Bay Movers. He then joined the company she founded, Little House Dance.

Their work is similar in that both explore themes of mental health and mourning, and both have a lot of physicality in their movements.

Stewart’s dance will be performed by members of the company. Watts will perform his piece with Stewart.

“Our works are good companion pieces; I think they are meant to be viewed as one experience,” she said.

Much like James, both dancers said they are anxious to perform again.

Advertisement

“I haven’t shown work in this way for three years,” Stewart said. “And it’s the first thing I’ve ever done without my partner; so that’s all new. I’m excited about the work and about sharing the process we’ve gone through, but I’m terrified, too, because it’s my work and its personal.

Added Watts: “This is different because I’ve been a performer against other choreographer’s work. This is really coming from my own choreographic work. It’s a vulnerable experience any time an artist shows their work.”

Following their performances May 18-20, Watts and Stewart will refocus their attention on their new company and supporting collaborations with other dancers and creators.

“It’s interesting to see, because life has been so intense for all of us, how the arts community has changed and how audiences have changed,” Watts said.

SUSTAINED SUPPORT

Portland Ovations has commissioned three projects that will be presented later this year and in early 2023 – by Dee Clarke, an activist and playwright who died in 2021; theater artists Kerem Durdag and Andy Happel; and a presentation of staged versions of Wabanaki stories for schools and families.

Advertisement

The initial investment was about $25,000 in direct support to the artists, plus in-kind support from the organization for marketing and other resources. Artists also will be paid once the performances are completed.

Throughout the year, Ovations brings a wide range of performances to Portland audiences and has been doing so for 90 years.

Petrin, the director, said being able to commission local artists has been richly rewarding. Ovations has commissioned work in the past, but often on a smaller scale, one at a time.

Prior to the pandemic, Ovations commissioned an opera titled “The Summer King” by Maine composer Daniel Sonenberg that has since been produced in Pittsburgh and Michigan.

“We haven’t figured out the next version, but we know we want to continue being able to commission artists,” Petrin said. “The funding for this was our own resources; we had to dig into the piggy bank. Now we need to think about what we can do to make this sustainable.”

Petrin said she thinks the pandemic has spurred a great deal of new and fascinating art that audiences will be consuming for years.

“The other reality is that a lot of artists had to make a hard decision and leave their field,” she said.

This story was updated at 1:35 p.m. May 9 to reflect a change in the presentation of staged versions of Wabanaki stories.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.