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Chester Concert Series Is A Big Hit

July 1, 2008

By Charles Stannard, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Jul. 1–CHESTER — – A local furniture restorer and a folk-rock performer who began her career in the 1980s New York City music scene have organized a concert series that is drawing growing crowds, showcasing area musicians and raising money for nonprofit causes.

The Small Town Concert Series is the brainchild of residents Matthew Male and Lauren Agnelli. The series, which began in 2007 with small shows that raised money for the Chester Fuel Fund and the Chester Public Library, has evolved into a run of shows paying tribute to the works of singer/songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

A tribute to the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Chester Meeting House Saturday evening ended with an eight-piece band laying out rocking versions of songs like “Woodstock” and ” Ohio.” A show scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday at Chamard Vineyards in Clinton will feature the big band and various other performers doing songs from the early 1960s British invasion. A second tribute to the music of Leonard Cohen is planned for the meeting house in October.

The Small Town Concerts story began in 2004 when Male and Agnelli met at the Sage American Bar and Grill. Male was a divorced father of three daughters from Old Lyme who worked with endangered seabirds and restored antique furniture. Agnelli, a New York City native, had been a member of the Washington Squares, a folk-rock trio out of the Greenwich Village music scene that recorded two albums in the late 1980s, including one nominated for a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy in 1987. After the Washington Squares dissolved in the early 1990s, Agnelli moved to Connecticut to pursue a career in education.

The couple married in 2006 and moved to Chester, where they met other musicians and music lovers. Male said the idea of a concert series developed from musical parties held at their Middlesex Avenue home. “There was a whole house full of musicians and no audience,” he said.

Seeking a venue as they began pulling together their “Big House Band,” Male and Agnelli approached First Selectman Tom Marsh about using the meeting house. “He said we could use the building as long as there was a benefit to the town,” Agnelli recalled, leading to the idea of directing most of the money generated by the concerts to local nonprofit causes.

The “Shoreline Women Digging Dylan” show last December drew a sellout crowd. The Joni Mitchell tribute show at Chamard Vineyards in May also sold out. Male, who serves as sound technician for all of the shows, has been spreading the word by tacking up posters on local bulletin boards from the Rhode Island border to Middletown and New Haven.

Though most of the money generated by the concerts goes to nonprofit causes, Male said he tries to provide a stipend to the band members. Along with Agnelli, the band includes Bill Calhoun and Emily Lisker, a Woonsocket, R.I., couple who play keyboards and baritone sax, Rodney Maxwell of Haddam on lead guitar, John Morse of Ivoryton on drums, Chris Listorti of Old Saybrook on guitar and bass, and Chester residents Hans Lohse and Forrest Harlow on percussion and electric autoharp. Various members share the vocals.

Male said he and Agnelli want to continue the local focus and charitable contributions, but are also hoping for “some sort of sponsorship” that would allow them to own some of the sound equipment that is now rented for the shows. “We hope to keep doing a few of these shows each year,” he said.

The board of selectmen named Male and Agnelli “volunteers of the month” in May. “The meeting house is a nice venue for them and it has worked out well for everybody,” Marsh said.

Contact Charles Stannard at cstannard@courant.com.

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