Interview: Patrick Norton has a knack for mixing it up at the Narrows

Where the music comes first
By JIM MACNIE  |  October 25, 2011

TEAMWORK Norton (center) with volunteers Ron Mendes and Herb Tracey and director of operations Debra Charlebois.

The Narrows Center for the Arts — the bastion of blues, folk, jazz, rock, and various stripes of singer-songwriter fare — has a decade of action under its belt. This week, it will celebrate the anniversary with a handful of shows that includes Rosanne Cash and the David Wax Museum. The stylistic stretch between those two acts helps explain a crucial aspect of the respected Fall River music venue's personality: breadth.

The Narrows has no problem presenting traditional bluegrass one night and New Orleans psych-funk the next. A through-line could be drawn from the 125 or so shows that will wind up marking the concert hall's 2011 calendar, but it would contain quite a few curves. Patrick Norton, the Narrows' executive director and talent buyer, makes his lasso quite wide when reeling in the musicians he believes will thrive on his stage — from veteran artists to up-and-comers.

A local boy who has had a yen for rock and its variants since his teenage years, Norton is a baby boomer with a day job. The bulk of his run at the Narrows has been done on a volunteer basis, though he recently started earning a salary for his admin and curatorial duties. He was part of a team that helped move the non-profit Center (which began as a visual arts outlet) from a small space on the eastern side of town to a mill complex facing the Mount Hope Bay (where visual arts still have a home). Fall River being a textile hub, the third floor space was littered with ancient sewing machines when Norton first viewed it. To celebrate the anniversary, we chatted with him about how the Narrows has sewn all its goals together.

DO YOU STILL HAVE A VIVID MEMORY OF THE SEWING MACHINES BEING IN PLACE AT THE RAW SPACE WHEN YOU GUYS SHOWED UP A DECADE AGO? The room was divided in half and the guy who was showing it showed us the side far from the water. I crawled over the top of the divider and said, "No, no, we want the water side, not the back side." He said, "You can't afford the water side — if you want it you've got to take both." The rent was four times that of our original space across town, but we thought it was perfect and wanted to make it work. You could see the potential. The water and the boats going by adds that extra flavor, right?

HOW DID YOU COME TO TAKE THIS ON? ARE YOU JUST ADOER, A MAKER? OR ARE YOU A MUSIC ZEALOT WHO HAD TO HAVE SOMETHING LIKE THIS IN HIS LIFE? A bit of both. I'm a music geek. I played in bands for years, but I wasn't very good. I was an only child who spent many hours alone in my room listening to and looking at albums. I was a person trying to find any way possible to be around music, and then I thought that this opportunity was a good one. There really was a void; the area was missing a mid-sized venue where you could really get up close and personal to the artists, a place where music was the first thing that counted rather than selling beer.

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