Every spring, the Sanctuary concert season in Chatham ends sweetly, with an ice cream social.
But the flavor will be a little bitter-sweet this time. Series presenter Scott Sheldon is stepping down this weekend, after 14 years of hosting some of the most beloved performers in acoustic music.
On Saturday, May 17, 2014, Scott will come full circle, introducing Modern Man, the zany trio that kicked off the series back around the heyday of that other pop culture sensation, The Hanging Chads.
Scott also will sing a few original tunes, in addition to serving ice cream and selling $1 CDs.
Admission is $15 and the whipped cream starts flying at 8 pm, in the Presbyterian Church at 240 Southern Boulevard in Chatham.
The good news? Scott–who will stay at the Sanctuary as a “back seat driver”– is entrusting front-of-house duties to someone with very capable hands and ears, Mike Del Vecchio.
Mike has wasted no time lining up an exciting fall roster that includes Arlo Guthrie, Gary Wright and Dar Williams.
We caught up with Scott and Mike via email for a trip down musical Memory Lane–and a preview of history still in the making at the Sanctuary.
‘TWO SUITCASES AND BOXES OF COOKIES’
MORRISTOWNGREEN.COM: Handing off the Sanctuary after 14 years– does it feel like sending a kid to college or giving away a daughter?
SCOTT SHELDON: I’m very excited about Mike becoming the presenter at The Sanctuary Concerts. Some of the things we’ve dreamed up in the past have become the hallmarks of our series: The “pick six” VIP membership plan, the low-cost end-of-year ice-cream social and audience appreciation concert, the free dessert and coffee at intermission, the personal goodbye and basket of mints after the concert, and such. Mike is bringing a boatload of energy and new ideas to the series.
MG: Was there one moment or show where it clicked, where you just felt, “Enough, already”?
SCOTT: I’m handing over the presenting to Mike at a point where I can take my hands off the Sanctuary Concerts steering wheel but still be available as a back-seat driver. Now that our youngest child has started college and I’m past the time when I expected to be done with law practice, chances are that we’ll be leaving the area before too long. It made sense to make the transition while I was still nearby.
MG: The Sanctuary is not your full-time gig–though I bet it felt that way sometimes. What prompted you to start the series? Was there a model that inspired this? Did you have any idea what you were taking on?
SCOTT: I’ve been a trial lawyer for more than 30 years; but I’ve always had one or another big hobby. For years, I performed in plays, musicals, and operas; after that, I made the rounds of the coffee shops as a singer and writer of comic songs.
Just when I began to get the itch for a new hobby, a small folk-music series in Watchung advertised that it was looking for a new presenter.
The first concert, I arrived with two suitcases full of borrowed sound equipment and a few boxes of cookies, and was overwhelmed when almost 200 people showed up. The fun hasn’t stopped since.
MG: How were you able to juggle a full-time legal practice with the role of music impresario?
SCOTT: The blessing of The Sanctuary is its group of permanent volunteers, who not only work every show but also take care of a lot of the “back office” work, including bookkeeping, publicity, shopping, and production. If I’d had to wrangle volunteers for each concert and handle those things myself, I would have been in big trouble. So, kudos to our volunteers!
Some Sanctuary highlights; please click icon below for captions.
MG: I am going to put you on the spot: Your all-time favorite show at the Sanctuary, and why? Top five shows? Favorite moment?
SCOTT: The “sweet spot” of our concert series has always been big-name artists that our audience has loved for decades. To be able to present Nick Lowe, Marc Cohn, Jorma Kaukonen, Roger McGuinn, The Roches, and Rosanne Cash in our low-key, volunteer-run church series has been astounding. I’ll never forget Colin Hay (of Men at Work) walking to the mic and saying, “Nice church you’ve got here. Reminds me of that other time I was in a church.” I also will be grateful forever that the late Richie Havens was a Sanctuary regular, and that when the minister of the church saw Richie’s performance of “Freedom,” he called it a deeply spiritual experience.
MG: On the flip side, there must have been artists who were difficult to deal with. What was your least-favorite show, and why? Anyone who you banned from the Sanctuary?
SCOTT: No matter how big a name, nobody plays at The Sanctuary unless he or she also has a warm and intimate rapport with our audience. Performers who don’t engage with the audience, who don’t come out after the show to meet fans and sign CDs, who hide out in their tour buses, are not invited back.
MG: Your typical Sanctuary audience strikes me as a mature crowd… what is the future of acoustic music? Are you concerned about reaching younger listeners? How do you do that?
SCOTT: There are so many things we grew up taking for granted that now seem antiquated and quaint – having your own paper copy of a book or magazine, having a newspaper thrown on your front lawn, even having a group of actors perform a play in person for an audience. But, there is something about live music for which there is no digital substitute. It is a celebration, a community, and an intense experience, especially in our acoustic genre where the performers actively engage the audience. I don’t think that there is an end to our appetite for that experience.
MG: You plan to stay involved behind-the-scenes. Can you describe Mike’s role? Why he is perfect for the job?
SCOTT: Mike is a big man with big passions. He took his passion for trains and became a highly-regarded train writer, photographer and editor (not to mention his day job, making the trains run on time at the Bayway Refinery). He’ll dazzle you with his knowledge of sports, history, photography, and just about anything else you want to discuss. Not surprisingly, he is a schmoozer extraordinaire, which is a critical talent when dealing with artists, agents, volunteers, and vendors. I can’t wait to see the new ideas and direction that Mike’s energy and creativity will bring to the series.
MG: What advice do you have for Mike, or anyone else planning an artistic venture of this scope?
SCOTT: Our series has always thrived by offering a great value — $25 or $30 tickets, with free refreshments, free parking, no ticket fees, to see renowned artists like Paula Poundstone, Leon Redbone, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and David Bromberg – and adding the kind of friendly personal touch that you can’t find at the theaters and performing arts centers. That’s the key.
MG: On a personal note, thank you, Scott, for many evenings of musical bliss. The Sanctuary has been a wonderful education. Many happy refrains to you and your wife!
SCOTT: Kevin, thanks for the kind wishes!
MIKE DEL VECCHIO
MIKE DEL VECCHIO: You’re too kind and I’m humbled, having never thought of myself as you’ve described. I hope to stay on the sound board and to keep working with the traveling musicians on that level, pun intended. One of my joys from the series is to be on the sound board. Since I have a face and physique for radio, maybe we’ll try “voice of God” introductions from a microphone at the board, à la Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the announcer is offstage.
MG: What are you feeling about this new gig? Kid-on-Christmas? Butterflies?
MIKE: Mostly excitement, and some butterflies. This little change adds a lot of work, time and correspondence. And I’m seeing that already in the assembling of the fall 2014 and spring 2015 line-up. Scott is a great teacher, and working with him for years helps a lot. I’ve been active in the presentations of other venues as well, and making friends at the conferences.
As the series producer and technical director, I would comb through all of our previous contracts to make sure we can meet the technical needs of each performer. Focusing on the new schedule and its many details helps keep the butterflies in their cocoons. That Scott will still be part of the series is a comfort. That our volunteers are completely on board with our evolving roles is also a comfort. Our steady core of volunteers working as a team is among the miracles of the Series.
MG: Scott has created something special at the Sanctuary. What’s your vision for the franchise? How will you put your stamp on it?
MIKE: Yes, The Sanctuary series has grown into something special under Scott’s leadership. All of us on the Sanctuary team appreciate that and we want to keep the magic going. As for my vision and direction? We have a working formula, and it’s not wise to change anything too drastically or too soon. First priorities will be to keep things rolling smoothly, and to keep pleasing our audiences. Immediate changes may be only internal. In a year, let’s talk about the new “stamp,” if indeed there needs to be one.
MG: When did you join the Sanctuary? Favorite shows so far? Favorite artist? Anyone you refuse to present?
MIKE: I started sitting in the pews at The Sanctuary shows in the fall of 2004, and by December of that year I was sitting at the sound board. I had first met Scott over that previous summer when he was mixing sound for a show at the Folk Project, and I had offered to help him with “the deck work,” changing mic stands and such on the stage for the varying performers. I had been mixing live sound professionally since 1976 for the old Lakeland Community Concerts series, for the likes of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the New Christie Minstrels when they came to town, and for numerous local bands. I was a working bass player in a couple of bands during that era.
I have many favorite shows, usually the show I’m mixing each night. I love being a member of the group, working with them as part of the performance. I’m not sure I have a favorite artist, but I do have some favorite memories, like the night Richie Havens showed up with a cellist. She added such charm and class to Richie’s overall sound. Richie liked opener Sloan Wainright so much that he invited her to open more shows with him — one of the many events that we call Sanctuary magic.
Another memorable show for me was a pairing of Peter Yarrow and his daughter’s group, Bethany & Rufus. Her voice is so hauntingly pure, complementing Peter’s.
I don’t know that there’s anyone that our audiences would want to see that we would refuse to present.
MG: What artists are you determined to recruit to the roster?
MIKE: Artists who engage the audience in a way that makes everyone glad they came. We’ve always researched and sought opinions from concert-goers about great performers and performances. In the past, the likes of Richie Havens, Janis Ian, Al Stewart, John Sebastian and so many others fill that bill. We’re always looking for some of the hit-making performers that audiences may be surprised would play an intimate venue like ours. We’re talking to a couple of them right now.
One of the more satisfying parts of the series has been our opening acts. We book feature performers who will draw a crowd, and we look for up-and-coming, gifted and some veteran performers as opening acts who would be a good pairing. These openers are playing for 400 people who wouldn’t see them otherwise, and it’s helping them build an audience. I remember many times where the feature act liked the opener enough to help them with contacts or other gigs, all part of that Sanctuary magic.
MG: The Sanctuary has had a couple of venues over the years. Do you plan on continuing at the Chatham location?
MIKE: We’re very happy at the Presbyterian Church of Chatham Township. Pastor Ed Halderson is one of the miracles of the series. He loves to see the PCCT Sanctuary filled with happy people. Many of the parishioners and church staffers have come to the shows, and we sometimes work together with PCCT’s music director Adam Waite on projects for his students. It’s a good synergy between the Series and the Church. We may need to move a show now and then to a different location as we have done in the past, but we hope to keep Chatham our home.
MG: How do you see the future of acoustic music? Will younger generations continue to support this kind of music– singer-songwriters, storytellers, etc.?
MIKE: The acoustic music scene is strong and getting stronger. In our area there are more than two dozen folk festivals within a three-hour drive during warm months, a dozen coffee-house-style venues within an hour’s drive, while the number of people hosting house concerts is growing like summer weeds.
Numerous bars are now hosting acoustic open mics where new and experienced musicians can go to hone their skills. In my travels I do see the youngsters getting out to play, and many are posting their work online.
As with every “younger generation,” they will support it, likely in their own way. And the internet will have a role in it. I hope that the excitement of a live performance never falls the way of a webcast.
MG: Will we hear more from your talented wife, singer Christine DeLeon, on the Sanctuary stage?
MIKE: Christine has always been supportive of the Series, and she is thrilled at my new role. She played at The Sanctuary in 2008 as an opener for Tom Rush in November, which was before she and I thought about dating. Scott and I had seen her perform and heard good buzz about her then-new record January Hiding, so she was added to the lineup and got to play for a nearly full house. She has already let me know that she would be thrilled to perform again when the opportunity presents itself, but that she is not in any hurry to jump ahead of the many other performers who also have great things to offer the Sanctuary audience.
MG: Much success carrying the Sanctuary forward!
MIKE: Thanks, Kevin. We very much appreciate the support from you in the past, and we’re looking forward to great things in the future.