BURRILLVILLE – When the Riverwalk Times Concert series first began in Burrillville in 2008, only two shows were played, and the small, local bands on the schedule didn’t exactly draw in huge crowds.
But in 2018, more than 4,200 people attended the nine-week series, despite three rain outs that brought the shows indoors.
The concerts, initially held on the Riverwalk behind the library, were the brainchild G. Wayne Miller, a member of the nonprofit Friends of the Jesse Smith Memorial Library. The “Friends” group had come together as an outgrowth of a capital campaign to help build the facility, and now intended to continue to support and grow the town’s new library.
Peggy Dudley, who had served on several town boards in Burrillville, including the Town Council for eight years, was on both the building committee and capital campaign for Jesse Smith when the facility was underway a decade ago. Dudley helped to launch the concerts and has worked hard to find both financing for the series, and entertainment that will add value to the experience, ever since.
“It takes patience,” Dudley told NRI NOW this week of her efforts to grow the free events.
Dudley notes the series took off when the Friends began getting business sponsors for the concerts.
“That allowed us to expand,” she said.
Now, annual communications with would-be sponsors is a familiar routine for the 72-year-old, who took over the job several years ago. Dudley writes out personal notes thanking the businesses each year, and acknowledging past contributions.
“It takes me forever to do,” she said. “But I got successful at raising money and we were able to expand.”
Dudley also applied for a grant from the June Rockwell Levy Foundation to get a street banner advertising the series. The Pascoag Utility District stepped up offer to hang it.
As the funding and visibility have grown, so too has the quality of the entertainment.
“As we’ve gotten more successful, we’re able to be more choosy,” said Dudley.
The volunteer points to a performance last year by Rhode Island Music Hall of Famer Duke Robillard.
“He’s a world famous blues jazz guitarist,” said Dudley. “He’s very, very good.”
In 2019, newcomer Kelley Lennon has been among entertainers to impress the crowds, playing 22 songs in a row. Still upcoming this year are performers including Brass Attack, The Deloreans and Easy Street Bayou, a band made up former members of the Slippery Sneakers, to name a few.
The season will close with a performance by Navy Band Northeast.
“They put on a fantastic show,” said Dudley.
But behind the scenes, she notes that it isn’t always easy for the small, volunteer group to maintain financing, especially when inclement weather forces the crowds indoors. The group relies on donations at the free shows, and sales of concessions including ice cream, soda, chips, and ice coffee, to pay the performers starting about halfway through the season.
“I try to raise enough to pay for half the bands,” Dudley said. “By the fourth or fifth concert we have to start making money.”
In 2018, their entertainment lineup cost $7,350.
Members of the Friends walk around with donation baskets, and if attendance in normal, just $1 each from the guests will be enough to keep the music playing, Dudley said.
But the figure gets harder to reach when inclement weather forces the crowds indoors.
“People just don’t come out, and I wish they would, because if they came they’d see what a great time it is inside,” Dudley said. “Those that come really enjoy it.”
If the funds aren’t raised through donations and food sales, Riverwalk concert entertainment is paid for out of the Friends treasury, a fund used to buy supplies for special library programs.
“That’s what we want our bank account to go toward, but we’re committed to doing these concerts,” Dudley said. “We’re hopeful that the weather is good for the rest of the schedule.”
Dudley also worries how the show will go on once the current group of volunteers moves on.
“The unfortunate thing is we’re all getting kind of old,” she said. “There’s no young people behind me.”
She encourages those interested to join the friends, and hopes to see big crowds for the rest of the concert season enjoying the best local talent.
“They’re a nice night. They really are,” Dudley said of the Riverwalk series. “People sit down and relax and they hear some good music.”
“I’m looking forward to all of them,” she added. “I think we have a tremendous lineup of talent.”
Riverwalk Times concerts will continue at 6 p.m. every Saturday at the pavilion in front of Jesse Smith through August 31.