In danger of going out with a whimper instead of celebrating New Year's Eve with a bang, the 2014 edition of First Night Boston may not have happened at all without the intervention of outgoing Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. When the financially strapped nonprofit organization that had been running the popular event since 1975 closed up shop in early 2013, Menino stepped in and made sure that the show would go on. Rather than a watered-down First Night, as might have been expected given the circumstances, the mayor's ad hoc committee not only rose to the challenge, but delivered a wildly ambitious and, from all appearances, wildly successful event.
I began my evening at Boston Common admiring the ice sculpture and wondering how the young, brave figure skaters performing on the Frog Pond before an enthusiastic crowd were able to withstand the cold temperatures in their skimpy, exposed outfits. My posse and I dressed for the occasion with layers and layers of clothing. Lacking the grace of the figure skaters, we ambled across the Common with the poise of the Michelin Tire Man.
Dipping into what felt like the single digits thanks to the wind chill factor, it was nippy -- but not nearly as nippy as one memorable First Night Boston in the 1980s. I remember grabbing a free ice cream sample at a booth on the Common that year and trying to stab the concrete-like substance with a plastic spoon. The spoon shattered, and I reluctantly deposited the impenetrable treat into a nearby trashcan that was filled with discarded, uneaten, deeply frozen, but otherwise perfectly fine cups of Cherry Garcia and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
While there was plenty to do outdoors and lots of venues hosting indoor activities, one of the nice things about this year's First Night was that many of the performances were centrally located at the Hynes Convention Center. To get across town to the Hynes, we made our way to the T station at the Common. I couldn't understand why a large group had gathered in front of a barricaded section of the park near the T station. It became obvious when colorful pyrotechnics began exploding overhead. The early evening "family fireworks" display, which was essentially a ten-minute-long finale, was quite impressive.
We popped in to some of the performance spaces at the Hynes and caught a few moments of the musicians, comedy troupes, art installations, and dance presentations. But we had come to see Patti Smith. Despite what appeared to be an impossibly long line, the cavernous auditorium was able to swallow up the crowd.
Backed by her crack band, featuring longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, the ageless Smith (she celebrated her 67th birthday on New Year's Eve) had never sounded better. She played many of her well-known songs, including "Because the Night" and "Dancing Barefoot," with conviction and owned the stage. In a moving tribute to her contemporary and friend, Lou Reed, who passed away in October, Smith dedicated two tunes including a lovely and elegiac reading of his "Perfect Day." She also unearthed some lesser-known nuggets such as the title track on her most recent album, "Banga." That song featured some inspired handclapping and dog barking from the unconventional chanteuse. The adoring audience clapped and barked along.
First Night Boston ended at midnight with a full-blown fireworks display over the harbor, a fitting way to cap a wonderful evening. For a mere $10, the event provided a heckuva lot of bang for the buck. If you missed it, I highly recommend that you join the fun next year and heed my advice: Wear lots of layers, skip the ice cream, and be prepared to bark like a dog. Awoooo!
Photos: © Arthur Levine, 2013.