Emerging from the shell at SWAN Day CT

Feeling the thrum of live guitar through worn floorboards, I’m on the verge of bursting into tears from sheer relief. I’m alive. Artists I know are alive. Art is alive.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Middletown, where I’m playing socially distant audience for SWAN Day CT, the annual festival of women in music, dance, and arts—this year, streaming.

“I feel like we’re starting all over again, emerging from a dark period,” says emcee Jennifer Hill, the singer-songwriter who started SWAN Day CT in 2007 and has organized it since. The theme of this years SWAN event is love yourself and self-care. For the artists, performing for an audience is a key part of self-care. As Mistress Leona Star explains: “When I can’t perform, I feel like a part of me is missing.”

The past is getting old / The future’s still on hold

Lisa Lawrence, “Love Me Every Day” (future release)

First to break the performance ice here at Free Center, a comfortable and colorful space in a former warehouse, is alt-country singer-songwriter Lisa Lawrence, with husband Aron Uzanas on bass. Acoustic, her music is sweet, gritty, and confessional, plus one song that rocks hard.

Each of her songs is new, which is a thrill—how often do you get to hear six new originals? It gives me a little twinge of guilt, too, for how much I haven’t accomplished. It turns out that artists’ reactions to the pandemic year are all over the map. Some, like Lisa, wrote (and wrote brilliantly). Others had a full plate with work, childcare, and other responsibilities. Singer-songwriter Nan Roy, who’s working crew this year, had an exhausting year working in healthcare.

Jennifer Hill, who’s performing as Murderous Chanteuse, dug into her 15-year-old song notes to put together an album that addresses ideas she wasn’t ready to process until now. While she’s been recording it in New Haven, she’s not playing songs from it today. This set, accompanied by Jeff Chen on cello, is creative covers of songs by great women songwriters of the 1990s. “I took your song and I ripped it apart and made it mine. That’s why I’m Murderous Chanteuse,” she jokes. Jeff’s glad to see his gear again, as he left it in her home rehearsal space over a year ago, when rehearsals for SWAN Day CT 2020 ended abruptly in the state’s shutdown.

Between some sets, Sarah Gallardo, founder of domestic violence awareness organization Sarah Speaks Up, offers words of self-affirmation. Being live at the venue, I heard fewer of her comforting words than you will. However, having part of the event be remote created an opportunity for some special guests who wouldn’t ordinarily make it to Connecticut to perform.

Lydiah Dola, Afro-fusion artist and founder of African Tunes of Peace, performed from Nairobi, Kenya. She explains: “I met this amazing lady, Jennifer Hill, through wonderful, artistic Martha Richards [founder of international SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day]. Jennifer and I have been organizing SWAN events in our countries for fourteen years. This year in Kenya, Jenn was one of our invited guests, and she invited me to sing at Connecticut’s event.”

It’s wonderful how SWAN Day supports unity in diversity.

Lydiah Dola

Other remote guests were songwriter-director-actor Shellen Lubin with original songs and Colorado’s Sunny Gable, whose first words to Jennifer Hill, years ago, were “you smell like bleach.” Last month, she released a new album, Contagious. Her parts were recorded in her new home studio, with accompaniment mailed in, including drums by Connecticut’s Bob Schwecherl, usually the drummer for Murderous Chanteuse.

SWAN Day features new friends as well as old ones. This year’s cygnet—the youngest SWAN—is modern dancer Madelynn Brown, performing a gorgeously tragic routine to the Stevie Nicks remake of “Gypsy.” “As a young feminist, it’s really special to be part of an event where women share art we’re passionate about,” she says.

Something special as an audience member is being exposed to art forms I ordinarily don’t seek out. Dance fills the middle of this year’s show, with two performances from Brown, a lyrical dance by Sarah Mitchell, and Linalynn Schmelzer’s “360,” which she describes as “a solo dance about being vulnerable and hurt but having hope that love will prevail.”

Linalynn’s personal expression of hope includes opening River Valley Dance Project, a community space at SoMa in Deep River that will offer dance, movement, and wellness classes and performances. She’s also looking forward to launching her Second Chance project, funded by a 2019 grant from the Office of the Arts in CT and NEA, which features works by seven Connecticut artists on the theme of a second chance. “When creating this show, I had no idea how relevant the theme of a second chance would become,” she notes.

Don’t forget your art or lose that spark.

Gracie Day, “Graveyard of Stars”

Chances—first, second, lost, and gained—are one of the themes of folk-rocker Gracie Day’s seven-song set, accompanied by Joel Rines. Her lyrics brim with merciless wit, particularly “Graveyard of Stars,” which takes a stiletto to Nashville dreams. (My notes have this song surrounded by little hearts. I think I liked it.) She’s been hiking, writing new songs, and watching music documentaries during the pandemic; however, some of her set is already available on her 2019 Nashville Sessions EP.

The latter part of SWAN Day CT is given to burlesque. “I started SWAN Day in 2007, when Connecticut wasn’t keen on burlesque,” Jennifer Hill notes.

The first burlesque act I ever saw was Vivienne LaFlamme at SWAN Day CT 2019. She and I talked a little, at last month’s photo shoot, about the perception that burlesque is for the male gaze. My sense from seeing her past performance is that her art is a celebration of women’s bodies and potential. “As artists, we can create a whole new world,” she explains. Mistress Leona Star agrees: “We’re about inclusivity—embracing everyone in a positive way.”

Mistress Leona Star’s act this year brings sexy defiance to addressing expectations placed on women. Vivienne LaFlamme’s splendid use of xylophone effects is witty, vulnerable, and triumphant.

“SWAN Day is about uplifting and embracing other artists who aren’t always featured,” Harley Foxx notes. She’s been dancing in her home studio and participating in virtual plays. In her first performance—bringing dazzle to 1970s disco—she shows how taking off a mask can be sexy as hell (and how niftily the lighting by The Illumination Authority adds to the impact]. She follows up with a jazz routine full of switches in mood, then closes the show in the most spring 2021 fashion possible: as a devil, showing her delightfully evil side.

The combined euphoria and letdown of finishing a show feels weirdly nostalgic. It’s been four hours of non-stop performances, which is both an incredible gift and a drop in the bucket of what we’ve all missed this past year. More than 1,000 people tuned in for at least part of the event—far more than could fit in any realistic venue. Walking out of the building, it feels like evening after a big holiday dinner is all done, when it’s a little bit of a surprise that the ordinary world is still out there being ordinary.

You can watch as much or as little as you like on Facebook. (Hint: it’s a feel-good pastime if you’re having post-vaccine brain fog.)

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