From the stage, 2,000 seats are visible. The College Street Music Hall has hosted many famous artists, and on Thursday night, University President Peter Salovey became one of them.
A major component of Salovey’s job as president is engaging with the Yale and New Haven communities. There are many ways in which that goal can be accomplished, from joint fundraising efforts to impromptu appearances in dining halls. But on Thursday evening, Salovey participated in an event that might trump them all: a Professors of Bluegrass performance.
When Salovey became president of the University, it was natural for many members of the Yale community to share the same concern: Would Salovey be able to continue playing bass with his bluegrass band?
Indeed, bringing the group together has proven increasingly difficult as a result of Salovey’s ever-increasingly hectic schedule. Since the group was founded in 1990, he has served as dean of the graduate school, dean of Yale College, University provost and University president.
Craig Harwood GRD ’02, a former dean of Davenport College who originally joined the band as a graduate student, said the group used to practice several nights per week and play much more frequently than it does currently. But as members embarked on new journeys, and as Salovey climbed the administrative ladder at Yale, Harwood said the group has had to scale back the frequency with which they perform to about a few times per year.
Even as his professional commitments increased, Salovey did not abandon his dedication to the band. He is, after all, its last original member.
“If the president of Yale has the time to play, so do I,” said Oscar Hills, an adult psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine and member of the band. “I’ve never met someone who loves bluegrass as much as he does. That’s why he keeps doing it. No matter where he is, he’ll carve out a little time to play bluegrass. He’s totally enthusiastic and completely in love with the music. He has a kind of childlike enthusiasm for bluegrass.
Salovey noted that he grew up with a family interested in folk music, recalling that he discovered bluegrass in college while searching for songs to listen to on the radio. He said he “fell in love with the music,” and explained that the Professors of Bluegrass has allowed him to maintain and explore that passion. The band’s first performance took place at Toad’s Place, he said, and their favorite events are summertime bluegrass festivals. Still, Salovey expressed great excitement prior to his Thursday night performance at the College Street Music Hall.
Before the concert, anticipation was high amongst the audience, comprised of members of the Yale community as well as residents from surrounding towns.
“I’m totally excited to hear him,” said Melissa Grefunaro, a University librarian. “I think it’s so cool that he plays. I feel like if you’re someone who plays in a bluegrass band, you’re laid back and a pretty cool person.”
Andrew Janz, an usher of the venue, said he respected Salovey for finding a “niche” and performing live.
“More power to him,” Lindsay White GRD ‘17 said in regards to Salovey’s continued participation in the band as Yale’s president.
And Georgene Cecarelli, a resident of Northford, said she was looking forward to seeing Salovey play and that his doing so would help him connect with members of the wider New Haven community, many of whom attended the show.
“This is Yale and New Haven coming together,” Salovey said. “And what do we come together over? Music. It is a great, common love for students and faculty of Yale and people in this area.”
While attendees interviewed expressed support for Salovey prior to his performance, he said he was feeling both excited and anxious.
“We tried to play our easiest song back in the dressing room so that we would have the experience of at least something sounding good,” he said. “We probably would have been better off playing our hardest song, but that’s simply too risky for this group.”
As the clock ticked past 8 p.m., nervousness had to be subdued — it was showtime. When Salovey took the stage, he simply appeared ready to play. He also introduced the band and explained each song to the audience before it was performed, making jokes and often praising his bandmates.
For one song he challenged attendees to have a bit of fun — to get out of their seats and “dance a bit.” They laughed when he said that the band’s “world tour” would be made up of this concert and another one in September. He warned audience members with kids who had attended college that he had a song just for them: “I ain’t broke, but I’m badly bent.”
Perhaps the highlight of the set was the song “Dim Lights,” which was the only one Salovey sang. Later, he said it was a no-brainer to subject the audience to his voice just once.
“I can tell there are people with real taste out there,” Salovey joked, in response to the applause that followed his vocal performance.
Following their concert, the band triumphantly emerged and mingled with the audience. Listener after listener greeted Salovey and commended him for his band’s performance, with one calling its quality “a pleasant surprise.”
A visibly relieved Salovey called the opportunity to introduce David Grisman and Del McCoury — who he called bluegrass legends — the “thrill of a lifetime” and welcomed the praise of audience members.
“Because we don’t perform for a living, it is pretty anxiety provoking,” he said. “There is a rush of relief when we’re done and have managed to entertain people without screwing up too much.”
Salovey’s bandmates say part of what makes playing with him so enjoyable is his love for the music
Sten Havumacki, the band’s guitarist and lead singer, said he knows Salovey only through the band. His impression is crystal clear: that Salovey is “full of energy and passion” for bluegrass music and its history.
“One thing that is just remarkable about [Salovey] is this is really a passion for him and he is really an expert in country music,” Harwood said. “When you talk about bluegrass and country music with him, you find out he knows the history really deeply. He can talk to the most knowledgeable people and feel at home. It’s not just something he fools around with — it’s something he cares deeply about.”