In the deep quiet of winter on the East End of Long Island, year-round residents are thirsty for culture. And because of the strong community of artists and writers that has always called the Hamptons home, these residents, though fewer and farther apart than the summer population, find a way to gather and create something unique and original. Nancy Atlas, the Montauk-based songstress who has never neglected her connection to the East End, exemplifies that creative spirit with her Fireside Sessions at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. In the center of this intimate 300-seat theater-in-the-round, Atlas throws on her wildest outfits, invites her superstar musician friends, and hosts a monthly party that heats up the winter nights.
“We all love being here in the downtime, but everybody is desperate to have their energy changed in the winter,” she says. “People are so open to art and culture. By bringing outside artists in and giving them a new experience, we’ve created an enormous bond with the people who come to these shows.”
Almost all of the 30-some-odd Fireside Sessions that have taken place since the performance series started a few years ago have sold out. Atlas attributes that success not only to the stellar lineup but also to the fact that audiences trust her to create an amazing experience.
“Each show is its own living, breathing entity,” Atlas explains. “I choose different instruments, different people, based on the fact that I want people to come into that theater like it’s Christmas morning, they’re five years old, and they don’t know what’s in the big box. That’s my goal.”
She flips through her contact list of heavyweight musicians you don’t even realize you know—like Clark Dayton, who played alongside Sting and Bruce Springsteen, or Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And she brings them in to rock out with her band, who she says can go “toe to toe with anyone.”
“My band has shown what phenomenal musicians they are,” says Atlas. “They go from deep jazz to rock and roll to punk to reggae—no joke. You don’t have to be famous to be a righteous professional musician.”
At the Fireside Sessions, these guest musicians come in with The Nancy Atlas Project behind them, and something special happens.
“They slow down and relax,” Atlas says, “because our band has their back.”
What a great musician can do, of course, is transport its audience. In Sag Harbor in winter, sometimes that’s exactly what people need. Last year each show was an ode to a different town, with musicians who brought the essence of that town into the room with them. The night of New Orleans, Atlas marched in wearing feathery boas and a mask, backed by a big band, and took the crowd on a journey to the French Quarter.
This year Atlas has even more fresh ideas up her sleeve. She alludes to a Nashville-inspired hoedown one night, a full choir another. But part of the fun of the Fireside Sessions, she says, is the element of surprise.
“I’m looking to keep everyone with that same feeling of the unknown,” Atlas explains. “So much in our lives
is known. We have these phones where we can get any information we want, any time. Part of the gift is that you’re going to come in and not know, but you’ll trust me enough to take a ride.”
—By Emily Weitz