Group brings great music to Alaska

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2004

ANCHORAGE At a time when most boys were playing hoops or flirting with girls, Mike McCormick was sipping colas and listening to jazz greats Charles Mingus and Miles Davis.

Even at age 16, McCormick knew the good stuff when he heard it. And he heard a lot of great music at the legendary Jazz Workshop in Boston, where he and his buddies would go after school.

''We couldn't get enough of it,'' McCormick said. ''It was so much fun.''

McCormick is 51, and a long way from the night clubs of Boston. But he's still having fun and listening to great music.

In 1994, he and his wife, Katy Spangler, formed Whistling Swan Productions to persuade big names and rising stars alike to play in the Last Frontier.

Without Whistling Swan, the music scene in Alaska would be pretty dull, said musician Robin Hopper.

''Being in Alaska is of course wonderful in many respects. But when you are a singer-songwriter, when you are a musician who needs to be around the kind of musicians and the kind of writers who inspire you and teach you, Alaska is like being on the moon,'' Hopper said.

Whistling Swan focuses mostly on folk musicians because that's the music that McCormick enjoys most. The Whistling Swan lineup includes folk greats from the 1960s Tom Rush, Leo Kottke and Ramblin' Jack Elliott and newer arrivals on the national folk and bluegrass scene such as Alison Krauss and Ani DiFranco.

''Spider'' John Koerner has agreed to do a couple of shows in the fall, McCormick said, not able to hide his excitement.

''It's going to be great,'' he said. ''Spider John is one of the guys who took (Bob) Dylan under his wing.''

In its first year, Whistling Swan hosted six or seven shows. McCormick expects about 40 shows this year, maybe 50 next year.

''It just snowballed,'' he said. ''There were so many people we wanted to hear.''

Through Whistling Swan, McCormick brings Alaska musicians together with the best talent from the Lower 48, Hopper said. On several occasions, McCormick has arranged for Whistling Swan musicians to play concerts at Hopper's home in Chugiak.

''Mike is a walking encyclopedia of American folk music from the 1960s on,'' she said. ''The exposure to all of those high-caliber, high-quality songwriters has really improved what is happening up here.''

McCormick, a sixth-grade teacher in Eagle River, traces his passion for folk music back to when he was a high school senior and headed to college. He heard Tom Rush sing ''Child's Song'' about a young person leaving home. The song moved him to tears.

''It hit me. This is the power of folk music,'' he said. ''That was a real defining moment. That sealed the deal.''

McCormick began promoting music when he was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Massachusetts in Am-herst. In the early 1970s, the college town in mostly rural western Massachusetts was a world away from Boston's night life.

''There was nothing happening in music there,'' McCormick said.

So, he started something. He contacted promoters in Boston who were drawing blues talent from Chicago and the Deep South. McCormick convinced them Amherst was a good place to gig.

''That is how I got started promoting,'' he said. ''It was generated by the love of music.''

Persuading good acts to travel all the way to Alaska is a more complicated affair, McCormick said. First, Alaska is off the fast track.

''If you are trying to be a star you don't come to Alaska, usually,'' McCormick said.

Then, there's the problem of finding available space for shows.

To get bands to come all the way to Alaska, they normally have to be assured of shows in several cities or towns. Mc-Cormick handles the Anchorage shows and works with promoters in Fairbanks and Homer, and occasionally Kenai, Valdez, Bethel and Moose Pass.

While Anchorage has enough venues to accommodate anywhere from a few dozen to 2,000 people, choices are more limited elsewhere. The larger shows in Fairbanks and Homer must be held in school auditoriums where school events get first crack at available dates.

''That is a big, big problem,'' McCormick said.

There's also the added costs of getting the artists from Seattle to Anchorage, accommodations while they're here, and the cost of flying them in-state.

While each deal is structured differently, McCormick said guarantee money for the band ranges anywhere from $100 to $25,000, and up.

Sometimes McCormick spots up-and-coming talent but can't get the other Alaska promoters to go along with him. That was the case a couple of years ago with Norah Jones before she became a 2003 Grammy winner.

''Sometimes it's just miraculous we get the quality of shows that we do,'' McCormick said.

In 1998, things fell into place to get Krauss, just before she hit the big time. Krauss had just presented her agent with her wish list for the year. Playing in Alaska was at the top. Krauss has gotten pretty big since then.

''Now, we can't get her back. We keep trying,'' McCormick said.

Jim Fleming, DiFranco's agent, said McCormick has helped create a whole music scene that makes the trip to Alaska worthwhile for singer-songwriters in secondary markets.

''They can have a whole week of work,'' Fleming said. ''They're actually walking home with some money after paying expenses. People are starting to make decent money in those outlying areas.''

Kris Delmhorst of Greenfield, Mass., opened May 8 for headliner John Gorka at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage. She also played smaller shows in Homer, Talkeetna and Palmer as part of a West Coast tour that includes Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego.

While playing in Alaska is not a moneymaker yet the West Coast cities are paying for the Alaska part of her tour it could make some money in the future with McCormick's help, Delm-horst said.

Whistling Swan sometimes loses money bringing an artist to Alaska. One time McCormick lost $5,000, but he said if he really wants to bring an artist to Alaska he'll take a chance.

''It really is about community. It's about sharing. That's what's important,'' McCormick said.

Fleming said it's not all about money for him, either. It was his relationship with McCormick that prompted him to convince DiFranco that Alaska would be a great place for her to play.

''I would rather play for someone passionate about the music and maybe we make a little less money,'' Fleming said.

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