Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Montgomery’s summertime serenades

A guide to free concerts throughout the county

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Naomi Brookner⁄THe Gazette
Concerts will be held all summer long in the Silver Spring Center.
It’s high noon in the heart of Bethesda on not-quite-yet-summer’s day, and it’s easy to be pulled by the senses. On the Wisconsin Avenue side of Bethesda Place Plaza, a shady lane of trees leads from the Bethesda Deli to the painting-laden walls of the Fraser Gallery, and wooden chairs and benches beckon from a courtyard of coolness. On the sunny side, the skyway over Old Georgetown Road pours into the space between mirrored office buildings, where bumblebees buzz and Gina DeSimone’s three-piece folk band plays covers of Van Morrison and Peggy Lee. The smells from nearby restaurants mingle on the breeze, yet most of the folks here have their lunches in brown bags and takeout containers. It’s a sign of the season, a harbinger of spring. Never mind the robins – the free concerts have arrived!

Street serenade

What does summer sound like? It depends on who you ask. For schoolchildren, it’s the sound of kid-friendly entertainers singing wacky songs they can sing along to. For parents, it’s family-friendly entertainment that doesn’t cost a cent. For office workers, it’s a lunchtime set of jazz, folk or pop favorites that goes perfectly with al fresco food and a change of scenery from the office walls.

‘‘We come whenever the weather’s nice, just to get of the office,” says Bethany Bluett of Bethesda.

She’s sitting in the middle of Bethesda Place Plaza, having lunch with Virginia Tauss of Bethesda and Rachel Tkachuk of Annandale. The three work for DAI, an international development firm, and their building is right behind them as they sit on the plaza’s large flat rocks in the sunshine.

‘‘The more the summer goes on, the more people come,” says Tauss, looking around at the few dozen scattered by the fountain, the shallow pool and in the shade along the plaza’s edges. ‘‘They say, ‘Oh yeah, the Wednesday Concert Series!’”

Park places

From busy downtown Silver Spring to sleepy downtown Poolesville, concerts are bustin’ out all over. Gaithersburg kicks off its concert season Saturday with Jubilation Day, a full afternoon of entertainment at the Summit Avenue Concert Pavilion.

‘‘Gospel singers, dancers, choirs from local and regional churches – all in celebration of gospel music,” says Nansie Wilde, recreation coordinator for the City of Gaithersburg. The day-long celebration of the ‘‘unique American art form that gave rise to jazz, blues, R&B, and rock and roll” on Saturday is also a celebration of the Concert Pavilion’s 10th season, though Wilde says that Gaithersburg has been holding free summer concerts for decades now.

‘‘We’ve really worked hard to have a wide variety of performances to appeal to everybody,” she says. ‘‘There’s something for everyone this year.”

And it’s true: From kid-rockers the RTTs to the Dixie Power Trio, the Monday and Thursday morning concerts offer variety in a family-friendly package. The Thursday evening series run the gamut from Don Hayden’s Swing Time Big Band to the rock-blues-country of Patty Reese and the Cajun⁄Zydeco flavored Backyard Saints. The weekend concerts have everything from a Jimmy Buffet tribute band to The Gaithersburg Community Chorus to Shakespeare in the Park.

‘‘All of our programs are family friendly,” says Wilde. ‘‘There’s nothing that’s inappropriate for kids...well maybe the Shakespeare!”

She does say that some shows are particularly for kids – like the Hannah Montana-esque group Girl Authority – and some, like the Beatles tribute band The Return, will appear more to the older folks. Personally, Wilde’s a fan of Seamus Kennedy: ‘‘He’s got a wicked Irish sense of humor and a beautiful voice.”

Free fun

The Silver Spring Swings Concert Series – everything from the Latin Jazz of the Afro Bop Alliance to the doo wop oldies of the Fabulous Bel-Airs – offers free balloons and face painting (by clowns, of course) to concertgoers who arrive a half hour early. And the Sunday night concerts in Poolesville are preceded by outdoor movie nights on Saturdays.

Free concerts have been a staple in the cities, towns and parks of Montgomery County for years, but with gas prices spiraling up — and the price of everything else following closely — the idea of getting a lively lunchtime or an evening’s entertainment free sounds better and better.

Back in Bethesda, Steve Strickland tosses the remains of his takeout bag into a garbage can.

‘‘We didn’t even know it was here,” he says. ‘‘We were just looking for a place to grab lunch.”

He pauses and shrugs as the music and sunlight swirl through the plaza.

‘‘It’s a nice addition, I guess,” he says. And he walks back over toward the fountain.

If you go


Free concerts every Wednesday through July 30 from noon to 2 p.m. at Bethesda Place Plaza, 7700 Wisconsin Ave.

Free concerts every Thursday through July 24 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Veterans Park, corner of Woodmont and Norfolk avenues.

Call 301-215-6660 or visit


Free concerts every Monday (except May 26) and Thursday at 10:30 a.m. through July 31 at the Concert Pavilion, 31 South Summit Ave., Gaithersburg.

Free concerts every Saturday; times vary. Call 301-258-6350, or check the On Stage lineup on the city’s Web site:⁄onstage.


Free concerts Sundays at 7 p.m. Whalen Commons, 19701 Fisher Ave. Visit


Free concerts every Thursday evening at 7 p.m. through Aug. 14 at Silver Plaza, Ellsworth Drive between Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring.

Call 301-565-7300 or visit