An inspiring creative energy abounds each year when the 20-plus musicians who attended the previous summer’s Sub Rosa Songwriting Retreat at Three-Mile Island on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee reassemble in January to share from the more than 60 songs created there. The usual drill on the island is that, by day, the musicians go off to remote spots on the island — by themselves or with a collaborator — to write news songs, and then assemble at night to share the tunes around the campfire. The rustic living, with running water and electricity available only in the Appalachian Mountain Club site’s main house, reduce distractions and sparks creative energy that burns as bright as the evening campfire.
When they come together each January at Club Passim, which underwrites the camp via its Iguana Fund, the artists all join in on each song — a super group if ever there were one — and you will never hear a more angelic choir than the one that rises from the stage when the voices, sometimes 10 strong, imbue each song with an otherworldly gorgeousness. It is truly a phenomenon never to again be replicated. While many of the songs end up on their own albums, or those of others, there is for the audience a great joy in the moment when these songs are unveiled, often for the one-and-only performance. I became hooked on these annual showcases six years ago, and have attended each one since.
While the ensemble always depends on availability of the songwriters, the first of two nights of shows this year featured the usual stalwarts — Dinty Child, Zachariah Hickman, Mark Erelli, Rose Cousins, Rose Polenzani, Dietrich Strause, Charlie Rose, Miss Tess, Sean Staples, Kris Delmhorst, Jocie Adams, Annie Stevenson and Dave Godowsky. The musicians always marvel at how many people are willing to attend a show at which they will hear songs never heard before. While it is a fairly constant cast, the lure and notoriety of the retreat grows exponentially, so new artists often ask to attend to bathe in the creative fairy dust. None other than Lake Street Dive sensation Rachael Price attended in June 2018. Though touring commitments prevented her from attending the shows, it was reported from the stage that a new campfire tradition emerged: the impeccably voiced Price would sing the lyrics to every song, no matter who wrote it. Although it seemed like a joke, Hickman assured it was not, saying it made the process of sharing songs easier — and sweeter — for the others, apologizing that the night’s vocals would not be up to Price’s impossible standards. Perhaps so, but the thing that makes Sub Rosa special are the songs that emerge from the creative incubator of Three-Mile Island, sometimes to take flight into the ether and never be heard again. What a heavenly ether it is.
At top, Dinty Child performs in theSub Rosa Retreat Revue at Passim. Gallery, clockwise from top left, Rose Polenzani, Jocie Adams, Rose Cousins, Zachariah Hickman, Charlie Rose and Sean Staples.