Westerly is known for many great things: beautiful beaches, Victorian-era hotels, even an annual yellow rubber duck race (yup, every April). And although there’s always been a lively music scene, the town has never been known as a destination for touring musicians. Sean Spellman is aiming to change that.
Spellman’s company, Westerly Sound, is playing a key role in the revival of Westerly’s arts scene, a movement he hopes will make the town a destination for Rhode Islanders and tourists alike. The goal is “to present art, food, film, and concert events in unique spaces throughout Westerly and its surrounding area,” Spellman says.
A midway point between Boston and New York, the town at the southwestern corner of the state is poised to become a stop on national music tours, with concert venues such as the Knickerbocker Music Center and the United Theatre ready to welcome them.
Spellman founded Westerly Sound in 2017 when he held the United Folk Festival, an outdoor festival to benefit the United Theatre. “My partner and I were both touring musicians for over a decade,” he explains. “I was born in New London, Connecticut but lived out on the West Coast for some time. When we moved to Westerly and settled here, we missed being able to see quality music all the time. So we just started calling our friends and booking shows at the Knickerbocker. It started as just a way to connect with our friends who were passing through on tour.”
Following the festival, Spellman decided to do a year-round series at different locations around town. “We did it for about two years and then the pandemic hit,” he says. “We took a little hiatus and then this year, we’ve noticed Westerly is transforming. There’s a lot of new energy here, so much positivity.”
Spellman has become a promoter of sorts, although he didn’t set out to do that. His main goal is to inspire a more creative, diverse community. “Music and art is the best way to do that,” he believes. “That’s where I have knowledge and experience. All those years I spent in the van touring with my indie band Quiet Life. Now the time is right because Westerly is changing.”
Not surprisingly, there are challenges to producing shows in a town the size of Westerly. “Bands that will easily sell 1,000 tickets in New York have trouble selling 500 at the United Theatre. We’re not quite at the level where people are looking to Westerly to see these bands,” says Spellman.
Despite this, the results so far are promising. He’s lined up some big names in indie music circles this summer including past Newport Folk Festival performers Tre Burt this month and Billy Bragg in October. He’s also got country favorite Ward Hayden this month and singer-songwriter Hiss Golden Messenger in September. Plus, there’s a free outdoor summer series, Explorations in Atmospheric Sound, held in Wilcox Park, on the first
Sunday of every month through October.
“I think art and music are the bridge to community diversity, not just ethnicity and race, but what people do, how people think about their community,” says Spellmen. “We’re raising our two kids here, though we’ve lived in cities for most of our adult lives – we don’t miss the high rent, and we’re thankful to live in a beautiful place near the beach that’s quiet. What we miss is the culture, the art, the music, and the food.” With Westerly Sound, Spellmen hopes to build on what’s already great about the town.
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