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After 375 years, Providence still rocking

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras may disagree with a number of people on a variety of issues — public school teachers on their contracts, city drivers on the cost of parking. But as he demonstrated Nov. 22 with the event Hey Providence, It's Your Birthday! Celebrate 375 Years, held at Providence Performing Arts Center, the mayor understands there are some things everyone can get behind: music, fireworks and free cake.

For the city's 375th birthday celebration — a fundraiser for the Providence Community Library — the mayor's office presented in one night some of the city's best artists, performers, pastry chefs and food on the go. It also brought together on stage all five of Providence's living mayors — Taveras, Joseph Paolino Jr., Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, John Lombardi and Rep. David Cicilline '83 D-R.I.

"This city began as a lively experiment that's still going," Taveras said. No matter the difficulties the city faces, "somehow we always emerge," he said.

He called his success story "testimony not just to our great city but to our nation."

A 10-minute barrage of fireworks over the roofs of Johnson and Wales University, best viewed from the line of food trucks stationed outside the event, followed Taveras' remarks. The action then shifted scenes.  

The lobby of the Providence Performing Arts Center abounded with cakes of all shapes and sizes. Competing to win their creators the title of Official Providence 375 Bakery, some paid tribute to city landmarks — WaterFire, the statue of Roger Williams, the Haven Bros. food truck and the dome of the State House — with three-dimensional representations in batter and frosting.

Few of the more than 2,000 guests made it through the lobby and into the performance hall for the first few acts, but those who did were well-rewarded. The Barr Brothers, an alternative rock outfit whose founding members hail from the Ocean State, played an hour-long set. The songs ranged from soothing bluegrass to blaring punk rock.

Grammy-winner Jeffrey Osborne, who got his start playing at Providence clubs, came down into the audience for help with his second song. Upon asking, "Does anybody out there want to woo-woo-woo?" he got plenty of volunteers. After receiving support mainly from black audience members, Osborne, a black soul singer, asked specifically for white volunteers and got the best-received cameo of the night from State Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence and North Providence.  

The highlight of the night was the performance by alt-rock group and 2009 Spring Weekend performers Deer Tick, who originally hail from the city and last month released the album "Divine Providence." While the band noted that they were more accustomed to badly lit bars than to an enormous concert hall, their enthusiasm and raw noise easily carried to all corners of the Providence Performing Arts Center. Songs like "Main Street" and "Baltimore Blues No. 1" were received enthusiastically by a crowd that was many years older than the band's typical audience.

The most memorable parts of the act were goofy one-liners delivered between songs. "I can't believe this guy Providence is 375 years old," said John McCauley, the band's lead singer. "He must be some kind of dinosaur turtle or something."  

But the end of Deer Tick's performance offered a reminder of the disconnect between the band and its venue. To the sounds of feedback, McCauley hurled his guitar at an amp and closed out his band's set with the punk anthem, "Let's all go to the bar."


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