As anyone who was brave (read: crazy) enough to be out and about on New Year’s Eve 2013 will tell you, it was really freakin’ cold. At one point there was a wind chill factor of -20. Not for the faint of heart.
So when vocalist Amy Briggs was set to sing with the Maine Street R&B Revue, a big, rollicking Bangor area nine-piece jazz and r&b ensemble, on the outside main stage for Bangor’s Downtown Countdown, she and her bandmates did what any hardy Maine musicians would do. They put on long johns and big, furry Russian hats, acquired hot chocolate and got to performing.
“The knowledge that it was only for 30 minutes or so and that my performance wasn’t going to involve getting my tongue stuck to my instrument — unlike our horn players — was what got me through it,” said Briggs, 43, a petite, powerhouse vocalist who has been performing in eastern Maine for nearly 20 years. “It was definitely a challenge… but I’m glad we did it, mostly to show people that we could and would.”
Briggs and her fellow musicians made it through with noses, fingertips and tongues intact. Then she went on to play three more gigs in Bangor, Ellsworth and Winterport, with the rock-pop duo she has with guitarist Jeremy Shirland, Him and Her. She’s got yet another band, Juicebox, a funk band that plays late nights at bars and clubs all over. She sings with jazz ensembles. She’s the music director for the Ellsworth United Methodist Church. And she works at the Jackson Laboratory. I got tired just typing that paragraph.
Briggs grew up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in a Franco-American family with a father who loved music, who drummed in rock bands throughout New England, most prominently with the band Northeast Expressway.
“I grew up going to rehearsal with Dad, helping him set up for gigs,” said Briggs. “One of my fondest memories is helping him lug his nasty, dirty, old box fan into the club so he could set it on stage next to his kit while he played… Then I’d sit at the bar, drinking a Shirley Temple while they did their sound check.”
Her mother was also a musician, and a theater performer, and she grew up listening to bands like Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, and the Moody Blues. Her parents bought her an accordion at age seven — the first instrument she ever learned, which she still plays.
“I played for over five years, winning competitions and trophies, and joining an accordion band that even traveled to the Washington, DC and Atlantic City on one tour,” said Briggs. “I can honestly say I’ve played the White House, via a solo in ‘In the Good Old Summertime’ on the outside steps.”
Briggs’ first gig as a rock musician was singing with her Dad’s band when she was 18 years old.
“They had a regular gig at a local Chinese buffet, and I’d go there and have dinner right before they started carding for the evening, just so I could stay and hear the band,” said Briggs. “They’d never kick me out, even though I technically wasn’t supposed to be there… Once I got a taste of singing in front of a band, though, that was it.”
Briggs eventually attended the University of Maine in Orono, where she graduated with a degree in music education in 1992. For the next ten years or so, Briggs only intermittently performed, first with the cover band Joker’s Wild in Bangor, and then with the Mt. Desert Island acapella ensemble Acappellago. She had her son, Jacob, in 1996, and was still teaching classroom music, so her rock n’ roll dreams took a backseat for a while.
By the late 2000s, however, the musical atmosphere in eastern Maine had changed dramatically, and the number of bars and venues offering live music had increased in a big way. Between Juicebox, Him n’ Her and the Maine Street R&B Revue, Briggs is once again a busy lady.
“I love that I can appreciate and legitimately perform in the different styles and venues that I do,” said Briggs. “Flexibility and versatility are key to getting employed as a musician. This area is too small to pigeonhole yourself… I think it definitely gives you perspective, too, and a means to appreciate when you do have it good.”
Briggs will play with Him and Her on Thursday, Jan. 16 at the Big Easy at the Charles Inn in Bangor and on Friday, Jan. 17 at Mainly Meat on Main in Ellsworth; with the Maine Street R&B Revue at Happy Acres in Alton on Saturday, Jan. 18, and will sing with Scott Cleveland Jazz on Friday, Jan. 24 at the Atlantic Oceanside in Bar Harbor, as well as with Juicebox over the weekend of Feb. 14-15 at Sugarloaf Ski Resort.