BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Some churches have sunny gardens, others, shady, green cemeteries.
Unity of Traverse City, whose acreage backs up to the Holiday Hills, boasts scenic wooded trails, a labyrinth or prayer circle, and a gently sloping woodland amphitheater with stone slab seating.
Built by congregation member Mark Kniat, the amphitheater has been the site of weddings, Sunday school overnights and church picnics. But it is perhaps best known for its Crescent Woods Gatherings, a lantern-lit summer concert series featuring local musicians.
“It’s directed to family friendly entertainment,” said June Neal, who produces the series with fellow congregation member Sue Schwartz. “I scour the paper cover to cover, and a little of the Manistee paper, and we find the latest, greatest people to be involved. Sometimes somebody else recommends them, like Jill Beauchamp at Horizon Books.”
Neal said the series started five years ago with mostly poetry and guitar music by talented folks within the congregation. Now it includes several concerts a season by some of the area’s better-known musicians, put on by six church volunteers who handle tickets, CD sales, concessions and other tasks. To keep it fresh, she tries introduce two new acts each year.
Concert-goers can bring their own chairs or sit on one of the stone slabs covered with pillows and pads collected from garage and rummage sales. Kids can play in a toy section under the watchful eyes of their parents. And all can help themselves to bug spray from bottles on a table.
The series is a favorite of the Tongue Family Band, a Celtic group made up of Steve and Amy Tongue on guitar and flute, and their daughters Abby, 18, Lara, 16, and Emma, 13, on fiddle, cello and bodhran.
“Summer can be really busy so we are selective about where we want to perform,” said Steve, who sits down with the family each year to hammer out its performance schedule. “When we sat down this year and Crescent Woods came up, we said, ‘That’s a no-brainer — we’re going back there.’”
Tongue said the amphitheater’s shape carries sound nicely without an elaborate amplification system. And it’s size — it seats about 150 people — gives the space a café feel. That’s especially important when it comes to acoustic Celtic music and Irish step dancing, both of which trace their roots back to family kitchens.
“A lot of times when you play outdoors, you give up some of that intimacy,” he said. “But I think the great thing about Crescent Woods is it’s an outdoor setting but you feel connected to the audience. And I think they feel connected to you because they are so close.”
The band returns to the amphitheater on Aug. 3. But first, Aged to Perfection and Mary Sue Wilkinson take to the stage with their Reader’s Theatre, featuring seniors from the Old Town Playhouse, and Young At Heart Music, music woven together especially for seniors and children.
The show begins at 7:30 p.m. today; the suggested donation is $10 for adults and $5 for children 21 and under.
Besides the Tongue Family Band, upcoming acts include Sashay and Front Street Jazz Band on July 27, and Parallel – formerly Sisters with Class – on Aug. 10.
Neal said the series is a way to increase visibility and to fund small projects. A few years ago a portion of the proceeds was donated to the Cherryland Humane Society, where church volunteers walk dogs several days a week.
She said the series seems to grow every year, even attracting out-of-towners.
“This is a great outreach and a great gift to the community,” said Tongue. “It’s kind of a best-kept secret.”