Five days before Christmas, Nancy Atlas was in the throes of multitasking — wrapping presents and writing set lists at the exact same time.
“We are in the final countdown,” she said.
With her three children in school for two more days, the musician was taking advantage of her empty house in Montauk, tying up loose ribbons and smoothing out bumps in her Fireside Sessions lineup — an annual winter concert series that almost always sells out, but was very nearly canceled, she said.
“I really was committed to not doing it this year,” she said. “I write in the winter and I create in the winter, but I also need to make a living. So when this thing took off the way that it did, it basically overtook that period of time that I had to contemplate — which is not like, ‘Woe is me,’ I just never foresaw it to be the huge success it was gonna be.
“Around October, I was considering not doing it and I just thought, ‘Why would I not do it?’” she continued. “I’m a little bit older than you, but you start losing friends and stuff, and I’m like, ‘This is such a great, wonderful thing. It’s wonderful for my band, it’s wonderful for the community, so why over-think it?’ And I have to prioritize my own writing in the time and be present to that. I have to rethink how I can be a human being instead of not doing the show.”
Atlas reached an internal compromise — she would take off December to focus on her writing and producing Fireside Sessions, a creative endeavor itself, she said. The band learned 135 new songs last year alone, which can take its toll, she explained.
“But I don’t think I’ve lost any love of it,” she said. “It’s almost like, you don’t have a party unless you genuinely want to shower your friends with love. Otherwise, why even have it? You’re pissed off. And it’s the same thing. I always wanted to make sure these shows were based in a real desire to do it, and I’m really looking forward to this year. I’ve done a whole 180.”
The series kicks off on Saturday night with Henry Haid, a piano man who played Billy Joel in the Broadway show “Movin’ Out” — “So he’s not just somebody who sings Billy Joel,” Atlas said, “he’s the master” — alongside saxophonist George Cortez.
Randi Fishenfeld, described as a “tornado on a violin,” will be front and center on January 12, followed by a Rockabilly night on January 19 with stand-up bassist Eugene Chrysler and East End favorite Gene Casey. The series will close with a choir night on January 26, featuring keyboardists Danny Kean and Jonny Rosch, and an eight-person Fireside Choir hand-selected by Atlas.
“At the core of our band’s success is that we are present and we play every show like it’s our last show. I have always said that and I will always hold by that,” she said. “There is not a single performance I’ve ever had where I don’t, at some point, turn to my right and look at Johnny Blood, or turn and look at Neil, Rich or Brett and, in that moment, am thankful for it.”
During the best shows, Atlas feels like she and the band step into a “timeless tunnel” when they’re playing music the right way, she said. It has happened at nearly every Fireside show.
“For me, the last five years has been about the craft of songwriting, honoring the guest, supporting the strengths of the guest,” she said. “This year is definitely more revelry, more of ‘Life is short, let’s have a good time.’ A few of us have lost friends — we’re all in our 50s, or close to our 50s. We’ve all had, at this point, some kind of health scare. We’ve been together for 23 years. That’s a very long time. There’s so many things we can over-think, but Fireside Sessions is really not one of them.”
Looking toward this year’s series, Atlas said she hopes other villages and towns take note of the success Bay Street has seen with Fireside — the positive effects that come from live music, economically, socially and otherwise.
“If anybody out there is having a hard time in the winter — I’ve suffered from depression myself my whole life — music is a very natural medicine. You always have to push past the desire to hole up,” Atlas said. “And it doesn’t just have to be our band. We are just one bit in a long carrier of the flames on the East End, of being artists and musicians in our time. I did not invent this wheel, nor will I stop it. I’m just happy the wheel is still going.”
Fireside Sessions with Nancy Atlas and her band of Journeymen will kick off with Henry Haid and George Cortez on Saturday, January 5, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. In the coming weeks, guest musicians will include Randi Fishenfeld on January 12, Eugene Chrysler and Gene Casey on January 19, and Danny Keane, Jonny Rosch and the Fireside Choir on January 26. Tickets are $35. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.