Finnegan Blue brings sensory-friendly concert to Strings

Sibling duo Willie, left, and Anna Lee Fleming, of San Diego-based band Finnegan Blue, take the stage of Strings Music Pavilion at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7.
Courtesy photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For someone with a sensory-processing disorder, such as autism, a typical concert can be a lot to deal with. Fast, intense, abrasive songs and high-pitched, loud sounds can be physically painful to some ears.

In sit-down concert halls, responding to the music by talking, singing along or moving around, the way some people do, is generally considered disruptive, and snacks — key to getting through an event, especially to people whose diets are carefully curated and hunger levels, unpredictable — are generally not allowed.

“I know there are a lot of families who struggle with going to shows because they’re so conscientious about not disturbing the general public with whatever their sensory or behavioral needs are,” said Yampa Valley Autism Program Executive Director Lisa Lorenz.

For the third summer, Strings Music Festival presents a sensory-friendly concert, featuring brother-sister duo Anna Lee and Willie Fleming, of San Diego-based band Finnegan Blue. The show begins at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7, at Strings Music Pavilion and will run for about 45 minutes. It’s meant for both kids and adults; tickets are sold on a “pay-what-you-can” basis.

This show will look a bit different from a typical concert at Strings. Materials are available for attendees to prep for the event, which is helpful when someone is intimidated by not having a schedule or sense of expectation. The auditorium’s house lights will be on low throughout the show, and the sound will be toned down to be quieter than usual.

Fidgets, headphones and earplugs are available for anyone who’d like some, and there’s space and permission for anyone to sit, stand, sway or dance — or however else anyone wants to experience the music. Snacks are allowed and encouraged. If anyone would like to leave the show, there’s a designated sensory space in the Strings Cafe, with comfy chairs and crayons. Staff trained in special needs will be in attendance. 

“We create a space where no one has to be self-conscious, and everyone can just enjoy the music,” said Katie Carroll, Strings’ director of artistic administration and education. 

Whittany Keating has two sons with autism: Travis is 6 and Andrew is 5. This will be their third time attending a sensory-friendly concert at Strings.

Travis, who’s nonverbal, loves music — classical, jazz and “anything with big instruments,” Keating said. 

If you go

What: Sensory-friendly Finnegan Blue show
When: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7
Where: Strings Music Pavillion, 900 Strings Road
Tickets: Pay what you can

“(The concerts) have been really great,” Keating said. “It’s so nice to be in an atmosphere where the kids can be exposed to the music and dance around or whatever they do, and nobody gets upset about that.”

“This allows families and individuals to feel comfortable being themselves,” Lorenz said. “It’s just the most joyful feeling, with everyone immersing themselves in the experience.”

She noted that at Strings’ sensory-friendly concerts in the past, families going through similar experiences have connected. A show even led to a child needing the Yampa Valley Autism Program’s services to connect with the program for the first time.

Wednesday’s concert will be the first time Finnegan Blue has played a specifically sensory-friendly show, but the band members have years of experience working with children. The Finnegan Blue musicians are music teachers and private lesson instructors during the year, and they tour during the summers. 

Anna Lee Fleming’s top sensory-friendly Finnegan Blue song recommendations

1. “Run” 

2. “Johnny is the Same”

3. “San Francisco”

4. “Rye Whiskey”

“The audience is encouraged to get up, dance, run around, have a good time and experience it any way they feel — we’re really excited about that,” said Finnegan Blue guitar and trombone player Anna Lee Fleming. “That’s our vibe. We’re stoked.”

Before she played with Finnegan Blue, Fleming also worked for eight years as a nanny for a child with autism.

“That child taught me so much,” Fleming said. 

Anna Lee and Willie Fleming play “Soul of Man.”

Finnegan Blue plays “face-melting folk,” rooted in traditional folk and blending in sounds of Celtic, bluegrass and second-line music with a punk rock edge.

“The artists are comfortable with kids and adults. They know how to speak with everyone and how to welcome a diverse population,” Carroll said.

It’s sure to be a fun and engaging afternoon for all.

Two members of C Street Brass smile with a young fan at Strings Music Festival’s sensory-friendly concert in 2017.
courtesy of Lisa Lorenz

“(Programming like this) gives you a chance to kind of test things out, to see how he experiences it,” Keating said. “Because if that goes well, it would make me less apprehensive to bring him to a regular concert. It’s like practice for the big game.” 

After the sensory-friendly concert, at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7, the full band of Finnegan Blue returns to Strings to play another concert that’s not specifically sensory-friendly.

Strings Music Festival presents the show supported by partnerships with the Yampa Valley Autism Program, Horizons Specialized Services and Dan Comstock, who teaches vocal workshops with Opera Steamboat.

After their 2017 sensory-friendly concert at Strings Music Festival, the members of C Street Brass chatted and posed for photos with fans.
courtesy of Lisa Lorenz

Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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