ROCKPORT — Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Paula Cole performed in her hometown this weekend, the first time she has performed here since her 1986 graduation ceremony as class president from Rockport High School.
Back then, she wowed the crowd then with her rendition of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross."
Cole left the small seaside town of 7,000 on her journey as a teenager, and returned as an accomplished singer songwriter with fans around the globe.
One fan traveled from the Netherlands to see both Friday and Saturday's shows in Rockport as well as a show in Ogunquit, Maine, last night.
"Unfortunately Paula doesn't tour in Europe," said Robbert Vansprang. "But this is one of the best venues I have seen her in."
He wasn't the only one who traveled to see the Decca-recording artist. Tina Kougher of Milton, N.H., has seen Cole perform more than 50 times.
"This is the best venue I have seen her in. The sound is amazing and I have seen her in places from coast to coast," said Kougher.
Both fans were referring to $19 million Shalin Liu Performance Center, which opened in June for the chamber music festival, but was hosting its first pop show on Friday night.
When she first came onto the stage, the audience gave her a rousing applause, a reception she thanked them for several times during the show with deep appreciation. While Cole dazzled the audience, often the show seemed more like a homecoming party.
"I'm grateful for my hometown. Thank you for your support, for caring and for remembering," she told a hushed audience. "We're going to have a family reunion. It's going to be like 'It's Your Life Paula Cole Night."
Standing before the panorama of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean, she told the crowd she had learned to swim right there at Front Beach as a child.
"How lucky we are to be here tonight. I think this hall will transform Rockport," she said.
The crowd was filled with former teachers, classmates, neighbors and friends as well as just pure fans. The audience contained listeners from every age, ranging from elementary school children to grandparents. Probably half the audience had a Paula Cole story of some kind.
George Ramsden, a retired RHS guidance counselor and Rockport educator of more than 40 years, was wearing the Class of 1986 T-shirt on which each student had signed their name.
"I had such flashbacks when she was at Rockport High. She was so talented back then and took part in so many of our musicals and she was so comfortable singing," he said. "It was kind of surreal. I was thrilled to be there to hear her singing again in her town 24 years and two months later. I'm sitting there watching this world-class singer sing in a world-class venue — I thought what a quantum leap."
Ramsden, who remembered her singing in "South Pacific" her senior year, recalled how she was a popular student, but she had no "pomp and circumstance about it" and she never sought any recognition.
"It's so nice to see that she's comfortable being back," said Ramsden.
Cole talked about the songs, telling the audience that the writing process is about documenting the unconscious.
She began the concert with "Comin' Down" from her 2007 CD, "Courage."
Several times the audience response prompted her to cross her hands over her heart in thanks for the resounding applause.
Her vocals resonated with texture and character, as if she were an instrument herself, a quality which must have helped earn her the 1997 Grammy Award for best new artist. Some tunes she performed on the Steinway grand piano, while during others she sang on stage, some quietly and some while dancing around.
"Music heals me," she told the crowd.
Cole, 42, has traveled the road of divorce, walked away from the music industry, relished in the joy of motherhood, and like most working mothers has found a balance; she found a way to return to the music, which never ceased pulsating through her spirit.
Cole sang both crowd favorites such as "I Believe in Love" as well as music from her soon to be released "Ithaca" CD, including a song titled "Music in Me."
She dedicated "Happy Home" to her mother with a tender introduction to the song that she played on the piano.
She told the audience how she is enjoying a "new-found adult friendship" with her parents after rebelling and going out in the world.
"And through conflict we have gotten closer," she said. "My return to Rockport is about accepting my parent's love back into my life."
Her parents, Stephanie and Jim Cole, babysat their 8-year-old granddaughter Sky on Friday, but all three attended the Saturday night show.
"She sat quietly, and she was mesmerized. It went late and she hung in there," said Stephanie Cole about her granddaughter.
Sky was first in line after Saturday's show to hug her mother as the fans lined up to greet the artist. Cole signed autographs and CDs after both shows.
"It means a lot for her to connect with people," said Stephanie Cole. "They had a reception for her before the show with hors d'oeuvres. For such a little town, this (event) was very big for all of us. It's hard not to get blown away and I try to control myself but inside — it's hard to describe."
Cole performed with drummer Ben Wittman, who she met at the age of 19 when she was a student at Berklee College of Music and he a student at New England Conservatory. On guitar was Ben Butler, an Australian, who she knew by way of Berklee College and who is now a Brooklyn resident.
In introducing her song, "Hush, Hush, Hush," she said she wrote it in tribute to a man named Stephen, who she met while living the San Francisco area.
"When he died of AIDS, I didn't know what to do with the pain," Cole said, so she wrote a song. It's also the only one of her songs to be covered by other artists — Herbie Hancock and Annie Lennox.
"They are both heroes to me and it was a sign to keep on going," she said.
When she introduced "Me," her song about trying to deal with teenage angst, she told the audience that therapists have told her that this song is helpful to their teenage clients.
For her encore, she performed her two big hits, "I Don't Want to Wait," which she wrote for her grandfather, but gained fame as the theme to the TV show, "Dawson's Cheek, and "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" She finished with a fun version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene."
When Gloucester fisherman and writer Peter Prybot left the show, he was impressed with both the musician and the music hall.
"It felt like we were on a cruise ship looking out the window and her voice was as entrancing as the waves on the sea," he said.
Kaytee Bolcome, who grew up in Rockport, too said she was amazed by both the musician and the venue.
"It was such a great time and she seems so authentic to me. It's hard to find an artist that isn't so impacted by the way society wants you to be," said Bolcome, whose cell phone ringtone is Cole's song "Safe in Your Arms."
She said the Shalin Liu hall was part of the experience to look out at the reflection of the water.
"I had seen her before at a charity event for the Greater Boston Food Bank a few years ago, and she was even better this time," said Bolcome. "I could really sense her love for Rockport."
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445 or at email@example.com.