CHAUTAUQUA - Continuing a worship and music tradition, community members will gather at Hurlbut Church on Wednesday night.
Located on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution, the church will host Midweek Vespers, beginning with a dinner at 5:30 p.m. Will McFarlane, who played guitar with Bonnie Raitt from 1974-80, will perform.
Local musician and vespers organizer Bill Ward has been involved in music-based worship services for roughly 20 years. He helped put on a jazz vespers at the Institution's Hall of Philosophy in the 1990s and later brought a jazz vespers to Christ First United Methodist Church, where he worked.
Former Bonnie Raitt guitarist Will McFarlane will play at Midweek Vespers at Chautauqua’s Hurlbut Church on Wednesday night.
"It wasn't jazz, but we called it jazz vespers to differentiate us from the other contemporary worship services that were happening," Ward said. "Not that they were bad, but we wanted people to understand it was a diverse music worship service."
The service moved to Hurlbut Church seven or eight years ago, when its name became "Midweek Vespers." Although vespers means "evening service" by definition, music has always been an integral part of the Wednesday night gatherings.
"(The definition) has no real music connotation to it at all, but folks have been doing jazz vespers for years and years and years," Ward said. "There are templates for jazz vespers that we sort of loosely follow, but of course we don't do jazz every week. Our intent is to focus on all of the arts, but music tends to be the one that pops up most of the time."
Although the church has hosted dance troupes, art shows and choirs over the years, Midweek Vespers has primarily served as a destination for several well-known local, regional and national musicians, including McFarlane.
It has also served as a free dinner destination. Volunteers provide guests with food prior to the service each week. Those gathered then move into the sanctuary for a music-filled, prayer-guided, scripture-led worship service around 6 p.m.
"For me, it's hard to separate the dinner and the vespers," Ward said. "It all sort of goes together. You sit around and talk with different people, and the musicians are there. The vespers itself is loosely based on some traditional worship services in that we have a call to worship, which is music; we have prayer, which is short or sometimes music; we have an introduction to the guests; and then, we have music. There might be five minutes of spoken word, just a reflection on scripture, and then there's music. It's 90 percent a musical performance, and we're not really afraid of that word. I think that God gives us gifts. To use the word to perform, as long as we're doing it in Jesus' name, I think is OK. Some people really run from that and are afraid that the whole performance-ego thing will get in the way."
In terms of genre, Midweek Vespers encompasses pretty much everything, according to Ward. The service has included jazz, dixieland, blues, bluegrass, folk and rock.
"It covers pretty much everything," Ward said. "We've had some great classical players - everything from chamber music to solo guitarists. You name it. We're a lot like a lot of concert venues in that we try to keep an eye on who's traveling through, and whether they're interested in coming in and contributing to this service."
McFarlane, a Musicians Hall of Fame inductee, will be on his way to the Christian Musician's Summit in Buffalo. While he's in Jamestown, he'll conduct an electric guitar clinic at Trinity Guitars in Jamestown on Tuesday at 7 p.m. The session will be free, but those interested in participating can contact Trinity at 665-4490 to reserve a spot.
"(McFarlane) was a guitar hero of mine when he played with Bonnie Raitt back in the day and as a member of the Muscle Shoals (Ala.) rhythm section," Ward said. "Throughout the various vespers incarnations, he would come whenever he was in town, either with a band or by himself. It's always a really special event when he stops by."
As part of the rhythm section, McFarlane played on records for Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton, Etta James and Johnnie Taylor.
After his younger brother was murdered, McFarlane had a spiritual awakening and has played both secular and gospel music since.
Admittance to Midweek Vespers is free. Donations are appreciated but aren't necessary.
During the service, Hurlbut Church hosts a children's ministry called "Faith Weaver Friends." Both that and Midweek Vespers wrap up shortly after 7 p.m. each Wednesday. For more information, call Hurlbut Church at 357-4045.
Midweek Vespers will continue on Wednesday nights until June, when it will take the summer off for the Chautauqua season.
Throughout the evolution of vespers, it has remained a fun and positive experience for those involved, according to Ward.
"With all of the music worship experiences I've been a part of, it's as much of a spiritual event for the musical community as it is for the folks who come and listen," he said. "A lot of people, especially musicians from this area, call me up and ask when they can do the next vespers. It's a great time for them. It's not only a time for us to get together and play together, it's also a time when we can worship together, hopefully in a way that folks aren't really used to."