Sean FitzGerald understands the power of music.
More than being entertainment, he knows it can be used to benefit those less fortunate and bring about positive change.
When the 55-year-old Dartmouth resident presented RiseFest this month at the Vault in downtown New Bedford, it was another in a long line of benefit concerts he has been involved with as a performer and a presenter.
In 38 years, FitzGerald has built a reputation as an engaging performer by being the lead singer for a number of locally based bands. But the economic struggles that he experienced in his childhood and as an early adult have made him keenly aware that the stage can be used as a platform to provide for people throughout the region who are in need.
In its second year, RiseFest raises money and awareness for the Sister Rose Homeless Overflow Shelter in New Bedford. The first concert was in 2019, an event that included a dozen musical acts and raised nearly $9,000. This year 16 performers were featured, raising $3,228 with donations still coming in.
FitzGerald has used his talents as a frontman with bands such as Xntrix, Negative Earth, Vitamin X, The Burn, Thick Richard and the NB Rude Boys to raise money and awareness for a variety of local causes.
Among his more high-profile fundraisers, FitzGerald has contributed his talents to events such as Boz Fest, an annual event that lasted from 1992 to 2001, raising money for the American Cancer Society. In 2001, FitzGerald’s band, The Burn, was part of a fundraiser for the NYFD Foundation at Joker’s that procured money for the Police & Fire Widows and Children Fund. In 2015, Negative Earth contributed their talents to a pair of fundraisers for the Sharing the Harvest Community Farm at the YMCA of Dartmouth, teaming with Fay’s Restaurant & Catering for concerts on Memorial Day and Labor Day. In October of 2015, Negative Earth raised money for the Fort Taber Military Museum at Fort Rodman, and in 2022 and 2023, the NB Rude Boys performed to raise money for the Amber Mello Scholarship/Mission 22 fundraisers.
Since June of 2018, FitzGerald has been the lead singer for the ska band, NB Rude Boys. The nine-piece outfit released their debut record this April, the four-song collection, “Welcome To Rude Bedford.”
FitzGerald is currently a realtor with Lanagan & Co. in New Bedford. He also does case management work for the Family Preservation Program in New Bedford, helping homeless families with substance abuse disorders or mental illness find permanent housing.
For the past three years. FitzGerald has been on the board of directors for Gallery X, serving as treasurer, president and development director. In September of this year, he was the organizer for the inaugural Gallery X Music Festival, a daylong event that featured performances by an array of local bands.
And in addition to his multiple roles in the community, he said that his foremost responsibility is to his daughter, Acelyn Golden FitzGerald. He is married to local artist Christine Maiato FitzGerald.
FitzGerald talked with the New Bedford Light about the upbringing that affected his perspective, how he has grown as a performer, and why he feels that helping the homeless is a worthy cause.
New Bedford Light: You’ve been a lead singer for 38 years. What do you love about it?
Sean FitzGerald: It gives you a dopamine rush unlike any other. I didn’t really know that until I started doing it, but I could tell by watching when I was younger. The first real person I watched, when I was real young, was Bobby Darin. I don’t even know how old I was when I saw him, maybe 4 years old. And I remember seeing this guy come out, and the way he moved.
So what is it that I enjoy? It’s the rush. It’s being able to connect with people on a level that you can’t otherwise in any medium or platform. I used to see people do it and I was jealous of that ability. I thought about doing it when I was younger but I never had any lessons whatsoever. My brother Mike fortunately was able to — my parents paid for trumpet lessons for him. Once my parents split up while I was 5, money was tight, and Mike’s lessons stopped, so I was kind of self-taught. Then in high school a few guys that I was friends with asked me to sing for their band. I lied and said I could do it. They said, “None of us are really good at our instruments, so you have to get up there and distract from the fact that we don’t really know what we’re doing.” It was my senior year of high school.
It’s a rush to connect with people and get people to pay attention to you. As a kid my parents split up several times, so I went from school to school. I got bullied a lot, too when I was younger, so I had this kind of deep down fantasy of being able to one day have these people who picked on me come and watch me do something. So there was also a revenge factor of some kind.
NBL: What have you learned about being a frontman and how do you know when you’re doing your job well?
SF: I’ve actually learned to be more communicative. I don’t think I did that as well when I was younger. In my later years it’s made me more responsible — accountability to others as well as the audience and the fan base. Being honest with my bandmates, not just for their benefit but mine too. If I’m not happy I’m going to speak up. I have to, because things either get better and if they don’t I won’t want to have any part of it. So it’s helped me, weirdly enough, it’s a release.
Most importantly I’ve learned about communication — not just with my bandmates, but with the audience too. It translates in all aspects really. Something I started to do that was fun and party-like in some ways has helped ground me in life. I don’t approach it as a party thing anymore. I can’t, because I wouldn’t be able to function. I’d probably be dead the way I was going.
NBL: What about from a performance perspective? What have you learned about what you do?
SF: I think that I’ve learned how to compensate for my inabilities in certain aspects. My voice is not necessarily where I wish it could be. I do the best with what I have. It’s helped me develop as a performer. I got into this through drama and acting, and that’s helped translate in all areas of my life and work — having to do presentations and speak to people. Performing has definitely helped me with confidence that I don’t really have much. I’m shy. But what I’ve learned about performing is that when you get up there, you can become someone else, you can become that person that you want to be and people think that’s you. It’s kind of a part of you, but it’s not all of you. So you can learn to tap into different parts of yourself that normally you wouldn’t be able to, and you can take that with you into other parts of life.
NBL: You played to 10,000 people on Saturday night at this year’s Madeira Feast. What was that like? Was it an apex moment in your career?
SF: It was for sure. We played the Feast the year before on the main stage, which was an honor. Most bands don’t get up there. And that was a rush.
Last year’s performance was a little earlier in the night and it was an hour. But this year was later and it was two hours — we played 7 to 8 and 9 to 10. The stage we played on this time was a mini version of the main stage, but they didn’t have a barrier in front so people were right there. We played later so it was more of a frenzy for some reason. We got people to rush the stage and come up with us, which was awesome and crazy.
That’s the most people I’ve ever played in front of. What was great was playing our original music in front of those people and them going nuts. Some of them knew the words. It’s kind of cool now that the stuff is out there on the internet.
It’s kind of funny. I walked into this meat market that I get my stuff from in Westport, and when I walked in they said, “There he is!” and they turned up the music and it was (our song) “Jimmy Johnson.”
I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. I’m having fun with it while I still can.
NBL: What was your introduction to fundraising and how did it affect you?
SF: From my recollection, my introduction to fundraisers was the Jerry Lewis Telethon on Labor Day weekend. As a kid, my parents would have it on all Labor Day weekend. Most kids from my age in that generation had that too. I remember taking it in. All weekend it would be on, even though I didn’t know what it was for. Once in a while they would trot out these children who were sickly, but as I got older I started to realize what was going on. I realized that “This dude’s up for 72 hours straight, hosting this thing with all this crazy good talent, all the high-end guys.” I really dug it. It was something I looked forward to every Labor Day weekend. So that was my introduction to it.
I went to Catholic schooling early on and got introduced to UNICEF. I was like, “Oh, this is like Jerry Lewis’ thing, except these kids are in Africa.” I participated in that. I went out and raised money with these little boxes going house to house. That was my first grassroots attempt to raise money for something.
Proceed a few more years later in high school, and Band Aid happens with Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats. On November 25 they recorded the single. I remember when it got released we had an assembly at Bishop Stang right before Christmas and they played the song. It was very powerful and I thought, “You can really do things with music.” At that time I had just started with my first band, the Xntrix. Then in 1985 Live Aid kicked off and that was huge. That lit the fuse. In fact, I remember that day we were rehearsing at the bass player’s house on the Saturday of Live Aid, and for me it seemed synonymous. They really went together.
And a few years later I joined Negative Earth and we were playing down at Smuggler’s, and this guy Gary Bosworth who owned Boz’s Music — a wicked nice guy — would have these events on Memorial Day weekend. “Boz Fest” they were called and he would get a slew of bands from noon until 2 in the morning, indoors and outdoors, and they raised money for the American Cancer Society. My band helped out with that from 1992 to 1996, and it took off from there. That was my introduction to benefits.
NBL: RiseFest is a fundraiser for the Sister Rose Homeless Overflow Shelter. Why did you select this cause?
SF: Early in life my mother raised my brother and I on our own. My father had a great job as a contracting officer in Newport on the Navy base that paid really good money. But when they split up he was not very generous with it. We struggled several times, coming very close to being in that situation. So I feel compassion for this. I remember counting pennies with my brother and mother one day after we had split from my father. I was like 11 or 12. I remember being really scared and cognizant of the fact that if you don’t have money, what do you do?
Then later in life, in college a couple of times I found myself searching for a place. I made some bad decisions, but thank God I had a lot of friends and people who had been in similar situations. The recession of 2007-2008 scared the heck out of me. I was doing mortgage banking and making really good money, but in the next four years my income dropped to the point where my manager said to me, “You should really get another job. You’d be better off delivering pizzas, honestly.” We started falling behind on the house, problems with the marriage, and right about then my daughter was born. I was wondering how we were going to survive. Somehow we did, but I never forgot that people helped me. That’s why I kind of have a spot for the homeless.
From 2008 to 2012 we really fell on hard times. A friend of mine, Jamie Casey, got a job as the adult director of services at PAACA. I was kind of between jobs — the banking industry and real estate were kind of a mess. He was like, “Hey man, we need help down here. Volunteer if you’d like.” So I went down there and painted a few rooms for him and helped out on the phones. Next thing you know, a position opened up in case management work, and I decided to give that a shot. In taking that job I was introduced to the HSPN, the Homeless Service Provider’s Network, and the guy who runs it, Ray Duarte. I got to know him. HSPN is a volunteer group, they’re affiliated with Rise Up For Homes, which is a nonprofit, and their funds are the funds that are able to be fed into Sister Rose’s. Through that development I was introduced to Sister Rose’s. I wanted to help the homeless, and here was an actual shelter. They need money every year. They’re totally self-sufficient. The city of New Bedford has matched their funding each year, thank God.
So I go to these HSPN meetings and I’m sitting there reading all of these facts. So the HSPN also participates two times a year in the homeless count in the city. They send out teams, which I did a couple of times. We have these meetings once a month. I’m sitting in these meetings and it’s totally depressing. I’m thinking, what can I do besides these counts? What can we do to make this issue a little more engageable, where we can get other people in here and we can discuss this? We can draw people in. I’ll ask my friends, we have a band, let’s do a concert like Gary Bosworth used to do. I was thinking about it for a few years and finally in 2019 — I’m not sure what made me pull the trigger — I decided to approach the guys at the Vault. They’ve got a sound system, they’ve got the room, they’ve got the lights, and I have this organization. I reached out to several bands. I got static from the city on some acts, that was a little difficult, but I ended up going with it and it worked.
Thank God, the Vault was good enough to lend their room, and sound system, and an engineer for the day. We had to get an engineer for the other room. We had Dave Lebeau jump in who runs his own sound system. He was the gofer for both systems, switching bands in and out.
NBL: You’ve said that RiseFest is about more than making money.
SF: Usually when you do a fundraiser, the first question is “How much money did you raise?” Which is very important. But a gentleman named Peter Muise, who passed away just recently, was kind of the one who ran the HSPN. And when I had this idea to do it, he loved it. We were trying to figure out how much we were going to charge, and what day, this and that. He brought up the fact that it’s really about trying to get people in there, trying to get people to broach the subject. And I realized that we need to raise awareness, not really raise money. The money is nice and we need that, but the more awareness we raise, the more people like myself will think, “What else can I do?” Maybe they’ll start thinking about other things, maybe they’ll start donating, maybe they’ll start having conversations that people just don’t have. You see someone on the street and they’re begging — some people will call them names or tell them to get a job, whatever. There are many people who want to give but wonder if the person will do something bad with it. This is an opportunity for people to do something that’s positive. You know the money is going to go directly to the resource they need. And it’s a fun event. We can sit down that day and we can talk about this subject. Especially with people you wouldn’t ordinarily run into. We’ve got such a mix of bands with different genres that their family and friends come to see.
NBL: This was the first year for the Gallery X Music Festival. What was the inspiration? Will there be another one? And what did you learn from it?
SF: The Gallery X Music Festival came from the news that the New Bedford Folk Festival was dead. We got together and we said, “This is ridiculous. There’s more music in the city than there has been in a long time. Good music, good bands. So let’s do our own folk festival thing.”
We started calling around. We decided to do something in September, when Gallery X used to do the William Street Festival, where they shut down the street, but they haven’t done it for a while. So I suggested that we have music indoors, the gallery is tailor made for it. We kind of got off to a late start. With the bands, in the last two years we’ve been able to get some grants to have music here on Opening Saturdays and AHA! Nights. We’ve asked several artists locally to come in and they loved it. It’s a good opportunity for them. So when we decided to do this we said, “Let’s call these people that we’ve helped out, and sure enough they all said yes, yes, yes.” They played for free. We got some great acts.
John Nieman set up the PA and played with Pumpkin Head Ted, and he engineered all of the bands and did the switch offs of all the bands, and then ran out at quarter to 8 to go play again with Pumpkin Head Ted from 8 to 11 at Union Flats. He was an iron man.
Scott Bishop set up the sound system downstairs and he ran it all day with the acoustic artists. He was here from 2 o’clock to 8, giving his time.
There will definitely be another Gallery X Music Festival next September. Next year we’ll start earlier in the day and be a little more aggressive with our campaigning. We’ll probably try to team up with the Roots & Branches people to collaborate in some way. It’s better to work together than not.
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NBL: You studied political science at UMass Dartmouth. Do you have any political aspirations?
SF: I have had political aspirations. It was funny, because studying political science kind of ended up turning me off from politics. I learned a lot about corruption, especially on the national level. But it’s on the local level, too. There’s corruption in everything. So that isn’t a reason not to be in that realm. What I found was that for a while people are like, “Well, you’ve got skeletons in your closet.” And that used to be a concern, but not really. Bill Clinton took care of that and if Donald Trump can get elected anyone can.
I’ve thought about it. It’s funny — even people who do a good job, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It appeals to me, I’ve considered it, but I’ve also found that not everybody who effects change in this city or other cities gets elected.
NBL: So you feel that you can be more effective in other capacities?
SF: For now, yeah. In some ways I think I’m more effective. By supporting everybody and not really picking a side it’s great because in this city that I do a lot of my business in, I can’t vote. I live in a town that adjoins New Bedford. I can throw my support behind people, which I’ve done carefully here and there, but if I want to do something like this I have to be friendly with all of them.
So it behooves me to stay out of politics. It’s such a headache. I don’t know if I want it. There’s a lot to it. I think I would have to get really mad and angry to do it. To be honest, if I lived in the city I’d probably have papers out in some capacity, definitely.
But you never know.
Sean McCarthy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.