Eclectic local music in out-of-the-way places
Emily Danger from Brooklyn performs at the Down County Social Club, in the basement of the Stage-coach Tavern in Sheffield.
Photographs by Matt Petricone
To track down the Berkshire music scene, you’re going to need a detailed map, a reliable vehicle, and open ears. There is no central venue providing an easy hub. Concrete paths may be built around larger venues, but it’s the quirky, smaller places that make the experience one that Berkshire music lovers embrace. Forget the “scene,” and focus on the “network” instead. That’s how people involved view it—a series of connected points that comprise a larger, unique outlay.
The Dream Away Lodge is the epitome of the Berkshire music experience. The farmhouse itself has been in Becket for about a century, but the Lodge has a special mystique revolving around a visit from Bob Dylan in the ’70s and is often cited as a perfect venue for music lovers. In an area speckled with larger spaces like the Mahaiwe, the Colonial, and MASS MoCA, the Dream Away and its intimate music room has inspired the creation of a new generation of singular venues, a virtual network of sound that can be described as the Berkshire music scene.
“The Berkshires doesn’t have what it would take to support a night club, otherwise there would be one,” says Dream Away Lodge owner Daniel Osman. “Instead, we have these funky little alt venues that present a vibe of their own
and music that suits their vibe.”
Like many of these music place, Dream Away combines popular choices with the owner’s personal taste, which in this case include local musicians like Jack Waldheim and others further afield such as Orion Rigel Dommisse. “I’m always interested in anything new that people are doing, so music here takes in a pretty wide swathe of style and performance,” Osman says.
Sharing a similar vibe is the Down County Social Club in Sheffield, nestled in the basement of the Stagecoach Tavern. The creation of Heather Fisch and maintained by Casey Rothstein, the space exudes a somewhat homey feel, perhaps something close to a private, ethnic club in a city neighborhood. It allows audience and performer to coexist in the same space rather than be separated. The venue has existed in one form or another since 2007 and offers a diverse lineup of performers on a weekly basis. One gig might pack in 50 people, while the next brings in three—both of them a success as far as Rothstein is concerned.
Many of the musicians are friends of Rothstein’s but new to audiences here, giving the space the air of a salon. He calls the club “cozy and mysterious,” bragging that one week might feature a band like Quiet In The Head, a cello, violin, and guitar trio, and the next, Emily Danger, who Rothstein describes as a “Brooklyn neo-rock queen.”
“We’re not trying to impress anybody,” Rothstein says. “We’re just having a good time. It’s a space where people can be themselves and hear amazing artists.”
Gypsy Joynt’s Jordan Weller agrees, but his goal isn’t to create an intimate space at the family-run restaurant in Great Barrington so much as a party. The restaurant originally took a Berkshire singer-songwriter tack but found it created some awkwardness for diners who didn’t quite know what to do. Weller wanted to offer a clear choice—eat and drink, or get up and dance.
The space itself is an explosion of beads and flags and playful lighting, sparkles, exotic texture, and eclectic postings on the walls. The music often matches the scene, like Weller’s own music with the Feathers or the Latin groove of Cosmic Jibaros or Indie rock sounds, which all offer patrons a chance to move in rhythm. Moving their bodies, according to Weller, is the number-one thing Berkshire music fans are seeking. “People ask me if there’s anywhere else to go dancing,” he says.
For local flavor, Gedney Underground (Pictured left) is a perfect Berkshire setting. Situated within the Gedney Farm complex in New Marlborough, the performance alcove is at the base of a big oak staircase in a refurbished horse barn. It boasts a high ceiling and the original fieldstone foundation for ambiance, audio fidelity, and a warm intimacy. Programming by Tyler Stanton—with acts ranging from jazz to folk to fusion to Klezmer—also includes the Underground’s Wednesday music program , started last winter as a way of adding a little excitement to the long, cold season. (The Wednesday program features local musicians such as Todd Mack pictured right.)
“On a busy night, maybe there’s 30 people here for a performance, and the musicians are right in the same space with the audience, so there is interaction,” says general manager Michael Smith. “The musicians enjoy it for that reason.”
Farther north in Williamstown, and part of the larger house-concert movement, is BarN, Karl Mullen’s pet project. Formerly in the booking industry in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Mullen moved to the Berkshires to paint and play his own music. He found himself with a good-sized barn and a ringing phone. “It’s hard to stop doing shows when you’ve been doing them for so long,” he says. Mullen has been bringing in bands for four years now, many he’s familiar with from his old life, who are looking for spaces, including houses, to perform in.
“They trust me and know they’re not going to end up in some awful living room with people cooking cabbages and the kids yelling at them, which does happen on occasion,” Mullen says.
One of his biggest achievements has been to bring in performer Sean Rowe, a hugely popular draw in the region, as well as a number of Brooklyn bands, like Wilder Maker, and events like an annual Backyard Bash and special songwriter’s nights. Mullen also brings his BarN concerts to places like the Williams Inn in cold weather, which feature sought-after musicians like Caroline Rose and the Brooklyn to Berkshires event.
Mullen believes this is all great for the region, but the possibilities are probably more than he can handle personally. “Artists come here and play and have a great time. They share that information with anybody and everybody,” he says. “The emails are constant.”
The future may very well be house concerts rather than traditional venues—or bookers organizing pop-up shows in various locations. Billsville House Concerts, programmed by Doug Hacker, no longer operates in Williamstown, having moved over the Vermont border, but it keeps its toes dipped in North County with occasional shows, most recently this winter’s Zammuto show at the North Adams Elks Club.
And Pitts House Concerts began as a series of events in Josh Bennett’s home in Pittsfield, featuring performers like Chris Merenda, Diablo Dimes, and Sean Rowe. Now Bennett and Pitts House partner James Toner sponsor pop-up concerts in other venues, most often the Whitney Center for the Arts. Bennett started the effort after he moved here from Oakland, in hopes of accessing more entertainment and giving people a reason not to hibernate in the winter.
“It was a great way to take different social groups within the community and bring them together,” Bennett says. All of their events have sold out.
Bennett’s goal has been to create a structure that allows for out-of-town acts to play more often in the area and to give local acts the chance to open for them. This may finally be coming true in the form a summer-concert series at Crispina ffrench’s Shire City Sanctuary in Pittsfield, that Bennett and Toner are involved with. The sessions were conceived and helmed by CompuWorks owner Alan Bauman, who was inspired by a couple events, starting with the Lagunitas Brewery in California.
The Shire City Sessions are to take place once a month on Mondays, kicked off in July with Johnny Irions’s US Elevator, which includes members of Deer Tick. From 5 to 9 p.m. in the parking area of the Sanctuary, the event has a festival atmosphere with food trucks and free admission.
Future events will bring out-of-town musicians to the mix. On August 17, Wild Adriatic will perform with opening act BA Dario, and in September, Whiskey Treaty Roadshop will be featured, with The Novel Ideas opening. The hope is to establish a venue for the next tier of outside acts to have a regular place to perform in the Berkshires.
“There are artists that I’m confident would come into town if we just had a good venue that could consistently book,” says Bennett.
Mullen says that is beginning to happen with networking between himself, Bennett and Toner, along with the Dream Away, Gedney Underground, and even MASS MoCA. “Something is happening, and there are various forces hoping to make it bigger and better, and some of the large institutions are aware of that as well and said yes. If we build the audience and the infrastructure, it’s easier to take it somewhere.”
Bascom Lodge, Adams
Billsville House Concerts, Northern Berkshires, various locations
Brick House, Housatonic
Castle Street Cafe, Great Barrington
Clark Art Summer Concert Series, Williamstown
Colonial Theatre & The Garage, Pittsfield
Concerts at Windsor Lake, North Adams
Down County Social Club, Sheffield
Dream Away Lodge, Becket
Gateways Inn, Lenox
Gedney Underground at Gedney Farm, New Marlborough
Guthrie Center, Great Barrington
Gypsy Joynt, Great Barrington
Lion’s Den at the Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington
MASS MoCA Hunter Center & Club B-10, North Adams
Mr. Finn’s Cabaret, Great Barrington
Rainbow Restaurant, Pittsfield
Shire City Sessions, Pittsfield
The Pitts House Concert Series, Pittsfield, various locations