The Hills Are Alive
Music of every stripe strikes a popular chord––including Sting, James Taylor, Boz Scaggs, Judy Collins, Diana Ross, The Beach Boys and more...
Photo of Sting Eric Ryan Anderson
Music flows across the Berkshire landscape and is perhaps the biggest unifier of culture across the county. From MASS MoCA’s northern foothold and its festival offerings, to mid-county Tanglewood’s mega-concerts, to the Mahaiwe and its year-round programming farther south, and all points in-between, large and small, our hunger for music is insatiable. The variety and sheer number of live performances more than satisfies the tastes of residents and visitors alike.
The Berkshires has a flavor all its own, says Larry Smallwood, deputy director and chief operating officer at MASS MoCA. “Bohemian and sophisticated, it’s a special place for Americana music that still revels in the sonic wall of Dinosaur Jr.”
MASS MoCA aptly serves as a microcosm of the region’s musical variety with the Solid Sound Festival’s indie-rock vibe (June 23-25); Bang on a Can’s annual, experimental, modern-music explosion (July 17-August 6); and the FreshGrass Festival’s unique take on bluegrass (September 15-17). The galleries can be party to music as well—the opening of Building 6 features works and studio space by legendary experimental performer Laurie Anderson, as well as a retrospective of the musical-instrument inventions of Gunnar Schonbeck. And playing to the opening day festivities is Sacramento-based alt-rock band Cake on May 28. On August 12, Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket hit the stage.
Other museums also are embracing music in their galleries this summer. The Clark Art Institute’s “Orchestrating Elegance” features a grand piano and music room design by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and the Berkshire Museum mounts an all-encompassing, largely hands-on exhibition, “Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World,” with 70 instruments on view.
Perhaps the most iconic music venue is Tanglewood, which has been drawing crowds since 1937. The 210-acre property represents the nexus between music and nature, another prime Berkshire attraction. As the summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), Tanglewood brings in numerous international tourists as well as an entire community of musicians who live alongside Berkshirites each summer. BSO horn player Michael Winter is part of that summer population, and he always entices others to take advantage of the Tanglewood experience.
“There aren’t too many other places in the world where you can drink a bottle of wine, picnic with your extended family and friends, and listen to a world-class orchestra,” Winter says. “Whenever I’ve said, ‘Hey, you should come out to Tanglewood and visit sometime,’ people will absolutely show up, and they always come back to visit the following summer.”
The ability to accommodate 18,000 people makes Tanglewood the biggest venue in the Berkshires, and it gets the names to match. Opening this summer’s Popular Artists Series are Joan Baez, Indigo Girls, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, or “Four Voices,” on June 17. Other highlights include Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald (June 30), John Mellencamp with Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter (July 1), Natalie Merchant (July 2), Sting (August 29), Diana Ross (August 30), The Avett Brothers (September 1), Melissa Etheridge (September 3), as well as Berkshire’s resident pop superstar, James Taylor, on July 3-4.
“If you’re a devotee of popular musical styles, you’re typically hearing it in a big theater or closed arena,” says BSO artistic administrator Tony Fogg. “At Tanglewood, you’re more than likely sitting out under the stars on the lawn, listening to the music, and soaking in the atmosphere of the heavens and the beautiful, clean air, and in the context of thousands of other people who are doing the same. It’s a unique listening experience.”
If nature is one staple of the Berkshire music experience, history is certainly another. Venues like the Dream Away Lodge in the Becket woods has had more than 90 years to perfect its ambiance, while the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center has been in existence for more than 100 years.
“The Berkshires gives a sense of space that sometimes we take for granted but is so remarkable and special,” says Mahaiwe executive director Beryl Jolly. “The people who live here and the people who visit here really appreciate that connection to history and heritage, but at the same time want very contemporary, exciting opportunities.”
And the Mahaiwe delivers just that, with a big lineup ahead that features performers like Ronnie Spector & the Ronettes (July 22), Wynton Marsalis (July 30), the Beach Boys (August 15), and Stephen Stills and Judy Collins (August 21). “The most amazing thing is that this is a beautiful, rural county with this incredible landscape, and the talent in all the venues and the museums is world-class,” says Jolly. “It is a remarkable combination.”
This summer will also feature a return engagement by Pink Martini (July 11), its third in the region, and an example of the kind of performers who make a point of coming back—to the pleasure of their audiences as well as the bands themselves. “Pink Martini loves the Berkshires,” says lead singer China Forbes. “Not only is it a beautiful place to visit, but the warmth and exuberance of the crowd in that intimate theater is indelibly preserved in the band’s memory. The fantastic French bakery Patisserie Lenox doesn’t hurt either. Nor do all the fantastic shops. I always have a spree at Karen Allen Fiber Arts and plan to return this summer!”
Judy Collins is another repeat performer who aims for the Berkshires. Jolly often has conversations with the artists that reveal what they find so appealing about the region. “They all comment on our stage and how much they enjoy visiting the Berkshires, that the beauty of the landscape is really powerful, that the farm-to-table food offered backstage and touring through the area is exceptionally good.”
The band Arc Iris also has performed in the Berkshires multiple times. Singer Jocelyn Adams likes to play here so she can visit MASS MoCA. She remembers one show hosted by North Adams’s Common Folk Collective. “It was filled with wonderful people ready to listen to music to fill up their souls,” she says.
Earlier in the spring, Arc Iris played the Garage, an intimate space at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, part of whose mission is to engage younger music fans in the region. The Colonial enlisted the Common Folk Collective to help with programming, and that energized focus hasn’t gone unnoticed by performers, says Colonial Theatre programmer Simon Shaw. “There are bands from all over the country that are looking to expand their tours and play live,” he says, “and we get an amazing amount of solicitations.”
The Colonial—whose 113-year history provides plenty of interest to visitors—is pushing for more variety to reflect the diversity and inherent quirkiness that is a part of the region. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes will be onstage August 17, followed the next night by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.
One scrappy new contender to the Berkshire music scene is trying to weave all those elements together for the ultimate Berkshire music experience. Under the new leadership of Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Hancock Shaker Village is focusing on music events as another reason for people to visit. Thompson was inspired by a barn on the property that hadn’t seen anything more than cows and hay in it for the last 100 years.
“It’s a fantastic space, so I started thinking about programming that would complement what’s in the Berkshires and be true to the ethos of the Shakers,” Thompson says. “They contributed so much to the American musical folk canon, and I could just imagine a Shaker farmer whistling to the cows as he walked by this barn and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve got to get music back in there.’”
With programming help from Karl Mullen, who ran his own venue, BarN, in Williamstown, Hancock Shaker Village is starting on June 16 with Grammy Award–winning Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, followed by Sarah Lee Guthrie on July 1, continuing into the fall, and rounding out 2017 with Yuletide musical offerings in December.
Opening day, Bang On A Can’s Mark Stewart was featured in a participatory show in the Round Stone Barn. By adding music, especially during warm weather, Thompson envisions many evenings of concentrated Berkshire pleasure. “It’s just the kind of place where you want to have a beer and listen to great music and maybe sit on a hay bale,” she says.
Another historic venue that comes alive with music is the Mount in Lenox (edithwharton.org) with its Music After Hours in July and August. Even Ski Butternut keeps humming in the summer with four outdoor music peformances in July and August (berkshirebash.com).
For Thompson, music and the Berkshires belong together. “It’s a whole-cloth experience, where you swim or bike or kayak during the day and then you have a picnic and then you just want to hear music on a summer night, and there are many places here where you can do that outdoors and you’re going to compete with the sound of a river, not a highway.”