Club Helsinki celebrates two years of great music

Pharaoh's Daughter returns on Nov. 15 to help celebrate Helsinki's 2nd anniversary

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 7, 2001) – Graham Parker saying goodbye, the angry punk-rocker looking improbably tender holding his young child in his arms. Mose Allison improvising a funny line. Carly Simon making an unscheduled appearance singing backup with her daughter, Sally Taylor. Michelle Shocked arriving for her concert dressed in house slippers with no band in sight.

These are just a few of the many memorable moments that come to mind when Deborah McDowell, the proprietor of Club Helsinki, thinks back on the funky nightspot’s first two years.

“It’s much more exciting than I ever thought it would be,” said McDowell in a recent interview, reflecting on the past and conjecturing about the future of the club, which opened in November 2000 as an offshoot of McDowell’s popular restaurant, Helsinki Café.

For McDowell, running the nightclub is a labor of love. “I love live music,” she said. “You can sit down and listen to recordings. But when you see something live, the power of the moment, of how the musicians are feeling, what’s going to come up -- it’s like theater. It lives for that moment and only you are there to grasp it.”

By programming a roster of performers based on artistic criteria first and business considerations second, McDowell has mostly succeeded in providing audiences with a steady, continual stream of these memorable moments.

McDowell said there is poetry involved in booking acts for the club. “It’s like a poem in that you have meter that you follow,” she said. “Our parameters are our size, what we can afford, who is going to come out and see it, how we’re going to publicize it. But it starts with CDs that get listened to, or we hear about somebody.”

Sometimes it’s just a case of sitting around with staff and friends and figuring out what people are in the mood to hear. “It’s funny when you’re in the mood for something, names pop in your head and you go after them,” she said.

To a longtime observer of the local and regional live music scene, the key to Helsinki’s success is how McDowell and her partner, Marc Schafler, have made a concerted effort to curate the music based primarily on what they would like to hear. It helps that they have not only good taste but eclectic taste, so that in the course of any month offerings range from Chicago blues to reggae to contemporary folk to bebop to electronica to jam-band rock.

What ties it all together, and what puts Helsinki in the same league with world-class clubs like the Iron Horse in Northampton, the Bottom Line in New York or Johnny D’s in Boston – clubs which often present the same acts as Helsinki, including Steve Forbert, Odetta, and Club D’Elf – is first and foremost a commitment to artistic originality and creativity.

McDowell said that what she enjoys hearing, what will sound good in the room, and what she senses the Helsinki crowd wants, changes over the course of months and years.

“Right now I’m really enjoying young and up-and-coming bands,” she said. “On Thursday nights we often present bands that no one has ever heard of, bands like Jake from Woodstock. The energy of some of these young people who are really doing their own thing, finding a voice of their own and suddenly are seasoned enough to be on the road showing you their voice is really exciting.

“I’m also excited by interesting combinations of artists, like DJ Logic and Olu Dara, who are coming together in December. And I want to hear more jazz and world music at the club.”

To mark two years of live music, Club Helsinki is presenting a handful of favorite artists from the past and a few new faces in coming weeks.

Among those resurfacing at the nightspot tucked into an alleyway opposite the Triplex movie theater are soul singer Jonah Smith, former leader of Deluxe, performing tonight, Jewish world-beat ensemble Pharaoh’s Daughter, playing next Thursday, jazz singer-songwriter Mose Allison next Friday, and avant-cabaret diva Phoebe Legere, on Saturday, November 17.

McDowell said she chose these performers to help celebrate the club’s anniversary because they all combine intellect and poetry.

“I find them all intellectually really interesting, not just their music but what they have to say,” said McDowell. “And they’re very poetic. Beyond the music, they have a lot to say. They all seem to have their pulse on what’s going on in society as artists. And I find that really invigorating.”

On Saturday, November 24, Helsinki brings back funk-jazz outfit Topaz, and
Wednesday, November 28, marks the return of the highly-touted collective of female singer-songwriters touring and recording as “Voices on the Verge,” including Jess Klein, Erin McKeown, Beth Amsel and Rose Polenzani, all of whom have previously appeared individually at the club.

Helsinki will also welcome a few new faces this month, including Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana, playing their unique blend of Cuban-jazz fusion, tomorrow night, Real Live Show, a progressive hip-hop collective, on Friday, November 23, and local favorites One Straw Revolution, on Thursday, November 29.

Helsinki’s “Second Anniversary November” concludes on Friday, November 30, with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the funk-brass legends from New Orleans.

The excitement continues into December with first-time performances by nationally-known pop act the Push Stars, on Saturday, December 1, country-swing outfit Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem on Friday, December 14, and downtown turntablist and electronic-jazz artist DJ Logic with soul-jazz artist Olu Dara on Saturday, December 15.

It’s worth noting the preponderance of female performers on Helsinki’s calendar, yet another element differentiating the club’s menu from typical bar-band syndrome whereby testosterone-heavy bands perform for crowds of heavy-drinking, macho roosters – the opposite of Helsinki’s friendly, inviting ambiance.

In addition to the aforementioned concerts, Helsinki is introducing “Adventures in Jazz” on Monday nights, featuring a house band comprised of pianist Alan Simon, drummer Scott Clark, bassist Jon Suters and a revolving cast of guest artists, with no cover charge. And the popular open mike night – which has on occasion attracted major-league talent, including keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Chris Wood, two-thirds of Medeski, Martin and Wood -- continues on Sundays.

McDowell also stressed that she sees the club as a community space, open for use for daytime projects, film showings, and as a teaching space.

Next Thursday, trumpeter John McNeil brings his quartet to Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall at Williams College in Williamstown at 7:30. McNeil has performed with Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and his discography includes collaborations with Tom Harrell, Kenny Barron, Dave Liebman and Bob Berg. McNeil is often grouped with fellow creative composers and improvisers like Roscoe Mitchell, Matthew Shipp, Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton.

Just as important as who he’s played with, however, is the list of students he has coached as a member of the faculty at the New England Conservatory since 1980, a list including perhaps the top jazz trumpeter of the day, Dave Douglas. A first-rate composer and improviser, McNeil is the author of the landmark instructional book, “The Art of Jazz Trumpet,” and he will be accompanied at Williams by guitarist Andrew Green, bassist Tom Hubbard and drummer Ron Vincent.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 9, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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