[The Beat, 12/28/01] Berkshire pop music year 2001 in review
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 31, 2001) – At the risk of jinxing a good thing, it’s fair to say that the Berkshires have never enjoyed as lively a year-round popular music scene as the one we are currently experiencing. Not even the heyday of the Music Inn or the Berkshire Performing Arts Center – both primarily summer-only operations – can compare with the relative wealth of concert and club offerings now available week after week – 52 weeks out of the year -- for the first time in history.

And while the lion’s share of the credit goes to Club Helsinki in Great Barrington for its ongoing schedule of nightclub shows and occasional off-site events at the Mahaiwe Theatre, the live music menu is no longer limited to South County.

If it has yet to develop a venue on the level of Helsinki – the Berkshires’ virtual answer to Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall – North County does boast regular programming at Mass MoCA in North Adams, which on a monthly basis or so presented concerts or dance parties this past year by the likes of Nanci Griffith, Vernon Reid, Cowboy Junkies, Laurie Anderson and a variety of other ethnic and world-music performers.

And with its timely series of American roots-music artists, including Doc Watson and Norman Blake, both stars of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” hit soundtrack, Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute regained the stride it lost a year ago in its presentation of concert talent.

For the first time in several years, there was even a glimmer of hope that Pittsfield, the geographic if not the cultural heart of the Berkshires, could be the site of some artistic life, thanks largely to Ann Mintz, the new director of the Berkshire Museum, who built on her experience as a mover and shaker on the Philadelphia folk music scene to present a new series featuring nationally-known singer-songwriters at the museum. Venerable topical songwriter Tom Paxton kicked off the series, which also included Nerissa and Katryna Nields and which continues in just a few weeks with Cheryl Wheeler (January 11). The Museum will continue to bring folk festival headliners such as Lucy Kaplansky (March 9), Susan Werner (March 30) and John Gorka (May 9) to Pittsfield later in the winter and spring.

The summer festival scene continued to thrive and grow, with stalwarts like Lanesboro’s Noppet Hill Bluegrass and Falcon Ridge Folk, Winterhawk Roots and Grey Fox Bluegrass festivals in nearby Columbia County continuing to form the solid backbone of the outdoor music season.

The groove-oriented Berkshire Mountain Music Festival at Butternut Basin in Great Barrington seems to have established itself as a well-functioning, weekend-long perennial presence, although there are still a few nattering nabobs of negativism who seemingly would like to see it – and its thousands of youthful concertgoers – disappear from the area.

Butternut itself presented several concerts and mini-festivals of regional talent throughout the summer, but with competition from so many festivals in the region boasting big-name talent and with somewhat inept promotion, these events failed to garner much enthusiasm.

Jazz fans stumbled into a bonanza last summer, albeit one crammed into two very busy weekends at the very end of the summer. The first was at Butternut, where JazzForum Arts presented what it called the first annual Berkshire Jazz Festival, featuring world-renowned headliners like Roy Hargrove, Dianne Reeves and Paul Winter. The festival’s first run was a bit shaky in terms of operations and crowd turnout, but it had its moments of transcendence that seemed to suggest it could be an eventual staple of the summer season.

Tanglewood turned its annual jazz weekend over to Boston jazz impresario Fred Taylor, and while some of the more crassly commercial aspects of the festival seemed jarring to longtime Tanglewood attendees, there’s no arguing that the level of excitement during the annual Labor Day weekend event was leagues above past seasons.

In its second full year in operation, Club Helsinki lived up to its promise as the much-longed-for Iron Horse of the Berkshires, with live music of one sort or another on almost every night of the week. Most weeks feature at least three nights of touring acts, many of regional and national renown -- people like Odetta, Graham Parker, Tom Tom Club, Hamiet Bluiett, Olu Dara, Richard Shindell and Carey Bell. Sunday nights are reserved for lively open mikes that have on occasion featured visiting talents like John Medeski and Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Monday nights are now devoted to jazz jam sessions.

Helsinki also continues to program off-site at alternative venues such as the Mahaiwe Theatre, where Pete Seeger and Michelle Shocked played to sold-out crowds. Coming to the Mahaiwe soon are Blind Boys of Alabama and the Holmes Brothers (February 10) and Doc Watson (March 30).

As exciting as all of this is, experience shows that the concert and club business can be delicate and flighty, and subject to various forces – including urban renewal, tenant-landlord disputes, poor management, burnout or a bad economy -- that can easily jeopardize even the most successful endeavors. All this is to say, don’t blink, because a year from now, things will undoubtedly look very different.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 28, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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