A nightclub for Pittsfield
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 17, 2002) – Some people look at downtown Pittsfield and see desolation row – empty storefronts, broken promises, and cold, unwelcoming sidewalks that roll up when the clock strikes 5 p.m.

But when Cynthia and Gordy Hebler look at Pittsfield, they see opportunity. And with a new mayor in city hall whom they proudly champion, the Heblers are looking to midwife a full-fledged Pittsfield “renaissance.”

To kickstart that rebirth, the Heblers have opened a new restaurant, Frazier’s, on Wendell Avenue. And to bring people into downtown Pittsfield on weekend nights, they are adding live music to the menu at Frazier’s adjacent tavern, Red, beginning tomorrow night with a performance by Rosanne Raneri, a critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter from the Albany region.

Upcoming performers in the “Ladies of Red” series include Eastern Massachusetts-based singer-songwriters Deb Talan (January 25), Meaghan Toohey (February 2) and Lori McKenna (February 9).

Programming at Red will be thematic. After a hiatus of several weeks, the “Ladies of Red” will be followed by a series of blues performers featuring Sugar Ray and the Bluetones (March 2) and Michelle Wilson (March 30). Subsequent series might include country and bluegrass, folk and pop music.

“We’re hoping that the individuals in Pittsfield who’ve been looking for an outlet without having to drive to Great Barrington or Northampton will come if we provide them with new and original stuff,” said Hebler. “And this might spur local radio stations in possibly changing the way they look at music, which in turn might help the county.”

Hebler said that his wife, Cynthia, looks at Pittsfield and sees Northampton 20 years ago. “She remembers when Thorne’s Market was just beginning and Northampton was somewhat boarded up,” he said.

“We’re trying to create a venue in what we call the ‘Pittsfield renaissance’,” said Hebler, who has been active on the Berkshire theater and restaurant scene for several years. “We think that the new mayor who we backed wholeheartedly knows what she’s doing.

“We’re from the arts to begin with. My whole background is in the arts, and Cynthia’s is from the restaurant business in Northampton and Wyoming.” Hebler’s experience in the music industry includes work as a lighting designer for Hall and Oates and Ambrosia and as a caterer for Cyndi Lauper, Cher and Neil Diamond among others.

Hebler said that the music at Red, which seats about 100, will provide “space for original material and a lot of local talent that is not seen.” Plans are for one show per weekend, several weekends in a row, with a few weekends off in between.

“One show properly advanced and advertised gives a more attentive focus on our ad dollars,” said Hebler. A two-tier ticketing system will allow patrons the choice of being closer to the performers on the dance floor or to mingle in the rear of the club at a lower price. Red will also offer series tickets at a discount.

Each show will also include an opening act drawn from the Berkshire talent pool. Eric Underwood and Eladia will warm up the crowd for Rosanne Raneri tomorrow night. Catherine Orland opens for Deb Talan, Celia precedes Meaghan Toohey, and Meg Hutchinson will offer support to Lori McKenna.

Concert Watch

Blues fans are well-served this week, beginning tonight with John Hammond at Club Helsinki. Son of the legendary producer John Hammond, Hammond has been a fixture on the blues scene since he first recorded an acoustic blues album for the Vanguard label in 1962. His band briefly included members of the Hawks before they were hired by Bob Dylan, and later on a guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. Other musicians he has worked with include Mike Bloomfield, Dr. John, Bill Wyman, John Lee Hooker and Duane Allman. Hammond’s most recent project is “Wicked Grin” (Point Blank), an entire album of earthy versions of Tom Waits songs produced by Waits himself.

Tomorrow night, the Albany Mid Winter Blues Festival at the Egg continues with a double-bill featuring Shemekia Copeland and Olu Dara – both of whom, incidentally, have headlined at Club Helsinki in the past year. Then on Monday night, the blues king himself, B.B. King, headlines at the Palace Theatre in Albany at 7:30.

Berkshire women join forces tonight for a round-robin folk concert at Searles Castle in Great Barrington, featuring Bernice Lewis, Meg Hutchinson and Joanne Spies.

It takes a certain perversity to hear the honky-tonk possibilities in Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” but New York City’s Demolition String Band obviously have what it takes. The neo-hillbilly twang duo includes a country version of the former dance club hit on its new album, “Pulling Up Atlantis” (Okra-Tone), an album’s full of the sort of country music that results from combining pedal steel guitars and subways, banjos and skyscrapers. The band traipses into Club Helsinki on Saturday night for what promises to be quite an unusual show. Hitch up your ponies in the rear.

Nerissa and Katryna Nields, the sister duo at the core of the folk-rock group the Nields, perform songs from their forthcoming duo album, “Love and China,” next Thursday at Club Helsinki.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Jan. 18, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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