Musicians band together to support, promote each other, themselves
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 20, 2002) – If nothing else, at least the once-a-month meetings of the MOB (Musicians of the Berkshires) gives the members of this year-old association of local musician-songwriters a chance to get together and share advice and horror stories. Which gigs to avoid. Which promoter fails to come through with what’s promised. Where to get a good deal on guitar strings, and did you see what Seth Rogovoy wrote about so-and-so’s new CD in the Eagle?
Mostly, however, the MOB is a task-oriented collaborative in which musicians join together to book group concerts, share resources like mailing lists and contacts, and do whatever they can to heighten the visibility of musicians making original folk, pop and rock music in the Berkshires.
The reality is that the Berkshires are not now nor have they ever been a hotbed of any musical scene. Sure, significant musicians have called these hills home, these days including Arlo Guthrie and James Taylor. And in the shadow of Tanglewood and other august classical music organizations, there has been no dearth of players and composers.
But there has never been the sort of centralized music scene that includes clubs, promoters, radio, press – as well as clearly-defined musicians and audience – that could spawn a Berkshires sound or style or movement of the sort that, say, Seattle brewed in the early-1990s, or that Boston did a decade or so before that, or that even Northampton has (or has threatened to) at various times.
The twin factors of sprawling geography – there is no central place or town – and the tradition of Berkshire individualism, which may be a function of the lack of a cultural capital, have always worked against any sort of unification of effort on the part of the Berkshire music making community.
But now a move is afoot to change that, in the form of the MOB.
“From the start,” says singer-songwriter Adam Michael Rothberg, “the MOB was a way to bring area songwriter/musicians together collaboratively. One of the phrases that popped up when we were first forming was ‘to raise public awareness and appreciation of original music in the Berkshires.’”
The loose association of about eight musicians comes together monthly at the behest and invitation of Robby Baier. One of the most highly respected musicians in the Berkshires, as well as one of the most experienced and versatile – he’s sort of the Berkshires answer to Prince in that he writes, sings and when he wants to, plays any and all instruments, and in a variety of styles ranging from sensitive folk to gritty funk to hard rock – Baier is variously and affectionately referred to as “the Don” or “the Godfather” of the MOB.
Baier, who toured widely with a German-American rock band called Pearls at Swine and who won the 2002 Musicians Atlas Independent Music Award for Best Pop/Rock Artist for his solo debut album, “Soul Tube,” said he got the idea for MOB after spending several Labor Day weekends playing at Club Passim’s Campfire Series in Boston.
“I was inspired by the wealth of musicianship and camaraderie at these events. Four days of ‘in-the-round’ performances with musicians interacting and improvising on stage was a great thing to watch,” said Baier.
Baier brought the idea back home, and over the past year there have been several round-robin concerts at various locations throughout the Berkshires, including the Central Block in Pittsfield and Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, featuring local musicians performing under the MOB banner. One of these, a benefit concert for Rett Syndrome at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington last October, raised over $4,000. The MOB also recorded a holiday TV special for Pittsfield cable-access TV.
Besides Baier and Rothberg, the members of the MOB include Meg Hutchinson, JoAnne Redding, Bobby Sweet, Fran Mandeville and Eric Underwood and Eladia, who perform as a duo. There are a handful of other musicians who sometimes attend meetings of the MOB, which are open to any Berkshire musician with a CD of original music and a track record as a performer.
Some MOBsters are more experienced than others and can act as mentors to younger members on their way up. Redding, Baier and Rothberg have all worked outside the Berkshires in various capacities, not only as musicians but also as producers, publicists and DJs. Some of the musicians, like Sweet and Baier, have had success getting their songs used in TV and film.
Todd Mack is a musician who is relatively new to the Berkshires and has attended some MOB meetings. Mack says the MOB is reminiscent of an organization he belonged to Atlanta called the Atlanta Musical Arts Collective (AMAC) that was very helpful to him when he was first starting out.
“I learned the necessary tools of the trade and was able to propel myself to a point where I was making my own music and making a real living at it,” said Mack, who leads the band Big Blue Holler. “I owe a lot of that to that organization.”
Beyond sharing resources like mailing list software, graphic design referral, recording studio information, and marketing themselves to promoters as the MOB, there are some issues that Berkshire musicians face that MOB or no MOB are beyond the power of the musicians themselves to do anything about.
Number one on every musician’s list is a local, commercial radio station that plays a variety of good music, including music that is made right here in the Berkshires.
“I truly believe that the lack of such a station is the reason why there is not an appreciation for some of the amazingly talented singer-songwriters here,” said JoAnne Redding, a performer and MOB member as well as a former DJ, noting that as of now, only Fred Schane’s “Sunday Live” program originating on WSBS in Great Barrington regularly features music by local artists.
“It’d be great to have a WKZE or a WRSI-style commercial radio station in the Berkshires that is not nailed down to a playlist of slick, cookie-cutter, top-forty songs forty times a week, and that is willing to take some chances by playing music made here,” echoes Rothberg, who also lists more music venues and locally-owned record stores as missing elements in an ideal Berkshire music scene.
Several of the musicians interviewed for this article decried the lack of venues regularly programming local bands that play original music. While there are a few nightspots and concert series that occasionally feature local talent, “There is a severe shortage of them for bands, especially those playing original music,” said Mack. “I believe the demand is there to see local, original live music -- just not many places in which to do it.”
Whatever MOB is or is not able to achieve as a group, one thing is certain. There has perhaps never been a group of musicians so dedicated to making original music, and cooperating with each other along the way, while at the same time intent on proving that it can be done while remaining in the Berkshires.
“My goal is to have a viable career in the Berkshires,” said Eladia, who plays cello, provides vocal harmonies, and co-composes with Eric Underwood. “Originally from the Bronx, I have tried to model my life after people I’ve encountered who have carved out a creative niche for themselves in the world and are able to live in a beautiful, safe environment outside of but not far away from a major city.
“I feel that a musician can certainly have a viable career here because of the built-in audience comprised of city and local folk, and because of the great venues here. I think one would certainly still have to travel to Boston or New York frequently, and tour, but even if one limited themselves to the Northeast, to drive-able distances, with a successful CD to sell, one could do it.”
The next few weeks will see a flurry of activity by MOB members. Meg Hutchinson just released a new live CD, “Any Given Day,” and she will warm up the crowd for Lori McKenna at Red in Pittsfield on February 8. Several MOBsters have
new recordings about to be released, including Eric Underwood and Eladia, who will celebrate the release of their new CD, “Down From the Treehouse,” at Club Helsinki on February 13. Two nights later, Robby Baier will unveil his new band, Melodrome, and their new CD, also at Club Helsinki, on February 15.
In the meantime, JoAnne Redding is beginning work on the follow-up to her previous album, “The Running Kind.” Rothberg is working on songs for his next release, which he plans to record in the spring. Rothberg and Sweet are working on a special duet CD of original songs, and Sweet is also planning to record a new CD.
One thing the MOB hasn’t gotten around to yet is setting up a website as a clearinghouse for information about the MOB and MOB-affiliated artists. And while most MOB members have their own websites, few if any are kept up to date with any regularity.
For more information about the MOB, call 413-274-9940 or Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Jan. 24, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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