Reviewing the musical summer
Reviewing the summer’s music scene

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 5, 2002) – Like most inveterate concertgoers and cultural mavens, typically by this time of the summer I am physically and mentally exhausted from seeing far too many concerts – to say nothing of plays, dances and other cultural happenings. Our fortune here in the Berkshires – to be America’s premiere summertime cultural resort – is also our misfortune – to have a year’s worth of cultural events crammed into just a little over two months.

Invariably, I wind up wondering why can’t our riches be spread out over the course of the year? Certainly tourists come before the Fourth of July and continue to visit the Berkshires well into foliage season.

But you have to be careful what you wish for. By this time each summer, I so look forward to the more humane, relaxed pace of the other 10 months of the year, when there is typically maybe one or two or three things at the most worth seeing per week, instead of two or three from which to choose seven nights a week.

Why spoil a good thing? Is spreading out the riches during the course of the entire year really the answer? Maybe not. I’m afraid that the answer for the critic as well as the consumer of culture is simply to be more selective, to choose better, and not to try to get to everything.

That’s easier said than done, of course, and a critic has to balance his responsibility to report on much of what’s out there with his own mental welfare. I’ll leave it to others to draw conclusions about the latter. As for the former, it’s a job I’d wish only on my worst enemy.

Well, it’s not really that bad. This past summer, like any, had its ups and downs, ranging from Anne Murray’s execrable performance at Tanglewood to Linda Ronstadt’s uninspired one to James Taylor’s transcendent, record-setting fun-fest with John Williams and the Boston Pops. Honest Abe, indeed – how about James Taylor for the White House in 2004?

Up at Mass MoCA in North Adams, the two-week residency of new-music collective Bang on a Can brought a much-needed dose of downtown New York, manic, punk-inspired energy to the region’s music scene – classical, pop, rock, jazz and otherwise. Crossing all boundaries, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the students and faculty of Bang’s summer institute, including composer Steve Reich, suggested myriad directions in which music might go in order to retain freshness and relevance to contemporary ears and minds. The good news is that the institute was judged a success by all involved, and plans are already in motion to repeat and expand the “Banglewood” residency at MoCA next summer.

The quiet surprises are always the best, and there were a few of those this summer. At Jacob’s Pillow, Big Dance Theater’s multi-media performance piece “Shunkin” was a terrific fusion of literature, song, dance, theater, ritual and film. A collaboration among Annie B-Parson, Paul Lazar and Cynthia Hopkins of Gloria Deluxe (returning to Club Helsinki on September 19) among others, the work – featuring original songs by Hopkins – turned out to have hidden inside of it a clever reimagining of the mythic Bob Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, “Don’t Look Back.”

An equally unassuming surprise was Chuck Prophet, who performed with his band at Club Helsinki on July 21. The relatively unknown rock singer-songwriter channeled 40 years of rock ‘n’ roll history – from rockabilly to ‘60s garage-rock and folk-rock through ‘70s soul, ‘80s pop and ‘90s postmodernism – in his two sets of utterly original work, breathing with the spirit of Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Robbie Robertson, James Brown, Beck, Prince and a host of others.

There were other memorable moments, including Rory Block channeling the spirit of Robert Johnson at the Guthrie Center, and second-generation talents Sally Taylor and Jen Chapin finding their own way at Club Helsinki, where Everton Sylvester and his jazz trio, Searching for Banjo, brought funk poetry to a whole new level.

But there were also disappointments. After several summers of admirable programming, it’s clear that the space at the Guthrie Center just doesn’t work. The room needs to be reconfigured – perhaps the tables need to be lost -- and more attention needs to be paid to the staging and lighting.

The Berkshire Jazz Festival staged by Jazz Forum Arts at Butternut Basin needs to be rethought: what is its reason for being, especially the weekend before the venerable Tanglewood festival? By all means, the Berkshires needs more jazz on a regular basis. But recycling the previous year’s second-rate acts from Tanglewood, mixed with other smooth-jazz acts, doesn’t seem to be cutting it. If history teaches us anything, you can go broke underestimating the sophistication of Berkshires audiences – does anyone remember the so-called National Music Center?

This raises a larger issue. The successful management of the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, or BerkFest, and the smoothly-run if creatively bankrupt Berkshire Jazz Festival, both at Butternut, do nothing if not highlight that facility as one with the greatest potential for live music in the Berkshires. Surrounded by hills, the basin setting is picture-perfect. The infrastructure needed for controlled festivals is there, and the Butternut staff and others hired for the festivals have gained great experience in managing these events.

There were other musical events at Butternut this summer, programmed by an outfit from Pittsfield that refused outright to share its information with the press. It’s time for someone with vision and competence to come along and seize the tremendous opportunity that Butternut affords to stage a summer-long series of musical events of moderate size in a variety of genres that will appeal to a cross-section of listeners. The one-weekend BerkFest successfully serves a very small niche of listeners. How about a weekend of folk, a weekend of bluegrass, a weekend of country, a weekend of punk rock, a weekend of traditional jazz, a weekend of ethnic music, and on and on, along the lines of a Falcon Ridge, a Winterhawk, an Old Songs and a Grey Fox?

On second thought, what am I saying? Another great summer music series in the Berkshires is the last thing I need. I must be out of my mind suggesting this. Never mind. I take it all back. Forget I said anything. I’m glad it’s almost fall.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 5, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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