Club Helsinki celebrates three years of music, developing artists
Olu Dara was first to play Helsinki three years ago, returns at month's end
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 29, 2002) – Three years ago this month, Deborah McDowell and Marc Schafler took a leap of faith when they booked Olu Dara to perform in the funky bar and nightclub space adjoining McDowell’s popular restaurant, the Helsinki Café.
At the time, few people in the area had heard of Olu Dara other than avant-jazz aficionados. Fewer still had ever gone to see nightclub-style entertainment in Great Barrington. And the Berkshires as a whole had no history of supporting a year-round nightclub featuring national touring artists.
Three years later, Club Helsinki features live entertainment three, four and sometimes five nights a week. Artists like John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood drop by to hang out and play at the weekly open-mike night. Jazz guitarist John Scofield, who typically headlines large auditoriums and theaters, recently called the club and asked if he could come back and play a two-night stand (he’ll be at Helsinki on Dec. 9-10). And Olu Dara has reinvented himself as a major-label blues and funk artist and is reaching whole new audiences, yet he continues to return to the club that helped jump-start his career (he returns to the club on November 30).
It’s anniversary time at Club Helsinki this month, and to celebrate the-little-nightclub- that-could’s third birthday the club has booked a typically eclectic melange of old favorites like Dara, Scofield, punk-mambo group Babaloo (November 2) and blues singer Shemekia Copeland (November 17) alongside artists that are new to local audiences, including Yiddish/Balkan party band Golem (November 14), Slavic Soul Party, whose name says it all (November 21), and avant/chamber-pop group Melomane (November 22).
The club will also present the kickoff concert of a tour by a new musical duo featuring Phish bassist Mike Gordon and guitarist Leo Kottke this Monday night, November 4 (don’t even think of showing up – the concert sold out before tickets even went on sale). And younger brother Livingston Taylor comes to town for a two-night stand on December 5-6.
Other returnees include Boston pop-rock band the Push Stars (November 1), soul-rockers Soulhoney (November 16), and Afro-reggae ensemble Tribe of Djembe (November 29). And in its theatrical-concert presenting guise, Helsinki is bringing Sixties icon Richie Havens to the Mahaiwe Theatre on November 23, on a bill also featuring folk singer-songwriter Jess Klein, who will perform an after-show concert at the nightclub with her rock band.
Looking back over the last three years, McDowell said recently that one of the most exciting things about running the nightclub has been watching unknown, developing artists win audiences here and elsewhere.
“Norah Jones played here several times with Wax Poetic before anyone heard of her, and it was lovely to watch her career take off from here,” said McDowell. “At first no one had ever seen or heard of Tarbox Ramblers, and now they sell out each time. It’s been the same with Guy Davis and Jeff Lang and Mary Gauthier.
“It’s fun to get behind an artist, even knowing we won’t make any money at first, but developing them along the way, having them come in between the bigger artists who we know will draw a crowd.”
As much as she enjoys featuring developing artists, it’s not an easy thing to do when you look at the bottom line.
“The connections between art and economics are hard to bear,” said McDowell. “We don’t have big pockets like a lot of establishments. If a show bombs here, we take a hit, and that’s hard.
“I really hope that people will have more confidence that the emerging talent we’ve booked will be worthwhile seeing, and that more people will come out for unknown artists.
“It’s time to change the world somehow, and to support young people doing art is for us where it’s at.”
As far as changes to the club’s routine, McDowell said that they are constantly tweaking things in response to audience demand. Midweek shows will have an earlier starting time beginning this month. Also, the popular open-mike night will move to Tuesday night, making room for concerts on Sunday night, which has turned out to be a good night for concerts whenever they’ve been scheduled.
For the foreseeable future, the Tuesday night open-mike will become “The Spotlight Series,” hosted by an array of regional talents who will be given an hourlong showcase that will be recorded by the club. Singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson will host the first of these events next Tuesday.
And McDowell hopes to add more country music to the club’s eclectic menu of folk, rock, jazz, world music and spoken word.
“I have a special spot in my heart for country music and I haven’t been able quite to dip into it as much as I’d like to,” she said. “I’d like to dip into more in that direction.”
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 1, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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