Club Helsinki dominates Berkshire music scene for third year in a row
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 22, 2002) – As the year 2002 comes to a close, the outlook for popular music in the Berkshires has perhaps never been brighter. With established venues strengthening their efforts, new ones continuing to pop up, and several theaters preparing to go on line in the next year or so, previously underserved fans of pop, rock, folk, blues, jazz, country and world music are finally beginning to be served according to their needs and numbers in the cultural marketplace.
The strongest efforts continue to be made by Club Helsinki in the south and Mass MoCA in the north. Ending its third year in operation, the Great Barrington nightclub continues to find new audiences while establishing a reputation far and wide – in particular penetrating the hard-to-crack, downtown New York scene, among whose musicians Helsinki has become almost as well-known for its great food as for its funky ambience and discerning audiences.
As Helsinki begins to shed some of its birth pangs and moves into what undoubtedly will be its heyday period, it is doing what all successful clubs do: settling into an slowly, ever-changing pattern of core performers and house favorites while continuing to introduce new, exciting performers, both known and unknown.
By emphasizing curatorial quality and a diverse, eclectic range of performers -- with jam bands like Janah and the Gordon Stone Band, jazz singers like Mose Allison and Rene Marie, singer-songwriters like Richard Shindell and Peter Case and reggae bands like Tribe of Djembe and the Black Rebels – Helsinki steered clear of the bar-band syndrome while still providing plenty of entertainment and a party-like atmosphere for its clientele. Along the way, the club continued to attract world-class performers like Levon Helm, Mike Gordon of Phish, Livingston Taylor, Guy Clark, Olu Dara and Dan Hicks alongside stars-to-be like Jake, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Sonya Kitchell, Golem, Antigone Rising, Chuck Prophet and the Demolition String Band.
Helsinki also continued to play a major role as a community-oriented venue supportive of the local artistic scene with its popular, Tuesday open-mike nights hosted by the region’s top talents and its weekly Monday-night jazz jams led by legendary drummer Randy Kaye, with musicians like Charlie Tokarz and John Sauer improvising with Kaye farther out than anything you’re likely to hear between here and New York City.
Helsinki has also in large part been responsible for the excitement surrounding the otherwise lethargically-paced development of the Mahaiwe Theatre into a multi-disciplinary, performing arts center, filling the theater to capacity with performers like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Richie Havens. While getting the theater out from under the auspices of the Berkshire Opera Company is a potentially positive step, it remains to be seen if the successor group running the Mahaiwe will allow it to reach the potential that seemingly could be realized if Helsinki had a greater hand in the management, operation and booking of the theater.
Meanwhile in Pittsfield, there are several signs of life in an otherwise dismal landscape. Folk music fans who prefer the comfort and focus of indoor concerts have been treated to a steady diet of performers from the stages of Falcon Ridge and like-minded folk festivals in the Berkshire Museum’s ongoing Originals in Song series that brought the likes of John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky and the Nields to downtown Pittsfield.
A few doors down from the museum, planning continues for the revival of the Colonial Theatre, whose dramatic sightlines offer great promise for an intimate concert experience when that venue is up and running. The Colonial is all about potential at this point, however, and besides money, a key to its success will be whether it can forge positive, ongoing alliances with groups already presenting in the county, like the Berkshire Museum and Club Helsinki.
There have been several literally subterranean attempts over the past year to enliven the dismal Pittsfield nightclub scene, the most promising of which is La Choza, which opened this past fall in the basement of the renovated Central Block and has presented an array of jam bands spiced with a few touring rock, jazz and world-beat acts. Until Pittsfield’s downtown undergoes a wholesale facelift, however, it will be an uphill battle for any club to attract more than a few local hangers-out to the city’s nighttime landscape of desolation row.
The wild card in the county’s live music scene is Mass MoCA, especially with the establishment of the new concert space in Club B-10. While it is unlikely that the museum – which continued to present popular dance parties and concerts by the likes of Suzanne Vega and They Might Be Giants -- will ever operate a full-time nightclub, the flexibility of the multi-use space offers great promise for its “alternative cabaret” series of musical, performance art and film events.
The other exciting development at MoCA was the establishment this past summer of the Bang on a Can Summer Institute, or Banglewood, as it became known informally and unofficially. By all reports Banglewood was a great success from the perspective of its participants – faculty and students – and plans are under way for a successor season. BOAC’s residency at MoCA is a boon to music fans, as in its associated public concerts and open gallery rehearsals it provides a rare opportunity for listeners to hear the cutting-edge work of avant-garde composers and musicians outside of its usual venues in the world’s major cultural capitals.
A big question mark hangs over the summer festival scene, too. After several valiant years, the Noppet Hill Bluegrass Festival in Lanesboro shut down. And in its second season, an increasingly commercialized Berkshire Jazz Festival failed to attract hoped-for crowds to the two-day event at Butternut Basin in Great Barrington, putting the future of that endeavor in jeopardy.
The weekend-long Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, or BerkFest, brought thousands of jam-band fans to Butternut, although several thousand fewer than hoped for. While most of the town seemed to favor the annual jam-fest, a few key people in positions of power are still making noises that could spell the eventual doom of that event, too. In any case, unless BerkFest finds a way to expand its cultural and demographic appeal, it will inevitably fall victim to obsolescence once the jam-band focus of the event ceases to have its intense appeal among its narrow, core audience.
Aside from BerkFest, several other promoters who have lacked the wherewithal and know-how have tried and failed to turn Butternut into a summer music festival destination. With the lessons learned from BerkFest, as well as with the infrastructure and experience the professionally-run festival has provided, Butternut remains a promising summer venue just waiting for the right presenter to appear on the scene.
In its second year, the revamped Tanglewood Jazz Festival was a much more lively, diverse event this past Labor Day weekend. Recovering from the commercial missteps of the first year that threatened to overwhelm the festival, this year’s emphasis on instrumental improvisation paid off artistically.
Jazz remains the most problematic music in the Berkshires for both the audience and the presenters. There isn’t enough of it on a consistent basis to create a critical mass or a scene, and what little there is often is weighed down by the baggage that comes with festivals and themed events. At some point, however, some venue will figure out a way to present a curated jazz series with the sort of care and attention typically given to classical, avant-garde and world music in these parts.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 27, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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