The summer that wasn't
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 11, 2003) -- The summer just past will not go down in history as one for the record books in any way except perhaps in measuring rainfall. But while the rain fell, ticket buyers failed to materialize at many of the region’s music venues and festivals – indoors and outdoors alike.

Two of the Berkshires’ biggest music festivals – Berkshire Jazz and the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, or BerkFest – took major hits at the box office, big enough to jeopardize their futures. And audiences failed to flock to Great Barrington’s Club Helsinki – the county’s major presenter of national touring talent – making some nervous about the future of that venue and its concert-producing arm at the Mahaiwe Theatre.

The scene wasn’t totally a wipeout. Mass MoCA appears to have established a loyal following for its diverse offerings, which this summer included mainstream concerts like Rosanne Cash and more experimental fare like Bang on a Can and its silent-film-with- live music series. But even at MoCA, box office workers were kept busy until the last minute selling tickets that in the past had been snatched up long before showtime.

“It’s taken time, but we’re finding the audience for new, ambitious, and more edgy material, even if we stub our toe every now and then,” said Katherine Myers, MoCA’s director of marketing and public relations, who pointed to the sold-out “People Are Wrong” rock musical and the Alternative Cabaret series, which featured Polygraph Lounge among others this summer, as signs of success.

The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival reported an all-time record turnout for that four-day festival’s 15th anniversary celebration this summer in Hillsdale, N.Y. And at Tanglewood in Lenox, James Taylor continued to rack up staggering numbers for his appearances, while pop-classical crossover fare, including Yo-Yo Ma’s exploration of Brazilian music and the “Three Fiddlers” program with the Boston Pops, attracted some of that venue’s largest audiences of the season.

It’s hard to generalize across the board given the seemingly mixed messages suggested by these results. Across the nation, the concert box office was way down, mostly attributed to the downturn in the economy and lackluster bookings. There were exceptions, of course – Bruce Springsteen continues to sell out stadiums and arenas across the land – but overall field reports are of panicked venue owners and shuttered clubs. This weekend, for example, the House of Blues in Cambridge plays host to one last show – by Jim’s Big Ego on Saturday – before closing down for good, and this on the eve of a huge push for the blues led by Martin Scorsese’s film and TV efforts and the U.S. Congress’s proclamation of this as “the Year of the Blues.”

Some point to a local market oversaturated with cultural offerings – too many concert, theater and dance tickets vying for the same ticket buyers. To some extent, that is probably true, and it remains to be seen if there are enough cultural consumers to support all the presenting venues.

But what of BerkFest? Why did that nationally-known festival only garner about half the customers it did the year before? Some think that the jam-band festival scene has gotten out of hand – that the same people travel from place to place and festival to festival and there are just too many of them. And BerkFest’s lackluster lineup was hurt by cancellations by several of its headliners. But this could also signal the beginning of the end for the jam-band scene, which appeals to a very small demographic group. If the jam-rock festivals don’t widen their appeal to a broader audience beyond the college-age neo-hippies it currently targets, it will dry up and whither away within a year or two.

And what of the Berkshire Jazz Festival? In its third year – a year that probably saw the strongest marketing efforts so far – paid attendance was significantly off from previous years. Like BerkFest, Berkshire Jazz suffered from a lack of high-profile headline artists (no Chuck Mangiones or Roy Hargroves), and festival promoter Mark Morganelli mentioned “stiff competition from 40 or 50 other cultural institutions in Berkshires” as a factor. “I plan to abandon Butternut for this event in the near term,” said Morganelli in an E-mail, “and concentrate my efforts on funding and sponsorship alliances with municipalities and other cultural institutions -- to offer a week-long series of free events all over Berkshire County, possibly culminating in a paid event or two at the Mahaiwe.”

The success of Falcon Ridge, on the other hand, suggests that playing to a strongly-defined but broadly-based market, such as the one attracted to that festival’s particular brand of singer-songwriter folk music and folk dance, can weather the temporary dislocations and bumps in the road. The fact that Falcon Ridge enjoyed one of the only nice weekends of the summer in terms of weather didn’t hurt, either.

Perhaps most worrisome for the Berkshire scene is the failure of Club Helsinki to draw consistently large crowds to its nightclub shows and, for the first time, the failure of its Mahaiwe shows to sell out every seat in the theater. “We had high hopes for the summer, but attendance was erratic and lower than anticipated,” said Helsinki talent buyer Marc Schafler.

Schafler pointed to a confluence of factors that hurt attendance. “The tourists were not here at the club in force, and local folk don’t seem to come out as much during the summer,” he said. Schafler pointed to a sudden upswing in attendance and enthusiasm among locals since Labor Day weekend as a positive, if belated, sign that things might improve in the long run.

“The challenge is keeping small entrepreneurial efforts afloat so the Clear Channels and the Wal-Marts aren’t the only ones who survive recessions,” said Schafler.

“Homegrown efforts require homegrown support,” said Schafler. Hopefully, that will prove to be a prescription and not an epitaph.

Michael Musillami

When jazz is at its best, as it is on Michael Musillami’s terrific new CD, “Beijing” (Playscape Recordings), you feel like you are eavesdropping on a conversation among the musicians. While the language may not be instantly familiar – this is no conventional guitar trio playing standards – neither is it self-absorbed or esoteric. Rather, the musicians, including bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, provide a basic grammar and vocabulary and then expand upon it in a myriad of ways – from the balladry of Thomas Chapin’s “The Present” to the playful swing of the title track to the free playing of spontaneous compositions like “Caterpillar.” There is plenty of space in the trio’s airy improvisations, and Musillami seemingly cannot play a cliché lick on the guitar – he doesn’t so much “play guitar” as he makes music on an instrument that just happens to be an electric guitar. Musillami – who was featured in the July/August issue of Jazztimes Magazine -- brings a quartet to the Castle Street Café (528-5244) in Great Barrington on Friday night.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 11, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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