Michelle Shocked gave to save Club Helsinki
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 2, 2004) Ė When Michelle Shocked took the stage at Club Helsinki a week ago last Sunday, she pulled a big surprise. She declared the club a free-music zone, reportedly telling the small crowd that had assembled after having braved one of the seasonís biggest snowstorms that she wouldnít be charging the club for her appearance.
Shocked herself braved the bad weather that day, driving seven hours straight from Maryland to appear at Helsinki. She could have easily cancelled the show, and everyone would have understood. But anyone familiar with her career knows that Shocked is anything if not determined. When she arrived at the club and saw just over a dozen faces in the audience, however, she presumably did a quick mental calculation. Even though she was legally entitled to her guaranteed fee, she knew if she demanded it the money would be coming straight out of the pockets of the people struggling to make Club Helsinki survive. Shocked reportedly told the audience that Club Helsinki and places like it are endangered species, as well as being agents for social change. Knowing that they are also places that support her and artists like her, she put her principles ahead of her pocketbook and chalked one up for the cause.
Itís a signal tale in several ways. The owners of Club Helsinki stood to lose several thousand dollars that night on a show that by any stretch of the imagination should have been a terrific moneymaker. Shocked usually plays theater and concert halls even larger than the Mahaiwe. To have the chance to see her at a club the size of Helsinki was a rare treat. And those who were there say she gave it her all, performing three hours straight, establishing an atmosphere of unusually deep intimacy and communality, opening her heart and reflecting on the ups and downs of her personal spiritual and romantic journeys, mining her own song catalog and the other Great American Songbook Ė the folk and blues one Ė and even inviting audience members to join her onstage to perform.
This says as much about Club Helsinki as it does about Michelle Shocked. Itís a place that in its short, four-year lifetime has inspired fierce, devoted loyalty among musicians used to playing much larger places with larger audiences where they receive correspondingly larger fees. But itís the place where jazz-fusion guitarist John Scofield brought his band to warm up for a few days before making their last recording, even sampling some of the crowd noise for atmosphere on the CD. Itís where Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon of Phish chose to kick off their national duo tour. Itís where people like Olu Dara, Guy Davis and Chris Smither come on a semi-regular basis seemingly as much to kick back as to do what they do so well. Itís where John Medeski comes to chill out and try something new on open-mike night. And itís a place to where dozens if not hundreds of bands in New York and across the country aspire to play, having heard about the unique feel, attentive audiences, and great food that awaits all who perform there. The one thing that unites all those who perform at Club Helsinki and all those who ever will is itís not about the money.
In spite of all this, the club may not be around much longer. The simple fact is the economics of the concert business make it almost impossible for a club of its size to make a profit. That doesnít mean it is totally impossible. There is a margin for success, but it requires several things to change.
The club needs to do a better job of marketing and promotion, to cultivate new, untapped audiences, and to deliver the news and information about whatís going on at the club in a more timely and professional manner. Itís not only the publicís fault that many donít know that at least two nights a week the club offers free music, and that too many shows are scheduled at the last minute or slip under the radar without proper or adequate notice going out to the press. The club could also benefit from more aggressive merchandising and should reach out to partner with other businesses and venues in its concert-presenting arm.
The local and regional media needs to do a better job covering the club, too. Albanyís major daily and weekly newspapers give regular coverage to events at the club, but at least two of the Berkshiresí weekly newspapers that give the areaís theater, dance and classical music offerings plenty of ink seem not to know or care about what goes on there. This in spite of the fact that itís the only place of its kind in the region helping to preserve and perpetuate the very best of American roots music Ė blues, jazz, folk, country, bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco, soul, rock, and all the various fusions. Helsinki is a living museum of a homegrown culture that is currently threatened with extinction at the hands of corporate homogenization. Soon it may display nothing but fossils of a once-thriving species.
But most important, the public needs to support the club in the same way it supports all the other institutions that make this region unique, including museums, chamber groups, food co-ops and social action agencies. Helsinki is in some way a combination of all of those. Yes, there are other music venues in and around the county, including several church-based coffeehouses, Mass MoCA, the Clark, the Berkshire Museum, La Choza Cantina and the Guthrie Center. And they all need support too.
But Club Helsinki fills a unique niche as the only nightclub open seven nights a week and the only one offering weekly programming featuring national touring acts. Itís very simple. If people donít start coming out in greater numbers to all of these events, the club will have to move to a place where people want to support it, or close. From that point on, it will be consigned to the memories of those who enjoyed it in its brief but happy existence. And itís very unlikely that there will be anything like it to replace it.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 2, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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