A winter of deja vu music

Moonraker returns to Club Helsinki on Feb. 28

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 16, 2004) – Considering it’s the dead of winter, there is a surprising array of pop, folk, rock and jazz concerts scheduled in the region in upcoming weeks and months. What is not surprising are many of the names of the performers. Either because of a lack of imagination, a perceived unwillingness of audiences to take chances on new faces, or owing to a surplus of concert activity over the last few years, it is apparently getting more difficult for Berkshire venues to bring in performers who have not appeared in the region within the last year or two.

The prime instigator behind this syndrome could be Club Helsinki, which to its enormous credit in its brief, four-year existence has presented hundreds of performers who regularly tour the nightclub and small-theater circuit. As a result, many if not most of the performers who wind up playing at the county’s other venues – at museums and folk coffeehouses – have already played at Helsinki, often more than once.

Club Helsinki continues to present fresh new faces, however, beginning tomorrow night with Johnny Society. Winner of the 2002 Album of the Year honors at the Independent Music Awards (judged by the likes of Tom Waits, Ricky Skaggs, Don Byron, Mitchell Froom, Wilson Pickett and Me’Shell NdegeOcello), the innovative, New York-based rock quartet plays a rootsy style of classic rock that sounds equal parts glam and pop. Imagine David Bowie fronting the Beatles, or John Lennon leading Queen, with some “Ram”-era Paul McCartney whimsy and some Mardi Gras funk thrown in for good measure.

Next Saturday night, Gogol Bordello introduces its self-styled mix of “New York Gypsy Punk Cabaret,” with hints of klezmer, Sonic Youth, Bela Bartok, Iggy Pop and Einsturzende Neubauten, to Berkshire audiences for the first time. And on February 3, Morning 40 Federation from New Orleans brings its utterly original brand of boozy, psychedelic indie-rock to the downtown nightclub.

Helsinki itself frequently recycles old favorites, beginning tonight with an encore appearance by Canadian bluegrass outfit Luther Wright and the Wrongs, best known for its countrified version of Pink Floyd’s rock epic, “The Wall.” Bluegrass-based jam-band The Waybacks performs next Thursday, and Jim’s Big Ego returns to Helsinki next Friday, with a brand-new batch of songs from its terrific new CD, “They’re Everywhere.” Fresh from their victory at the Mountain Stage New Song Contest, the Berkshires’ own Hunger Mountain Boys duo resumes its Monday night “Old Time Mountain Music Show” on January 26. House favorite Tarbox Ramblers celebrates the release of its upcoming CD of acoustic roots music on February 20. Frequent Berkshire visitor Moonraker, which garnered second place on The Beat’s list of the Top 10 concerts of last year, returns to Helsinki on February 28.

The Castle Street Café spices up its regular menu of cocktail jazz with some more adventurous fare next month, including the Joe Fonda Trio, featuring pianist Francesca Tanksley, on February 6. On the weekend of February 13-14, guitarist Michael Musillami will bring his quartet for a two-night stand. The group, which includes drummer George Schuller, just released the excellent new CD, “Those Times,” on Musillami’s Playscape label. Manhattan Transfer co-founder and WAMC program host Laurel Masse performs on February 21.

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield continues its popular “Originals in Song” series pioneered by former director Anne Mintz with a concert by progressive-klezmer outfit The Klezmatics tomorrow night at 8, a rescheduled date of a show that was snowed out in December. Sixties folk legend Tom Rush performs on February 21, followed by frequent Berkshire visitor Steve Forbert on March 20. Looking ahead to spring, the museum concludes its series with two up-and-coming younger acts – the Erin McKeown Trio on April 17 and Eddie From Ohio on May 8.

Mass MoCA’s eclectic programming continues with a multimedia stage show by Nonesuch recording artist and composer Robin Holcomb tomorrow night (see accompanying feature elsewhere in this section). MoCA’s popular dance-party series resumes with Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra on January 31, followed by Karsh Kale and Realize, playing Asian-dance fusion, on March 13. Banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer fuse bluegrass and classical music on MoCA’s concert stage on February 28, followed by second-generation country singer Pam Tillis on April 3. Scrapomatic performs as part of the Alt Cabaret series on March 6, and the members of Loser’s Lounge, who performed last summer’s critically-acclaimed, original rock musical, “People Are Wrong,” return on March 27 to take a crack at “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown is returning to its successful formula presenting new-folk singer-songwriters. Canadian folksinger Garnet Rogers kicks off the Clark’s “Songs and Stories” series on Friday, January 30. Patty Larkin returns to the Berkshires for a Clark show on February 20, and Maine folksinger Gordon Bok, a frequent Clark guest, performs on March 13. Richard Shindell, also no stranger to Berkshire audiences, concludes the Clark series on March 26.

The county’s two church-based, folk coffeehouses have finally coordinated their schedules and they are no longer presenting shows on the same night of the month. Pittsfield’s Common Grounds Coffeehouse, located at the First United Methodist Church, 55 Fenn St., continues its first-Saturday programming with singer-songwriter Michael Jerling on February 7. Other shows offer a mix of regional and local performers, including Atwater-Donnelly (March 6), David Massengill (April 3) and Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette (May 1).

Up in North Adams, the Railway Café, at St. John’s Parish Hall presents Ellis Paul on February 14 and Brian Joseph on April 10.

Highlights of the busy winter season in New York’s Capital District include a cappella group Take 6 at the Troy (N.Y.) Savings Bank Music Hall tonight, the Smothers Brothers at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady on January 30, the Holmes Brothers at the WAMC Performing Arts Center on January 31, Rod Stewart at the Pepsi Arena on March 1, and Bette Midler at the Pepsi on March 17.

In the Pioneer Valley, Rickie Lee Jones is at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton on January 23, followed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on February 5, Guster on February 19, and Nanci Griffith and Mark Erelli, headlining the Iron Horse 25th Anniversary Concert, on February 24. The Iron Horse itself presents Lucy Kaplansky tomorrow night, Evan Dando on February 7, Arlo Guthrie on February 12-13, Leon Russell on February 18 and the Dave Brubeck Quartet for a two-night stand on March 19-20. Barenaked Ladies are at the Mullins Center at U. Mass-Amherst on February 14, followed by Neil Young and Crazy Horse on March 21.

(Club Helsinki, 528-3394; Castle Street Café, 528-5244; Berkshire Museum, 443-7171; The Clark, 458-2303; Mass MoCA, 662-2111; Common Grounds Coffeehouse, 499-0866; Railway Café, 664-6393)

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 16, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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