Iron Horse celebrates 25 years of music

The original Iron Horse coffeehouse, circa 1980

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTHAMPTON, Mass., February 19, 2004) – The life expectancy of nightclubs is about half that of the average dog. So when a club reaches an anniversary in double digits, it is generally cause for celebration. All the more so when the club commemorates 25 years in action, as does the Iron Horse next week.

Well into its third decade, the Iron Horse Music Hall has garnered a reputation as one of the top “listening rooms” in the nation, among musicians no less than audiences. “I've been playing the Iron Horse on and off for almost twenty years, and it’s one of my favorite places to play,” says singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, in a comment typical of what many artists have to say about the 180-seat venue located at 20 Center St., just off this town’s main drag.

“There is no venue in the country that is so intimate, has such consistently great sound, and allows you to see right up close performers of a caliber who would be in three times the room in any major metropolis,” says Gabe Unger, a talent manager who over the years has booked Lori McKenna, Erin McKeown, Jess Klein, and others into the room.

More than just a music club, the Iron Horse was also an essential part of the storied revival of downtown Northampton. Along with Thorne’s Market, the Pleasant Street Theater, the Academy of Music and several pioneering restaurants, the Iron Horse was a key fixture in the early revival of what was once a moribund cityscape.

“The Iron Horse along with other downtown things have made for a very lively downtown,” said Mayor Claire Higgins, who was at the Iron Horse on opening night in 1979, and who says she has enjoyed many great shows there since then.

The Iron Horse will celebrate its first quarter-century of existence with a birthday tribute concert at the nearby Calvin Theatre – which along with Pearl Street Nightclub is now one of three venues owned and managed by the Iron Horse Entertainment Group – on Tuesday at 7, with a concert by country-pop singer Nanci Griffith and folk-rock artist Mark Erelli. Both are nationally-known performing and recording artists who got their start on the Iron Horse’s intimate stage.

That celebration will take on something of a bittersweet note, however, with the recent announcement that Iron Horse founder Jordi Herold, who with only a short year off in the mid-‘90s has booked the acts into the Iron Horse continuously since day one, is stepping down next week as creative director and talent buyer for the club as well as for the Calvin and Pearl Street.

In a recent phone interview, Herold explained that he took a good look in the mirror last summer and realized that his 50th birthday would approximately coincide with the Iron Horse’s 25th anniversary. “If it’s going to be a life in which you’ve done many things, there has to be a time when you turn the page,” said Herold. “It’s not going to happen organically. No external force was going to make that happen.”

Herold said his immediate plans are to take some time to himself, spend more time with his family, and further his interests in collecting fine art photography and historic restoration and renovation. While Herold is clearly proud of what he was able to accomplish in 25 years, there are some things he won’t miss, however.

“You’re negotiating all day long, and sometimes in abrasive terms for things that are dear to your heart, and that wears on the soul,” he said, referring to the daily grind of negotiating concert bookings. “I’m happy to do it -- it’s what I do well -- and the rewards outweigh all those aspects. But there are people who think they can talk to you the way you wouldn’t talk to your dog -- and in some cases they represent surprisingly politically-correct artists.”

Herold built the Iron Horse into one of the nation’s premiere nightclubs on a policy of eclectic bookings and by championing artistic integrity.

“It’s one of the great clubs because it feels like the music has always mattered more than anything,” said singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball, who with her former singing partner, Jonatha Brooke, pioneered their duo act, The Story, at an open-mike night at the Iron Horse in 1983. “I know the bottom line matters most,” said Kimball. “But somehow Jordi and company have maintained an integrity musically while allowing the place to change slowly.”

For Herold, it was always “veracity” that he looked for when deciding who to program into the club. “They’re not entertainers and they’re not technicians,” said Herold. “There has to be something at the core of what they’re doing that says something that has its own truth. That truth can be in the ecstatic solos of a jam band, or in the confessional lyric of a singer-songwriter, or in an unexpected turn of phrase in the solo of a jazz musician.”

For some musicians, the Horse will always be more than just a place to play. For folksinger Cindy Mangsen, it will always hold a special place in her heart.

Mangsen first met her husband, fellow singer-songwriter Steve Gillette, at a folk festival in Rochester, N.Y. They talked on the phone incessantly for a few days afterwards. “Our next opportunity to meet was when Steve played at the Iron Horse,” said Mangsen, who lives in North Bennington, Vt. “I hemmed and hawed about whether I would drive down to meet him. I eventually made the trip on the spur of the moment, surprising Steve, and the rest of our story began.”

For local musicians like veteran rocker Ray Mason, the Horse has served as both a staging ground and a place to keep up with artists on tour. “I really like opening there because I get to play in front of a very attentive audience, and then get to kick back and watch someone I was probably going to see anyway,” he said.

When Peter Smith, author of “Two of Us: The Story of a Father, a Son and the Beatles,” moved to Northampton five years ago, he feared that by leaving New York City he was removing himself from the nexus of culture. He was happily surprised to discover a nightclub just a short drive away from his house. “The Iron Horse proves that life doesn’t end when you move out of a city,” he says. “You get the small town stuff and the big town stuff. It makes you feel okay about your life.” Plus, he added, parking only costs a quarter.

“I’m saddened that Jordi’s looking to move on, said Eric Suher, the real estate developer who rescued the Iron Horse in 1995 when it was on the brink of closing for good. Suher bought the nightclub and lured back Herold – who had sold the cafe the previous year to two local musicians – to program the Horse, and eventually Pearl Street, the Calvin and other venues throughout New England, including Mass MoCA in North Adams.

“We’ve worked extremely well over nine seasons,” said Suher. “But the baton has been handed over to people who’ve been groomed and mentored and who are very capable and have already been doing much of the work over the past year. I’m excited for Jordi. Life is too short to not live your dream -- whatever that is.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 20, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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