Sounds Local: Looking back on an exciting year of music in the Valley

  • Young fans listen during last year’s Green River Festival. The Green River Festival tried something new this year — on Friday night of the festival, they hosted the Next Wave Stage that presented local bands like Kalliope Jones and Court Etiquette, bands with members under the age of 18. The festival also offered free admission to festival-goers age 18 and under on this night. Recorder FILE/Paul Franz

  • The Shea in Turners Falls, which has undergone a series of renovations over the years, presented a strong bill of talent in 2017. The venue is already looking toward 2018, with a Mardi Gras party featuring a performance by Simarah Evans on Feb. 3. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


For The Recorder
Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Before we settle into 2018, let’s take a look back on the local music scene in 2017 — one that I am happy to report is stronger than ever here in Franklin County.

In 2016, we saw the Shea Theater Arts Center in Turners Falls re-open under new management, and it continues to grow and flourish as an exciting performing arts center. The beautiful, old theater is a work in progress, as improvements to the venue continue to be made. (That new sign brightens up the entire downtown!) This past weekend, the Shea held a “thank you” show for its supporters, with performances by some of our finest local musicians as well as nationally known artists like the amazing Rhiannon Giddens. The venue is already announcing shows for 2018, including a Mardi Gras party with Simarah Evans on Feb. 3, and Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief will perform on March 2.

In March of 2017, the Arts Block in Greenfield, now owned by the Goldsher family, rebranded itself as Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center (a name which came from the clothing store originally housed in the space.) With the new name came a new era for the venue, including major improvements in the building. Hawks & Reed are currently hosting diverse shows almost every night of the week, often utilizing its three floors to present multiple acts. The venue has helped put Greenfield on the musical map by bringing in nationally known artists. In November, it held a sold out show by rapper KRS-One and two screenings of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which included appearances by the film’s star Ted Neeley. The venue has also hosted the talents of Jonathan Edwards, Roomful of Blues, Yellowman and Paula Cole. Hawks & Reed welcomes every genre of music, and as an article in this paper recently pointed out, it has helped establish a hip-hop scene here in Greenfield. Its calendar for 2018 is already filling up, and includes a Winter Carnival Ball with Roomful of Blues on Feb. 2 as well as a Winter String Jamboree on Feb. 23.

In general, area residents continue to have a wide range of coffeehouse, clubs, theaters and festivals in which to enjoy live music. We should mention that Mocha Maya’s in Shelburne Falls is currently not hosting live music as it focuses on expanding its site. The tiny coffeehouse has presented live music in Shelburne Falls for the past 12 years, and the venue hopes to be back to presenting bigger and better shows in the near future.

We can’t talk about music venues without noting that Jamie Berger, one of the co-owners of the Rendezvous and the person responsible for booking the live music at the club, is leaving the ’Voo to pursue other projects. Berger booked all types of music and welcomed both established acts and newcomers to the club. It’s no surprise that acts like Heather Maloney, Suitcase Junket, Sweetback Sisters, Lake Street Dive and so many others can claim the ’Voo as one of their earliest gigs. So thank you, Jamie Berger, for your years of hard work and your commitment to bringing live music to Turners Falls. Best of luck on your future ventures.

The Green River Festival tried something new this year — on Friday night of the festival, they hosted the Next Wave Stage that presented local bands like Kalliope Jones and Court Etiquette, bands with members under the age of 18. The festival also offered free admission to festival-goers age 18 and under on this night. This year also saw the return of a pre-Green River Festival kickoff concert at the Energy Park. Signature Sounds used to present these shows, but once they took over full operation of the festival, they were unable to present this additional event. Fortunately, the local group Progress Partnership stepped in and presented a successful show with local bands Colorway, Trailer Park and the Fawns. Hopefully, they will continue next year.

The past year also brought with it plenty of excellent recordings from our local musicians. I didn’t put together a top ten list, but some of my favorites were Mark Mulcahy’s “Possum in the Driveway,” an album that was nine years in the making and found the singer-songwriter trying out some new sounds. Henning Ohlenbusch has been making music on the local scene for many years, but his latest “Sneaking up on the Moon,” recorded with his band, Gentle Hen, is an excellent collection of pop-rock tunes that may be his best work yet. Then, there was newcomer Abbie Morin, who records under the moniker Hammydown. Her debut collection of garage pop called “Pizzaface” was a pure delight.

This year of political unrest wasn’t ignored by the music community. There were many area shows that were benefits for groups like the ACLU, while a couple of singles including “Tyrants Always Fall” by the Nields and Abe Loomis’s “Refugees are Welcome Here” put a hopeful spin on current issues.

We have to wrap up our discussion here by paying tribute to some of the musicians we lost in 2017. In January, blues great/sound engineer Art Steele was killed in a car accident in Sunderland. Steele was a presence in the area’s music scene for decades.

As was Ras Jahn (John) Bullock, a member of the Alchemistic, Loose Caboose and longtime organizer of the Charlemont Reggae Festival, who passed away in April. In June, J. Scott Brandon, bass player and founding member of the popular band The Drunk Stuntmen, died following a brief illness.

Most recently, in December, we lost Danny “Monster” Cruz of Greenfield, who died of complications from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Cruz was leader of the innovative band Flaming Dragons of Middle Earth. A strong presence in the local music scene, many knew Cruz from the weekly open mic sessions that he held at the Brick House in Turners Falls for 10 years.

All of these musicians will be missed.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at: soundslocal@yahoo.com