Celebrating Northampton’s historic Bay State Hotel

  • ”Hotel Massachusetts” album art by Eric Talbot. Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 3/18/2021 10:02:34 AM

Many would say that the 1990s were the heyday of the local music scene, a scene that seemed on the verge of exploding when a 1993 cover story in Billboard magazine hailed Northampton as “the next Seattle.” The success of bands like Dinosaur jr, Pixies and Buffalo Tom, all of whom had ties to the area, may have been what led to the publication's interest in the area.

But they were right to take notice of Western Massachusetts because there was an abundance of great bands and a whole lot of rocking going on. (Of course, it was indie rock, which was then called alternative rock, or maybe it was college rock — hard to remember back that far.) The hub of the local scene where all these bands played was the Bay State Hotel, a smoky dive of a club in Northampton. The Bay State was a rowdy place where anything could and did happen. Call it Northampton’s answer to CBGB’s if you will. The club was loved by musicians and fans alike and in the years since its closing in 2001, it has become the stuff of local music legend. 

The club was home to Mal Thursday’s performance series Bay State Cabaret, which he hosted and programmed from 1992 to 1995. Thursday, who is also a musician and was the owner of the indie record label Chunk Records, released a compilation CD called “Hotel Massachusetts” in 1994 that showcased the bands that were a part of this scene. Earlier this month, Thursday, who now resides in Austin, Texas, released a deluxe digital/two-CD reissue of “Hotel Massachusetts” that features re-mastered versions of all the original material as well as an additional 26 tracks. Thursday refers to the additional material as the long-awaited volume two. In 2010, Thursday launched Chuck Archives Recordings and this release is part of that project. (His original Chunk Records label closed in 2001.)

Thursday said the album was put together quickly as a way to promote Chunk Records and the Bay State as a mecca for touring bands. Groups like Arthur Lee & Love, Built to Spill, The Chesterfield Kings, Flat Duo Jets and many others that made tour stops at the Bay State.

So why did he decide to reissue “Hotel Massachusetts” over 20 years after its release?   

“I decided to reissue this album now because I finally have the original artwork by Eric Talbot,” wrote Thursday in a recent email exchange. “I would have released it sooner, but I didn't have the artwork. I knew that I wanted to do a second volume as well and that came together fairly quickly. I really like the second disc. So many great songs, and they span the years 1992 to 2001, whereas the original disc was all '93-'94.”

I still have a copy of the original CD but hadn’t listened to it in ages, and it was great to go back and revisit these songs and to hear the remastered versions. Listening to this collection, I was reminded how many good bands there were at that time and also that a heavy, sludgy guitar sound dominated so many of them. You will likely recognize names like Steve Westfield, Angry Johnny and the Killbilles the Ray Mason Band, New Radiant Storm King and Sebadoh, who all enjoyed a long and lasting presence in the area and beyond. 

But dig a little deeper and check out the bands that are long gone — the fierce but catchy music of Miss Reed (“Believe You Me”), the hard- driving rock of the Unband (“Your No Boy Wonder/Nothing You Can Do”) and the edgy vibe of Tizzy (“Miss America”), one of the few female-fronted bands on the compilation. 

Another highlight of the original set is an early stripped down version of “Skull,” by Sebadoh  one of the strongest tracks off the band’s Bakesale album and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Good Advices,” a short, raw song by the Silver Jews, the band of the late Dave Berman, who was a regular while a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This song concludes the first disc.

The second disc is a welcomed addition and may even be better than the first. While the music here falls under the indie rock banner, there’s more here with different genres blending into the indie sound, from the psychedelic influence that seeps into the work of the Aloha Steamtrain (“Last Week”) to the countrified sounds of TreeFort (“Trina”).

This disc opens with a demo from SPOUSE called “Welcome To the Bay State,” a short blast of a song that is a perfect introduction to his disc. Spouse would go on to dominate the local scene in the early 2000s, as did the aforementioned Aloha Steamtrain as well as The Ware River Club (“Knock on Wood”), King Radio (“DC-10”) and the Drunk Stuntmen (“Jesse James Dean”). 

Some other highlights are a pop-rock gem, “Skating,” by the Inskirts and the rousing rocker “Get Outta Dallas” by Thursday’s old band, The Cheetahs. There are a couple of quirky covers, The Preston Wayne Four’s (from Worcester) take on “Kumbaya” and the disc concludes with the wonderfully weird version of The Doors song “The End” by Raymond & the Circle.

At 51 tracks and 49 bands, “Hotel Massachusetts (Deluxe Edition)” is a lot of music and, fortunately, most of it is good — really good. This collection is a perfect time capsule of this bygone era, and you won’t find a better window into our local music scene as it was back in the 1990s. “Hotel Massachusetts (Deluxe Edition)” gives props to the many musicians who created this historical scene and preserves the work of some of these artists that would otherwise perhaps be forgotten. And there may be more coming, as Thursday has hinted at a third volume of both live and studio recordings if this disc is well received.

And the timing of this release  is right as ‘90s nostalgia seems to be all the rage. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the Bay State. Last year, a concert was held at the Academy of Music in Northampton called “Back to the Bay State” that featured performances by a number of the bands showcased on this disc. There is also a documentary about the scene by Northampton-based filmmakers Dylan Gaffney, Jill Emmons and Callie Sieh now in post-production.

And while the “Hotel Massachusetts (Deluxe Edition)” provides us listeners with a wonderful trip down memory lane, we have to wonder what compiling all this old material has been like for Thursday.

“It has been a trip to revisit this material. Besides the obvious nostalgia factor, I am struck by the quality of the music,” he said. “Our scene had an abundance of great bands, more talent per capita than any other region I can think of. I live in Austin now, and I don't think the much-hyped scene here produced as much good music in that period as Western Massachusetts.”

To get a copy of “Hotel Massachusetts (Deluxe Edition),” go to Bandcamp.com or visit malthursday.com. On Thursday’s website, you can learn more about his podcast, other recordings on Chunk Archives Recordings, and his new band The Mal Thursday Quintet. That band features members from various parts of the country, which he refers to as “camps.” The quintet’s new album, “If 6 Was 5,” is a collection of high energy rock tunes with a wide range of  influences that range from garage rock to surf guitar

The disc features valley luminaries Frank Padellaro (King Radio, Scud Mountain Boys) on guitar and vocals, Brian T. Marchese (Aloha Steamtrain, The Figments) on drums and guitarist Greg Saulmon (The Glad Machine). In addition, Grammy winner Augie Meyers and Bowie/Iggy drummer Hunt Sales appear on the disc. Do check it out.

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 soundslo cal@yahoo.com.


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