Saturday September 22, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- In a region quick to recount key points in its cultural heritage, there’s a major episode in the Berkshires’ performing arts history that bears more telling. Some of the memories have inevitably grown hazy, but there’s a movement afoot to preserve and protect the history of Music Inn -- the live music venue (among other attributes) that straddled the Stockbridge/Lenox town lines for 30 years beginning in 1950.

On Sunday evening at 7, a Music Inn reunion convenes at the Guthrie Center, featuring food and drink, rare memorabilia and photographs, archival concert recordings, and a live performance by the reunited Good Friend Coyote, a local band who played the Inn during its last decade but haven’t performed together in about 30 years. It’s also a chance for the experienced to share stories, and newcomers to learn more about a under-celebrated chapter of music history.

"It was the last outpost of Woodstock counterculture," says David Rothstein, who nowadays owns a lodge and restaurant in Sheffield but helmed the Inn in its last decade, bringing a dizzying list of headliners to the Berkshires, including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, The Band, The Kinks and many others. "Music Inn was about the audience. People just showed up, it almost didn’t matter who was playing that day. It was about being together, among the counterculture."

The site is now occupied by the White Pines condominium development. A plaque listing most of the bands who played there is posted inconspicuously on a tree.

Rothstein and other Inn veterans, plus some newcomers who’ve become entranced by the place’s somewhat mysterious legacy, have stepped up their efforts to preserve this period of Berkshire history.

A dazzling, comprehensive documentary covering the Inn’s first decade was produced in recent years, and planned as the first in a trilogy documenting Music Inn’s history. But its release is stymied by the high cost of securing the music rights for theatrical or DVD release. (Rothstein says it will take about $200,000 to clear the rights, a sum he and his collaborators, including director Ben Barenholtz, ostensibly did not anticipate.)

Facing that roadblock, the effort went online. A Web site launched as clearinghouse for archival materials related to the Inn throughout its history, and a Facebook page serves as a gathering space for old friends and anyone with some Music Inn stories, photographs, or other history to share.

"I’m a self-proclaimed live music junkie, and the whole story of it just really intrigued me and pulled me in, in so many ways," says Lynnette Najimy, who remembers hearing stories about Music Inn as a teenager but never went herself. "I realized we have this unbelievably legendary venue that so many people didn’t know about. I saw there were so many people who are passionate about it still."

Live recordings

Another recent development is the emergence of live recordings from Music Inn, available on the subscription website Wolfgang’s Vault. Sets from fourteen artists are now available there, including Joan Baez, Randy Newman, Weather Report and Bonnie Raitt. There’s even a sizzling performance from 1973 of traditional folk delivered at breakneck speeds by Good Friend Coyote, the only local band whose Music Inn recordings have surfaced.

Colorful concert promoter Don Soviero bridged the Barber and Rothstein eras, transitioning from the venue’s original focus on clubby jazz and scholarly inquiry -- including the short-lived Lenox School of Jazz, which featured luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and John Lewis among its faculty -- to a more mainstream forerunner of the summer amphitheater model that came to rule the market.

Lee Everett, who helped fix up the grounds of Music Inn in 1969 when Rothstein and partners purchased it and inaugurated its third incarnation, quickly studied up on its history and was surprised by what he found.

"I just was very intrigued by what a great place it was and all the great musicians that came through there. I just was captured by the history," he says.

Everett became an in-house photographer and graphic designer at Music Inn. Some of his rare photos will be on display Sunday, and his photos and drawings from the period can be found on the online archive.

Rich history

The musical history is rich. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and legendary folklorist Alan Lomax gave the first house concert in 1950, and a series of musicological roundtables led by Columbia professor Marshall Stearns heralded a breakthrough in scholarly treatment of African-American cultural heritage. Launching a year before the more famed festival in Newport, a concert series effectively became the first summer jazz festival in the United States. From Ornette Coleman’s participation as a student of the school, just weeks before his legendary debut in New York City, to Louis Armstrong’s repeat performing engagements, the eye-popping anecdotes abound.

Rothstein cites general burnout, changes in the concert industry, and competition from more professionally minded promoters -- not to mention continual complaints from town officials -- as reasons the Inn finally shut its doors in 1979.

"It just go to be where the old concert structure [was gone], it was no longer laid back. It was big time, it was unwieldy. And that really wasn’t what we were about."