Big weekends bookend area's pop music offerings

It was a slow climb to the peak of the Berkshires' 2017 pop music performance schedule. But the pinnacle provided sounds that reverberated far beyond the county's mountainous terrain.

During a six-night span preceding Labor Day, Tanglewood played host to Sting, Diana Ross, The Avett Brothers, Pete Townshend and Melissa Etheridge. Sting, the bassist/singer/songwriter born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, made his Tanglewood debut by mixing songs from the Police and his solo career, including tracks from his latest album, "57th & 9th." The Eagle's late music critic Derek Gentile enjoyed the old tunes from the English rock group.

"The great thing about a lot of Police songs like 'Synchronicity' is that the Police incorporated a lot of call-and-response yodeling with the audience. It's a tactic that pulls everybody in fairly quickly and it worked here," Gentile wrote after taking in the 16-time Grammy award-winner's concert on Aug. 29 at the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

The next night, Ross not only dazzled with her hits, such as The Supremes' "Stop! In The Name of Love," but also, predictably, with her dress.

"It would be almost blasphemous to discuss a Ross show without cataloging her costume changes. She opened the show with a green-sequined evening gown with a huge green wrap for eight songs. As the band held the bridge in 'Love Child,' Ross slipped offstage and returned a few minutes later in a bright red gown. Eight songs after that, it was a slinky black number and for the last few songs, it was a silver sequined gown," Gentile observed following the performance.

Before Townshend's "Classic Quadrophenia" attracted 10,613 to Tanglewood, The Avett Brothers introduced themselves to many in the Berkshires. The concert wasn't among Tanglewood's 10 most well-attended performances this past summer, but the Southern folk rock band was one of the most famous groups to visit the county this summer. The band, once lauded for its stripped-down music, arrived in the midst of a transformation to a more pop-oriented sound. It played some songs from its latest full-length foray, "True Sadness," into that new territory.

A case could certainly be made that Tanglewood's previous holiday weekend flush — performances by John Mellencamp with Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter, Natalie Merchant and James Taylor — trumped its late-summer showcase. After all, Taylor's shows were the most popular of the summer, each drawing more than 18,000 people to the Lenox institution. And a rock star like Mellencamp sharing the stage with an acclaimed singer-songwriter (13 Grammy wins and 47 nominations) like Harris is a special night, indeed. Yet, in this completely unscientific hierarchy, the July 4th weekend concerts get docked for familiarity. At this point, Taylor is almost as common to Tanglewood as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And Harris has some Berkshires appearances to her name, as well. Unfair, I know.

There was plenty to see and hear before, between and after these two holiday weekend onslaughts, too. For starters, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art hosted alt-rockers Cake, who closed with the popular "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" and "The Distance," during the North Adams institution's Building 6 opening on May 28.

In June, the museum teamed with Wilco for another rendition of its biennial Solid Sound Festival. Paste magazine listed Wilco's opening night performance on June 23 as one of its 17 best live shows in 2017. As planned, the band started the night by running through tunes off of 1996's "Being There."

"Then, as a surprise, they played all of 2002's 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' for the encore. It was magical to hear those songs in order on a beautiful summer night in the Berkshires, and it set the tone for the fifth incarnation of an always-generous, never-dull weekend of music at Mass MoCA," Eric R. Danton wrote.

At The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on July 30, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra honored jazz legends while reminding spectators why Marsalis belongs to that storied bunch.

And during another sold-out show at the Mahaiwe, The Beach Boys delighted spectators with more than a few dozen tunes on Aug. 15.

"It would have been difficult to ask for much more," Gentile reflected.

The summer's end included Mass MoCA's annual FreshGrass festival. Headlined by alt-country star Brandi Carlile, the three-day homage to roots music once again merited its critical acclaim. Carlile's show at Joe's Field had feet stomping, while FreshGrass regular Sarah Jarosz's commissioned 30-minute song cycle, "The Blue Heron Suite," inspired rumination and appreciation among those huddled in the Hunter Center.

From a pop music perspective, the fall was quiet, though the Mahaiwe brought in Wynonna & The Big Noise and husband-wife tandem Thompson Square, among a few others. The winter preceding it was even sleepier.

With Bon Iver and Sylvan Esso already booked at Mass MoCA in the coming months, the Berkshires' pop music fever promises to be hotter in 2018's colder months. But Berkshires pop enthusiasts must venture forth without one of their beacons in Gentile, who died in November. I didn't know Derek well, but through his prose, I do know that the man was extraordinarily passionate about music. Even as the bands play on, his loss will continue to be felt.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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