PITTSFIELD — Music has always found a home at Hancock Shaker Village. 19th century Shakers composed thousands of songs as part of their devotional practices, the most famous of which, “Simple Gifts,” was popularized by Aaron Copland in his score for Martha Graham’s 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring.”
On July 1, Hancock Shaker's outdoor summer Back Porch Music concert series kicks off with Boston native soul singer-songwriter Ali McGuirk, followed on July 22 by the Americana roots of former Carolina Chocolate Drops band member Hubby Jenkins.
Harmonizing sister duo The Nields perform on Aug. 12, and award-winning Rhode Island banjo and fiddle player Jake Blount closes out the series on Sept. 2.
This is the village's sixth season of presenting monthly summer concerts.
“When I arrived in 2017, one of my primary goals was to activate the Village and help people understand the Shaker story in many ways. It seemed obvious that we needed to do live music — the Shakers wrote over 10,000 songs — so we opened up the 1910 hay barn and started having concerts," Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Hancock Shaker Village director, said during a telephone interview.
“I wanted to bring out Americana and Roots and folk music, and people who are rising stars,” she added. Many of the artists are from the Northeast.
Concerts continued each year, drawing 100 to 200 people at a time to the historic post and beam building. The pandemic, however, necessitated a change of venue.
“We were no longer able to have music indoors, so we moved to the [Laundry and Machine Shop] porch,” Trainer Thompson said. Audiences sat scattered at safe distances across the lawn.
In 2020, classical luminaries Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax performed a thank-you concert there for 50 essential workers; it was broadcast live on WAMC to half a million more listeners.
“We found it had an atmosphere that people loved — very casual and intimate,” Trainer Thompson said, “so we continue to use the Back Porch.”
If it rains, the concert moves back to the 1910 Barn.
Over the years, Trainer Thompson has seen links emerge between the artists who appear at the village.
One of this summer’s acts, Grammy-nominated Hubby Jenkins, played in two bands with Rhiannon Giddens, who in turn was part of last year’s “Climbing the Holy Hill” audio installation. Giddens’ earlier bandmate, Dom Flemons, played cow bones at a pre-pandemic concert “like maracas,” Trainer Thompson said. Additionally, Giddens succeeded Ma as artistic director of the Silkroad organization and international music collective.
“There’s a thread of connection between it all,” Trainer Thompson said.
The Nields are making a welcome return visit.
“Last time was the start of the pandemic when only a few people could come," she said. "They’re a hometown favorite, so I’m very excited about it.”
Curating the Back Porch Music series is Andrew Smith, events manager at Hancock Shaker Village.
“He’s found some great bands for this year’s lineup,” Trainer Thompson said.
Smith returned to his Pittsfield hometown last fall after a decade in Chicago, and is putting his lifelong interest in music to good use.
“I’ve been playing music since I was a little kid,” Smith said during a phone interview, “and I’ve been working with musicians for the past five years. Growing up here, I feel I have a pretty good sense of what draws people to the Berkshires.”
Smith describes the concert series as “good music, softer singer-songwriters, genres like folk and blues [that] really resonate with people in the area.”
“I think they will really enjoy what we have to offer,” he added. “Ali McGuirk has a wonderful voice, and writes really good melodies. She developed a following in the Boston area, and the Boston Globe compared her to Amy Winehouse, which is pretty high praise.
“Hubby Jenkins is a super talented banjo player, really knowledgeable about roots music. The Nields are Northampton legends, and they’re my mom’s favorite band. They’ve been [performing as a duo] for a couple of decades now, and have a really loyal fan base. They write music that is appealing to any age, not only adults, songs that are really catchy.”
The folk-rock pair are also prolific recording artists, with 20 albums to date.
“Jake Blount is a great musician, a wonderful banjo player. I was impressed even before I heard him about how much buzz he’s been getting. He was on a bunch of year-end lists in 2020, like the Guardian and NPR, and he’s been getting a lot of praise," Smith said.
A specialist in early folk music of Black Americans, Blount is also a founding member of Bluegrass Pride, which supports LGBTQ bluegrass musicians.
“We wanted to make an effort to book acts that are not just cis white guys,” Smith said. “In the Berkshires it’s important [to] have people of color and LGBTQ.”
According to Smith, the shows will be centered around acoustic performances, with little or no additional accompaniment.
“There is some diversity in the sound of all of these acts. Hubby and Jake have some pretty heavy early roots music, and Hubby is very tied to the blues. The Nields remind me of Alanis Morissette. Ali is more contemporary, really powerful soul music.”
“They have a lot of common ground in that they’re all really talented songwriters; and all seem to be masters of their craft.”
The enduring concert series has served several purposes, Trainer Thompson said. “It gave us live music, and activated the village at night when it’s so beautiful. Listening to music under the starry skies of a Berkshire night can be intoxicating.
“Fundamentally it’s another way to think of the Shakers, to think about their music. But it’s also another way to experience the village. I remember so distinctly the first concert, walking through the village afterwards by moonlight and thinking, this is what it was like to live here.”