Pop music: Building upon gains of 2010

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Yes, it remains hard for the ravenous live music lover to survive on Berkshire shows alone. But when you extend your radius to about an hour in any direction -- opening up fruitful destinations like Albany, Hudson, Northampton, and even the still-under-noticed Infinity Hall south in Norfolk. Conn. -- it really is possible to stay very busy with a satisfying variety of quality pop music acts.

This year saw a continuation of gains made in 2010, even if few wholly new breakthroughs. The year 2010 saw the full opening of the new Helsinki Hudson; the first season at the new, outdoor Mountain Park venue in Holyoke;

and, of course, the first Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCa. Each of those venues and events continued to make a big impact on the live music outlook this year. And regionally spawned summer festivals like Bella Terra strengthened their foothold in the summer season, though I sadly was not able to attend and so cannot report upon them.

On a smaller scale, we did start to see increased offerings for local bands, which is an encouraging sign. Flavours of Malaysia continues to book a coterie of familiar, local bands. Meanwhile, also in Pittsfield, Shiro has experimented with live jazz; Brulees has emerged as a notable live venue (with a big Thanksgiving eve concert leading the way); new club Chameleons has regularly booked live music; the Marketplace Café has broken in a Thursday night music series; and the Colonial Theatre has begun Thursday night shows in its spacious lobby. Restaurateur Jim Benson continues to be a wild card, staging word-of-mouth shows, bringing in Uncle Tupelo co-founder Jay Farrar to play the Compu Works loft, and booking the Colonial Theatre for big, multi-act shows during the Word X Word Festival. The Dreamaway Lodge brought in local music fixture Kali Baba McConnell to book a rotating series of weekly residencies, each lasting a month in duration.

So if the lineup of headlining talent at the major venues continues to be frustratingly erratic, there is a growing infrastructure of small nights and residencies on the bar and small-club circuit.

Theater bookers are in a tight spot -- bigger artists, even ones whom the available budgets can support, often play Northampton shows that come with restrictions about promoting other dates in nearby venues. But one senses there is still an over-reliance among some on programming for "their audience," though results continue to argue that the Berkshires can be a destination spot for pop music fans, as it is for patrons of theater, art and dance. If you book it, they will come.

Just ask fans of -- to cite well-attended Berkshire shows in recent years -- Indigo Girls, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Ani Difranco and band, Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Karen O and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And that doesn’t even count acts like Wilco (yay!) and Train (ack!), who have introduced thousands of fans to Tanglewood, providing the BSO an opportunity to do what it so sorely requires: build audience among younger music fans.

Live music highlights from 2011 span all different styles, in venues throughout the region, at concerts that were much anticipated as well as decidedly low key. Here is a list of five favorites. It doesn’t even mention thoroughly winning efforts by Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival; The Decemberists (Mountain Park); The Feelies (Mass Moca), Jake Shimabukuro (Infinity Hall), Brad Mehldau (Ozawa Hall) and, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, They Might Be Giants.

1. Solid Sound Festival (Mass MoCA, North Adams)

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Again, as with last year, the year’s premier musical event was, hands down, the Wilco-headlined festival in North Adams. This year’s lineup was even more compelling, with two full Wilco shows, sets by Thurston Moore and Levon Helm, and a series of delightful pop-up sets within the galleries. Playing amid a torrential downpour on the festival’s first night, Wilco roared to the occasion. A special bonus was the live debut of several new songs, all of which were culled from the highly regarded album to be released a few months later. Bandleader Jeff Tweedy sent signals that this may become a periodic, rather than annual, occasion -- we’ll take what we can get, but there’s no doubt the Berkshire live music world is boosted immeasurably by this event. Please, sir, may we have some more?

2. Club d’Elf with John Medeski (Helsinki Hudson, Hudson, N.Y.)

The Cambridge, Mass.-based ensemble features rotating members and a burbling cauldron of sound that filters fusion-era Miles Davis through a distinctly Moroccan prism. With longtime collaborator Medeski on hand, they blazed through two sets of music that remained high-intensity even when it dropped from funky explosions down to meditative deep grooves.

3. Mike Gordon (The Egg, Albany, N.Y.)

Count me among the jaded oldbies who have trouble finding a fresh sense of inspiration in the recent work of Phish. But the band’s bassist has discovered he can also get his musical kicks with a tight band that features Gordon originals, unexpected covers, and the occasional Phish-related number. This show featured a monster first set that likely created many a true believer.

4. Lyle Lovett (Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington)

This marathon show played out like a story, with moods shifting and an internal sense of drama leading toward an encore in which Lovett spontaneously played a solo rendition of "Penguins," by the not-so-subtle request of an audience member who placed a stuffed penguin toy onstage. Combining grand musical gestures with intimate asides like this, Lovett proved a master bandleader and a great showman.

5. Wesley Stace, aka John Wesley Harding (Shawn’s Barber Shop, Pittsfield)

As part of the Word X Word Festival, the amiable Stace showed up in his guise as a witty novelist. But he embraced his better known musical persona, alternating readings from his work with performances of songs that inspired or related to the prose. In these intimate environs, with perhaps twenty audience members, it was one of the very special moments of the festival and a musical highlight of the year.


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