Northampton Saturday Night

The term “music town” has its obvious examples. Nashville, Austin and the place the term was coined for, New Orleans, all come to mind. Truth be told though, New Your City is the world’s greatest music town, but there’s so much else going on here, that music tends to get lost, being just one facet of the cultural life of the five boroughs.

A lesser known but no less active music town is Northampton, Massachusetts. A textbook definition of a very large small town, NoHo has that most essential of music town ingredients: a fairly large group of people, between the ages of 25 and 65 who are trained—dedicated is a nicer word—to going out to see live music. The collective brain power of the immediate area really helps that process. With Smith College, Hampshire College, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst all within easy driving distance of downtown Northampton (Smith is literally a five minute walk), there is a critical mass of the intellectually inclined—not to mention hardy young party people. There is also a strong music tradition there in what’s called “The Pioneer Valley” with Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Buffalo Tom all living there or having formed there. It’s also the home of Stereophile Contributing Editor David Sokol, his lovely wife Janis and their two amazing offspring, Michael and Jessica, all of whom I consider to be family.

As it has since 1979, the venerable Iron Horse club is at the center of the music scene in Northampton. Other than the bathrooms which are just this side of being declared a Superfund site—but then the horrendous bathrooms at CBGB are now lamented as being lost history so go figure—the Horse, which began as a folk club, remains the best place in town to see live music. These days the Iron Horse is also a part of Eric Suher’s Iron Horse Entertainment Group (IHEG), a mini-empire of sorts that also includes Pearl Street (an indie rock club), The Calvin Theatre (beautifully restored movie theater), The Basement (a smaller performance space under Pearl Street) and the Mountain Park Amphitheatre located just south of Northampton. Suher deserves thanks for keeping live music alive in such grand fashion in Northampton. Of course because he owns so many venues, Suher often ends up competing against himself which was the case last weekend when I began my night at Pearl Street watching and listening to The Snaz, a band of sassy high school girls from Brattleboro, Vermont led by singer/guitarist Dharma Ramirez, who have been to SXSW in Austin and have recorded their debut, Running Away From Home. It’s an old song, sung many times, but the new energies that women have brought to rock ‘n’ roll in the past decade or so is almost incalculable. These girls were a blast to watch. They had a room full of teenagers (age limit was 18 and up) bouncing around the big room that is Pearl Street. One weirdness was the security at Pearl Street which was rude, invasive and way over the top. I had one security dude go through the contents of my wallet. Never experienced that before.

Instead of seeing the Brooklyn funk ensemble, Turkuaz, who have quite a following in Northampton, and who were playing after The Snaz, we headed to the Iron Horse to see local buzz band, Lux Deluxe. One inviolable rule about successful rock bands is: you gotta have a frontman. Lux Deluxe has obviously taken that to heart as Ned King (pictured above) is what one might call a “live wire.” Bouncing around the stage, striking various lead vocalist poses, wearing a scarf tucked in his belt and what can only be described as gaiters, he proceeded to expend gobs of energy; singing and dancing and adding electricity to the band’s performances. Lux play an energetic version of pop music, one heavy on grooves and audience participation and one heavily influenced by Western Massachusetts legends, NRBQ. They’re a band that make people smile, and today or any time really, that constitutes a rare form of success. Their latest record, It’s a Girl, while not a pristine recording by any means, will give you a fair idea of what their joyous expressions are all about. These guys are oh-so-ready for prime time.

And did I mention that almost all the clubs in Northampton are a block or two apart. A music town indeed.

Photo By Lyle Hawthorne

Littlefire 1974's picture

Thank you for nicely capturing the flavor of our wonderful overachieving town! I feel very fortunate to call the Pioneer Valley home.