PITTSFIELD — By way of introducing Providence-based Americana alchemists the Low Anthem before a word-of-mouth, outlaw show in the loft of a converted warehouse, Jim Benson wanted to make one thing clear.
“First off: this never happened,” the promoter and restaurateur said playfully, before the band played one of the more memorable Pittsfield shows in recent memory.
The Berkshires is known as a hub of performing arts on the more highbrow end of the scale: theater, dance, and of course classical music at Tanglewood. But the region lacks the larger clubs and theaters routinely drawing bigger touring bands to nearby Northampton on their way between New York and Boston.
Yet more and more, there’s music in the air here. As Pittsfield gets back on its feet, revitalizing its downtown and emerging from a series of economic shocks, the still-gritty city has become the best bet for someone looking for edgier fare.
Benson’s efforts have gone far, in a city where the opening of a downtown movie theater (the Beacon Cinema, in late 2009) was rightly seen as a milestone in the infancy of a dynamic night life scene. Even an ongoing songwriters’ showcase on Sundays and Wednesdays at Benson’s Mission Bar and Tapas, and a Monday night residency by the high-energy jazz/funk combo Wrba.Weiss Quartet, does much to enliven a city still getting reaccustomed to the idea of downtown barhopping.
He first brought the Low Anthem to town for a riveting performance in his tiny, 49-person-capacity bar in early ’09. Later that year, the resourceful promoter brought the band back to headline a show at Barrington Stage Company, amid the set of “Freud’s Last Session.”
“Jim takes care of the necessary details to make sure a show is great,” Low Anthem multi-instrumentalist Ben Knox Miller writes in an e-mail. “When you play for different promoters every night, nothing comes across more than effort, and shows in Pittsfield have always been special . . . visuals, people, sound. Much respect.”
Memories of the music scene in Athens, Ga., where he made an aborted run at a master’s degree in religion at the University of Georgia, came to mind as Benson looked for a way to keep his newly opened venture, Mission, afloat four years ago.
“You would walk into any run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant, coffee shop, dive bar, or theater and there was just going to be music. It didn’t really matter who was playing,” he says.
As part of the WordXWord (pronounced “word by word”) festival he founded, Benson last year booked troubadour John Wesley Harding (under his proper name, Wesley Stace) to alternate songs and fiction readings in a barbershop next to Mission. The same week, Albany-area songwriter Sean Rowe (freshly signed to Anti- Records) and Boston-based Session Americana played the burger joint across the street. He brought Uncle Tupelo founder Jay Farrar to the loft space — this time with all the paperwork in place.
Australian guitarist and songwriter Mia Dyson was another Benson find. Her weekly gig at Mission in May ’09, when she was just finding her way in this country, was extended throughout that summer due to packed houses.
“It was just such a beautiful atmosphere there, and really supportive people. At that time it was the most successful gig I was doing,” says Dyson, who returns to the venue on June 28. “I’m still not really sure why, except, obviously, Jim’s built a fantastic place that people want to go to.”
Perhaps Benson’s nostalgic memories of Athens are finding a Pittsfield echo when one can catch the homegrown jazz group Blue Light Trio in a weekly gig at sushi place Shiro, and then hop around the corner for a mix of regional jam bands and hard rock acts at Malaysian restaurant Flavors. For a period between ’08 and ’10, nearby Rebel Sound Records packed people in for punk bands like Screaming Females and the Menzingers, and indie popsters Cults.
After the demise of the record store, owner and punk/hardcore scene veteran Andy Poncherello began booking bands for new nightclub Chameleon’s. He taps into his deep network for upcoming shows like Agnostic Front on June 28, and legends Agent Orange and the Queers on Aug. 15.
“People are determined to bring their bands to Pittsfield. These smaller-level booking agents are desperate to find places for their bands to play that aren’t at Hot Topic, or a free show,” says Poncherello, who estimates he crammed a total of 400 bands into his two years of multi-band bills at Rebel Sound, but is not one to overhype the scene.
Last fall saw the opening of The Garage, a smaller performance space in the spacious lobby of the grand Colonial Theatre. Notable bookings have included Larkin Poe, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, and hip-hop group Brooklyn35.
Saxophonist Noah Weiss (whose band plays Mission on Mondays) schedules the space. He moved to the area in 2009 after graduating from music school, and has seen a big change even in that time period.
“This town just kind of experienced a regeneration. So there's a lot of new opportunities,” he says. “There’s interest in music — people want to hire musicians, and now there’s a culture developing around it.”