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In Western Mass., a vibrant music scene gets a makeover

New rooms are drawing artists and audiences to Northampton, Amherst, and beyond

A crowd turns out for a performance by rapper Entellekt at the Drake in Amherst. The town’s first-ever dedicated music venue, with a capacity of 250, opened in May.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Before the pandemic, the Northampton area had a thriving concert scene. These days, well, same — but with a very different look.

It’s been 2½ years since concert halls nationwide closed their doors in the face of a global health emergency that many feared would permanently sink the live music business. Even amid the upheaval, several new venues have opened in Northampton and surrounding towns, while new ownership revived a Holyoke club that had gone bust in the first year of the pandemic. The result is that fans of live music have nearly as many options as they did before the coronavirus, spanning indie-rock, jazz, folk, world music, and more.


Yet the new venues are taking root in the shadow of three venerable, scene-defining rooms that have mostly gone dark. Though posters advertising bygone concerts still paper the windows, the Iron Horse Music Hall hasn’t hosted a show since March 2020. Pearl Street Nightclub nearby held a handful of concerts in the fall of 2021, but there’s been nothing this year, while the sparse calendar at the Calvin Theatre leans hard on tribute bands. All three are part of Iron Horse Entertainment Group (IHEG), a company that had dominated the Western Massachusetts concert scene for nearly 25 years.

Leaves and debris gather in the ticket window of the now-closed Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

“There’s been such a shift in the market,” says Jim Olsen, who opened the 100-capacity Parlor Room 10 years ago in the same downtown Northampton building that houses Signature Sounds, the folk-oriented record label he started in 1995. “When we opened, there was nobody taking on IHEG in any meaningful way for national touring acts. Obviously, that’s shifted over the last few years, but they had a stranglehold on the market and now to see it just disappear, it’s just bizarre.”

It’s also significantly reshuffling the Western Massachusetts concert scene as new places to see live music spring up to fill the holes in the market. One, Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in the Florence section of Northampton, about 2½ miles from downtown, opened in October 2021 in a converted 1861 church. With a capacity of 330 in the church sanctuary, Bombyx has focused on small international artists like the Mexican folk singer Silvana Estrada, regional American roots music including Louisiana guitarist Sonny Landreth, and folk. To insulate itself from the unpredictability of the live music business, Bombyx also hosts workshops, rents rehearsal space to performance groups, has a professional kitchen for catering, and is home to two religious congregations and a day care.


Mexican fusion band Son Rompe Pera perform at Northampton's Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity, which opened in October 2021 in a converted 1861 church. Julian Parker-Burns

“We’re not reliant on any one thing, so this project can continue for the next 150 years,” Cassandra Holden, one of the cofounders, said during a September meeting with state and local officials and community groups.

Another new place, the Drake, opened in May in a shuttered restaurant in Amherst, about 8 miles from Northampton. With a capacity of 250, a high-end sound system and a Steinway grand piano donated by Amherst College (along with a six-figure sum to help pay for renovations), the Drake is the town’s first-ever dedicated music venue. Though the pulverizing Amherst-based indie-rock trio Dinosaur Jr. opened the Drake, the calendar runs more toward smaller touring acts playing jazz, funk, R&B, blues, and folk, as well as nights dedicated to local musicians.

“At the moment, we’re trying to do really new and original music and try and stay away from becoming like a cover band place,” says Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, who set up the nonprofit Downtown Amherst Foundation to run the Drake. “We really want to have a lot of diversity in genre. It’s a place where anybody can feel like they’re meant to be there, whether it’s Dinosaur Jr. or Regina Carter, or you know, Suitcase Junket.”


Meanwhile, 10 miles south of Northampton in the center of Holyoke, Race Street Live has been hosting indie-oriented acts including Built to Spill, Shakey Graves, Soccer Mommy, and Guided by Voices under the guidance of John Sanders. His company DSP Shows leased the venue in Gateway City Arts, a converted factory complex, in April 2021, four months after the 500-capacity music room closed. Sanders spent 15 years as a talent buyer for IHEG before leaving in 2015 to become a partner in DSP Shows. The Ithaca, N.Y.-based promoter was booking concerts at Gateway City Arts before the pandemic, as well as in Northampton’s 800-capacity Academy of Music Theatre, and across New York state.

Rapper Entellekt performs at the Drake in Amherst.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

“It was not on my radar that anybody was going to open a room in Western Mass., let alone a bunch of rooms in Western Mass.,” Sanders says. “It’s very interesting to see how it’s all going to play out with Race Street, with Bombyx, with the Drake, with Hawks and Reed,” a 400-capacity venue in Greenfield, 20 miles north of Northampton. There’s also the new Marigold Theatre in Easthampton, a former cinema on the main drag 5 miles southwest of Northampton that now bills itself as a cabaret and cocktail bar with a capacity of 175.


Operating a music venue can be complicated at the best of times. Opening a new one in a pandemic comes with additional obstacles, including difficulty hiring enough staff and grappling with how COVID has changed the concert habits of many music fans.

“People have learned to get really comfortable on their couches over the past three years, and risk calculations about going out are really different than they ever were,” says Kyle Homstead, a cofounder of Bombyx who worked at the Iron Horse in the ‘80s and ‘90s before starting an IT job. He resumed producing concerts in the area in 2016 as Laudable Productions.

Though Bombyx, DSP Shows, the Parlor Room, and the Drake have each established their own niches, and have collaborated on joint bookings, competition is another potentially tricky turn they’ll have to navigate.

“It’s a lot of venues that are similar sized, going after some of the same stuff, which is going to be hard to sustain in Western Mass.,” says Sanders.

The new venues are all players in a live-music scene that was evolving even before the pandemic. For a stretch in the early 2000s, Northampton was among the most vibrant secondary concert markets in the Northeast. The city was a regular tour stop between Boston and New York, in part because it boasted three venues of ascending size for artists to grow into: the Iron Horse (170 capacity), Pearl Street (700 capacity), and the Calvin Theatre (1,355 capacity). Also, with five colleges nearby, including the flagship UMass campus, there was a continually regenerating audience of students and recent graduates. Since then, Northampton has faced greater competition from other small New England cities that have developed into desirable places for musicians to play.


“Since I started doing this in ‘99 or 2000, Burlington, Providence, Portland, New Haven have all grown into these really strong secondary markets,” Sanders says.

New venues have also opened in major markets, including Roadrunner and MGM Music Hall in Boston, which dilutes the necessity for musicians to play in smaller places between their big-city dates — if they’re even allowed to. Contracts between promoters and musicians often include a “radius clause” that prohibits artists from playing rival concerts within a certain distance and amount of time before or after a booking: 100 miles and three months, for example.

“There’s just more places to play in cities these days, and I feel like that has just made the secondary markets less important,” says the Parlor Room’s Olsen. “You see touring artists just skipping over the secondary markets and maybe playing two or three nights in a row in Boston or New York.”

DJ REC (Carlos McBride) provides a Saturday night soundtrack at the Drake in Amherst.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

These days, if Northampton is less likely to land gigs by the “hot new thing,” in Olsen’s words, the region continues to attract developing artists, such as the indie-rock band Wild Pink or singer-songwriter Al Olender, established musicians whose local audiences are the right size for the available venues, and veteran performers like Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, or the Indigo Girls, all of whom DSP Shows booked to perform over the summer in the outdoor Pines Theatre in Northampton’s Look Park.

“We still live in an amazing place for live music, given the size of the market,” Olsen says. “On any given night, there’s a bunch of things going on, and it’s great. However, you might have to drive to Easthampton or Amherst or Brattleboro. It’s not like here in Northampton, where everything was in walking distance, which is really what happened in the early aughts.”

Iron Horse Entertainment Group was the dominant live music promoter in Northampton in those days. Now, the future of IHEG is the big unanswered question looming over the local concert scene. At the moment, the company is without a talent buyer following the departure in March of Brendan Leith, who now books concerts for City Winery Boston. Leith says he doesn’t know what IHEG owner Eric Suher has planned for his venues.

“I can understand both how challenging it would be to reopen an operation of that scale after 2½ years of being closed, and also why there would be an interest in taking on those challenges to try to reimagine the venues for what is a very, very different landscape,” Leith says.

The facade of Northampton's Iron Horse Music Hall, which hasn’t hosted a show since March 2020. Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Suher didn’t respond to phone calls, text messages, and e-mails seeking comment. He got his start in the music business as a teenager in the ‘80s selling T-shirts for the band NRBQ, before launching a screen-printing business in his native Holyoke in 1984. He was 30 when he bought the Iron Horse in 1994, 25 years after it first opened as a coffeehouse with occasional music. He added the Calvin Theatre in 1996 and Pearl Street in 1998. Though the Iron Horse leases space on Center Street, the Calvin and Pearl Street buildings are among more than 40 commercial and residential properties in Northampton that Suher owns through an array of LLCs. His holdings in town are valued at nearly $32 million, according to state and local records. He also owns property in Easthampton and Holyoke, including Mountain Park, a largely dormant outdoor music venue that was most active for a stretch in the early 2010s.

Suher told Fortune Small Business magazine in 2005 that he hates selling properties he has bought. That outlook has made him a controversial figure in Northampton, where several prime storefronts that he owns downtown have sat vacant for years. IHEG has also been the subject of labor complaints from employees. In 2021, the state attorney general’s office fined Suher $100,000 stemming from a 2019 complaint accusing him of failing to pay workers on time and having no sick leave policy. (He settled this year for about $39,000 in penalties and restitution for 74 employees, without admitting wrongdoing.) In September, a union representing stagehands at the Calvin Theatre filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Suher of unfair labor practices after they say he abandoned contract negotiations in July.

The sparse calendar at the 1,355-seat Calvin Theatre in Northampton leans hard on tribute bands these days.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

In an unrelated action in August, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, a performance rights organization, sued the Calvin Theatre in federal court in Springfield for copyright infringement, claiming that Suher has failed to pay royalty licensing fees since April for songs performed in the venue.

Reopening the IHEG venues would affect the realignment of the local concert scene by adding more competition for bookings, other promoters say. On the other hand, IHEG wouldn’t necessarily sit atop the pinnacle of live music in Western Massachusetts if it resumes full operation.

“The Valley has moved on from him,” Olsen says, referring to Suher. “There’s so much ill will around his business practices and the way he’s let things go that at this point, it’s kind of unimaginable to see him coming back.”

Though it would be a shame to permanently lose the venues that helped make Northampton a concert destination, maybe the time is right, says Homstead.

“It’s just part of a changing diet,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that there’s some great venues that are dark. But it’s created this opportunity for a whole bunch of other things.”