Northampton landmark to celebrate 30th anniversary
By Craig Harris
Special to Reminder Publications
Special 30th Anniversary shows:
The Tannahill Weavers, Feb. 18, $17.50 adv., $20 door
CJ Chenier & Red Hot Louisiana Band, Feb. 20, $12.50 adv., $15 door
The Pousette-Dart Band, Feb. 21, $15 adv., $18 door
Greg Brown, Feb. 23 and 24, $35 adv., $40 door
Leo Kottke, Feb. 25 and 26, $30 adv., $28 door
Fred Eaglesmith, Feb. 27 and 28, $25 adv., $30 door
The Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton
For further information, call 584-0610
Northampton was much different 30 years ago. Despite the influence of Smith College, it was still a small town of independently owned hardware and stationary stores. That changed with the opening of the Iron Horse Music Hall in February 1979, and its nearly non-stop presentation of great music since.
"The Iron Horse is an oasis, for sure," Jim Neill, marketing director of the Iron Horse Entertainment Group (IHEG), said, "an anchor that you know is going to be there. There's almost a guarantee that there's going to be a certain level of culture."
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the club will be presenting an amazing array of top-notch musicians during February. "When we saw that the anniversary was coming up, we realized that we should do something special," Neill said. "We went back through the files and pulled out a wish list of names. We whittled it down to the people who were available and came up with a pretty solid lineup."
The schedule reflects the eclectic vision that has made the Iron Horse one of the most respected venues in the United States.
Scottish folk-rockers, the Tannahill Weavers, will be appearing on Feb. 18. Zydeco accordionist/vocalist CJ Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band will be ushering in the Mardi Gras season on Feb. 20 with popular '70s soft rockers, the Pousette-Dart Band, taking the stage the next night.
One of three artists, along with guitar wiz Leo Kottke (Feb. 25 and 26) and Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith (Feb. 27 and 28), who'll be performing on two nights, Greg Brown has a long association with the Iron Horse.
"When I first came east," said the Iowa-born singer-songwriter who performs at the Iron Horse on Feb. 23 and 24, "my first three gigs were at Passim's [in Cambridge], the [now closed] Folkway [in Peterborough, N.H.] and the Iron Horse. That was my whole tour."
The Iron Horse has come a long way since Brown first played the club in the early 1980s. "It was much smaller then," he recalled, "about half the size."
The inspiration that led to the opening the Iron Horse was sparked during a trip that Jordi Herold, a junior high school teacher in Amherst, took to England in the late-1960s. "He visited the caf s," Neill said, "and saw people baking bread and writing poetry. People were playing guitars. Incense was burning."
Guided by that vision, Herold rented a store in Northampton and opened the Iron Horse as a caf and not specifically as a music venue. After radio station WRSI went on the air, establishing a market for acoustic and roots music, Herold began booking local folk musicians into the club.
"People who played Passim's in Cambridge were aware of Northampton," Neill said. "They'd come out to play and flesh out the routing on a New England tour. It grew from there."
When the space next door, which had been a feminist bookshop, became available in the late-1980s, Herold rented it, knocked a wall down, put up a loft and doubled the capacity of the Iron Horse.
"Performers now had a proper stage," Neill said, "instead of setting up in the window, which is where you'll now find the ticket taker."
As the reputation of the Iron Horse grew, artists began making the club a mandatory stop. "It became as important a part of a tour's routing as Cambridge, Boston or New York," Neill recalled. "With the fans here, artists discovered that this wasn't a backwater town. People knew their music."
Herold sold his interest in the club in the early-1990s to a couple of Hampshire College students who lacked his business sense and were unable to keep the club going. Closed for almost two years, it was resurrected after being purchased by attorney and real estate investor Eric Suher. "He saw this club," said Neill, "and he couldn't imagine Northampton without it. He didn't buy the building but he bought the business. The club is now under his jurisdiction."
With Suher leading the way, Iron Horse Productions has grown into a conglomerate of three music venues, with shows also at the Calvin Theater and Pearl Street. "The Calvin Theater is a place where we bring in larger artists," Neill explained. "Sometimes, artists who play the Iron Horse graduate to the Calvin. Pearl Street is in-between the other two, in terms of capacity. We're able to bring in three tiers of artists."
Since the opening of the Iron Horse, audiences and performers have grown together. "People are now seeing their fifteenth or twentieth show by an artist," Neill said. "It's not just a one-time thing. They realize that they've been friends all of this time. When artists come to the Iron Horse, they let their guard down and relax. They know the crowd is pulling for them."
The Iron Horse has continued to grow. In recent years, indie-rock and up-and-coming bands have been presented following the sit-down dinner shows.