March 2, 2016
By Johnny Memphis
Academy of Music
When I entered the vestibule of the Academy of Music, Humphrey Bogart was standing in the corner. Bogart was dressed in a white tuxedo jacket like he was waiting for Ingrid Bergman to show up at his Casablanca café. Bogart was frozen, not because someone just opened the wooden double doors, but because he is a mannequin who serves as a suave totem for the 125 year-old Northampton theatre.
For many years after the Academy stopped showing movies, Bogie was bored and lonely in the lobby, but now the theatre is back in the game. Signature Sounds in Northampton is booking shows there as well as Dan Smalls Presents from Ithaca, who have John Sanders as a talent buyer and partner. Sanders knows the area well since he lived here and worked for the Iron Horse Entertainment Group for many years. Thursday night Dan Smalls presented Lone Bellow at the Academy, Friday and Saturday night it was the Signature Sounds Backporch Festival featuring Los Lobos, Peter Rowan and many more. Sunday it was the Arts Council’s Really Big Gong Show featuring a dancing goat and a woman who walked on Champagne bottles. It was quite a weekend for the Academy. The place was bustling and soon to sport a spiffy, redesigned Pulaski Park on its arm. Humphrey looked pleased.
Roy Sludge Trio
Friday night the Roy Sludge Trio performed a honky-tonk happy hour show at the Parlor Room as part of the Backporch Festival. Sludge is a rockabilly retro-naut from Boston with a clear, deep voice and a resume dotted with Beantown bonafides like Barrence Whitfield, The Spurs and the Tarbox Ramblers. With the bespectacled Mr. Sludge on acoustic guitar, Jimmy Scopa on electric guitar and Johnny Sciascia on stand-up bass the band had that early-Elvis, Sun Records sound on originals like “Too Drunk to Truck.” When you’ve got a hot lead guitarist and somebody thumping the dog-house bass like Sciascia (from Eilen Jewell’s band) you don’t have to have a drummer. Steady strumming the acoustic guitar gives that swish-tish backbeat of the brushes on a snare.
The Suitcase Junket
From the Parlor Room it was a brisk stroll up Masonic Street to the Academy of Music where Los Lobos was headlining the big Friday night show of the Backporch Festival. Opening the concert was The Suitcase Junket, aka Matt Lorenz, a Hampshire grad with a Rollie Fingers mustache who plays an electrified crappy guitar while sitting on a beat-up suitcase that doubles as a bass-drum and uses foot-pedals to hit household objects like a circular saw-blade with a baby’s shoe. He is a very talented singer, song-writer and slide guitarist whose piece de resistance is the soloing he delivers with buzzing, beautiful throat-whistling, like a bee circling a flower.
Expectations were high for the Los Lobos show and why not. This group of friends from East L.A. has been one of the best American bands for more than 40 years. I saw them on their first national tour in 1983 at the Rusty Nail roadhouse in Sunderland. Since then, they have played memorable local shows at Pearl Street Nightclub, the Calvin Theater, Celebrate Holyoke, the Pines Theater and the Green River Festival, but this was their first time at the Academy of Music.
When Los Lobos walked out on stage there was someone missing: Cesar Rosas, the goateed man in the sunglasses who sings, writes and plays rugged, left-handed guitar. That left David Hidalgo as the lone front-man. Late in the show Hidalgo answered the persistent “Where’s Cesar?” cries from the audience by saying enigmatically, “He missed the boat.” I later learned that the official reason was a “bad back.”
Los Lobos did arrive with guitarist/songwriter Louis Perez, bassist Conrad Lozano, sax/keyboards guy Steve Berlin, drummer Enrique Gonzalez, plus the peerless Hidalgo on guitar and lead vocals. The band played essentially acoustic instruments aside from Lozano’s electric bass and Berlin’s keyboard. Without Rosas the load fell on the gray-haired Hidalgo to carry the show and he was not 100 percent himself, mumbling something about a sore throat as the show began.
The concert opened with the obscure “Everybody Loves a Train” from the Colossal Head album. This would not be a greatest hits show. Los Lobos shows never are. This is a band that followed up their number-one, 1987 hit single “La Bamba” by releasing a Spanish language album of traditional Mexican music. Like Frank Sinatra, Los Lobos does it their way. Artistic integrity is admirable, but it sure would have been nice to hear some of their classics.
The band took a while to get rolling, which may have something to do with the fact they did no sound check whatsoever. Midway through things started to click on songs like “Saint Behind the Glass” and the show peaked with a great, extended version of “The Neighborhood,” as Hidalgo got the audience clapping and singing the refrain, “Thank you, Lord, for another day/ Help my brother along the way/ And please, bring peace to the neighborhood.” For the encore the near–capacity crowd was on their feet as Los Lobos launched into “Not Fade Away” the Buddy Holly song with the Bo Diddley beat that was popularized by the Grateful Dead. This segued into the Dead’s “Bertha,” a Los Lobos staple that included the amazed Suitcase Junket on vocals.
After the show, Los Lobos partied into the night, back-stage at the Academy. This old theater has a warren of narrow staircases and dressing rooms in the wings. It feels like you are inside a wooden submarine. Downstairs there is a communal space underneath the stage where Los Lobos held court, drinking beer and shucking oysters until they were kicked out for fear of going past midnight, Academy over-time, the witching hour.
Northampton Record Fair
Saturday afternoon I stopped by the Northampton Record Fair at Union Station, because you can never have too much music. It was a scene. Vendors lined the outer hall of the former train depot as sun poured in the windows. The glorious main room with its curving yellow brick walls and twenty-foot ceilings was jammed with table after table of record crates and customers of all ages. DJ Bongohead spun new wave cumbia as people flipped through plastic-sleeved recordings of yesteryear. I went looking for Peter Rowan albums since I knew I was going to introduce him that night at the Academy. I found a goofy “Peter Rowan and the Wild Stallions” Italian import LP from ’82, a little-known, perhaps best-forgotten chapter of his colorful career.
Then I located a mint copy of the classic Old and In the Way vinyl album from 1975, which featured Rowan on lead vocals on guitar along with other luminaries like Jerry Garcia on banjo and David Grisman on mandolin. This was the album that introduced me and millions to bluegrass. As I was contemplating the band caricature on the front cover, the record-seller man plopped a copy of Earth Opera’s first album in front of me. Earth Opera was a psychedelic Boston band that Rowan started with Grisman in 1967. Even though the first song on the album was the intriguing “The Red Sox Are Winning” I bought the Old and In the Way record instead. When I got home, I discovered that I already owned it. Oh well, you can never have too much music.
Peter Rowan and Mandolin Orange
Saturday night I was almost too late to the Academy to introduce Peter Rowan. This would have been the second year in a row I had done that. Last year I was too late to introduce Barnstar, because I thought the show started at 8:00 instead of the actual time, 7:00. The Friday night show starts at 8, why not Saturday? Luckily, this year I realized my mistake on the way to the show, raced down Route 9, found a parking spot and sprinted in the side entrance to discover that I had fifteen minutes to spare. I was almost early. As I enjoyed the graceful duets of opening act Mandolin Orange from the wings, Backporch impresario Jim Olsen informed me that Peter Rowan was suffering from a terrible sore throat. I introduced the bluegrass legend to the near sell-out crowd and sure enough Rowan could barely talk, much less sing. Somehow he soldiered on in a hoarse whisper, but it was hard to watch and so I ducked out the side door.
At this point I considered my Northampton nightlife options. I decided to check out the Bamboo Steamers at The Basement, which proved to be a wise move. No cover, no pretense, just a bunch of locals in a tiny, dark club knocking the stuffing out of their own garage pop nuggets like “Shadows on My Heart” and “Miss You Like an Eyeball.” Led by songwriter Don Singleman, the Bamboo Steamers are a potent, catchy cocktail of Ventures surf guitar, warped vocals a la Robert Smith (The Cure) with a Them-era Van Morrison vibe. Their rhythm section alone (Jimmy Gibbs driving the bass and Frank Marsh cracking the drums) should get a lifetime achievement award for meritorious rocking. When it came time to pass the hat I volunteered for the job and most of the Basement denizens were happy to fork over some dosh for the pleasure of hearing a band this good, this close.
Steep Canyon Rangers
The Basement was a bit loud for my eardrums, so I headed back to the Academy to hear a taste of the Steep Canyon Rangers, the final act of the Bluegrass night at the Backporch Festival. The Steepsters are rising stars of the bluegrass circuit who got a huge boost when they hooked up with comedian Steve Martin to be his backing band on record and in concert. These guys are polished pros, for better and for worse. Instead of gathering around a single microphone, they have custom ear implants for monitors, which is not very Bill Monroe. The music was tuneful and tasty and performed superbly, but the songs did not ring my cowbell.
Suitcase Junket (again)
Sunday morning I interviewed Suitcase Junket at the Parlor Room as part of the live broadcast of the Backporch radio show on 939 The River. Suitcase was really good at the Academy but his performance was even better in the cozy Parlor Room. Here is part of the interview as I remember it.
Me: “Singing ‘Bertha’ with Los Lobos at the Academy must have been amazing. How did that come about?”
Suitcase: “I was coming up the stairs from the basement hospitality and they were coming offstage before the encore. They asked me to do sing a song with them. They said, “How about ‘What’s Goin’ On’?” (pause for laughter) I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Then they offered ‘Bertha’ which was one of the first songs I ever learned.”
Me: “I saw you and David Hidalgo conferring onstage and then at one point you both laughed. What was that?”
Suitcase: “He said I should sing the last verse. I said, ‘How does it go?’ He said, ‘I’m not sure.’ I said, ‘Just give me three key words.’ We worked it out.”
Twisted Pine followed Suitcase Junket at the Parlor Room with a sterling set of songs. It was the best music I heard all weekend. This surprised me because I saw this young bluegrass quintet from Berklee College of Music last year and I was expecting mere Berklee virtuosity. This band has evolved from covering bluegrass classics to performing organic originals that were fresh and personal. It helped immeasurably that the sound was perfectly clear and balanced. The Sunday morning scene in the Parlor Room was so fine, one old guy in the audience came up to me and said, “I could give up church for this.”
The Really Big (Gong) Show
The only proper way to end this wild weekend of music was with the Really Big (Gong) Show at the Academy of Music, which is part of the Northampton Arts Council’s Four Sundays in February series at the Academy. “Gong” is in parentheses because the Arts Council got a cease and desist order from the Gong Show owners. They were gonged by the gong show, which is something to tell your grandchildren. For many years this community variety show was called the Really Big Show in honor of Ed Sullivan and I was the first person to portray Ed. At this year’s show I was in the balcony helping to launch balloons over the railing during the “Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine” sequence featuring Steve Martin. (Steve Martin from the Young at Heart Chorus, that is.) Steve Westfield, the devil-may-care host of this year’s show reminded me of my show biz demotion, saying, “You’ve gone from being Ed Sullivan to a guy tossing balloons from the balcony.” Hey, I’m happy to throw balloons.
Here is 40 seconds of Suitcase Junket performing live on the radio Sunday morning, February 28, 2016 from the Parlor Room in Northampton, Massachusetts.