Palpable disappointment swept through the local music world when Northampton’s Sierra Grille discontinued its “Reanimate the Bay State” Thursday night concert series in the fall of 2014.
So cue the theme from “Rocky”: the weekly shows have returned, celebrating the spirit of the Bay State Cabaret, the calendar-filling cavalcade of live music that sparked a storied scene at the Sierra Grille address back in the ‘90s.
The first concert is tonight’s triple-bill of Behold! True Believers, The Franklin County Sweethearts and Pronoia. Starting at 10 p.m.
The Thursday night concerts will be curated by Robert Robinson, a local musician (Connecticut River Band, Sore Eros) and experienced booker at a number of area venues.
He’s keeping the Sierra Grille concerts cheap — three bucks. He felt the positive results of the low cover charge firsthand when his old band played the Sierra Grille during its earlier reanimation: “Usually people would show up who didn’t even know who we were. They would just come and check it out.”
Robinson felt the same way as a music fan, looking for something to do on a Thursday night. “I realized no matter what show was going on there, it seemed to be interesting, and at least worth the three dollar charge.”
He already has the first two months fully booked, and the schedule includes new local bands like The Big Why, nationally touring indie acts like Pigeons and The Procedure Club, plus longtime Valley groups Bunwinkies and Frozen Corn.
Robinson has also been delving into Valley music lore, like local ‘90s label Chunk Records, run by Mal Thursday, whose “Bay State Cabaret” concerts first put the odd venue on the map.
“I wanted to do my research about the history of the original Bay State because I feel honored to have this opportunity to bring it back to life again,” Robinson said.
The February 9 show will bring together three bands with strong old-school Cabaret ties: Beige (the fun and unpredictable ska/dub ensemble led by Steve Westfield, also responsible for such life-affirming acts as Pajama Slave Dancers and the Slow Band), King Radio (featuring vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Frank Padellaro and multi-instrumentalist genius Dave Trenholm, who’ve been musical friends since their days in Miss Reed), and Half Ached (the latest project from Tom Shea, member of the Ray Mason Band and Scud Mountain Boys, who also rocked the old Bay State’s wallpapered walls with his band Hoolapopper).
Robinson, a native of Enfield, CT who’s lived everywhere from Los Angeles to Louisiana, moved to Northampton in 2008 and never got to see a show at the original Bay State. But he did get to play in the reanimated Sierra Grille space, which started its Thursday night shows in 2007, first booked by Mark Sheehan and later taken over by Candace Clement, Tessa Simonds and Erika Elizabeth.
This writer saw many a great show there during those years, humming with that old electric Bay State energy and community. Herky-jerky Boston band Pretty & Nice memorably tore up the place with frenetic sass. Clement and Simonds, big Fleetwood Mac fans, put together a tribute night so well-attended you could barely move, with inspired local bands rocking out Mac tunes for a sweaty crowd that sang along joyfully. Sheehan tracked down ‘90s home-recording legend Raymond & The Circle and got him to perform a rare set (his first in 12 years). Area musicians joined forces for an emotional tribute to Ray Neades — vocalist/guitarist, member of Miss Reed and Beefy/DC, big personality and one-time Bay State doorman — who passed away in December 2009.
Robinson had good memories of the Sierra Grille shows, too, so out of the blue he contacted owner O’Brian Tomalin, who agreed to meet and discuss the possibilities.
“I made sure I had everything prepared,” said Robinson, who immediately lined up a house sound man (Robert Ives, aka Robo, who ran sound during the first Reanimate era) to show Tomalin he was serious. “When I met up with O’Brian, he was in the midst of having his second baby and was busy, but at the same time, he was like, ‘You’re right, the town does need music, and I love music, so let’s try to do it again.’ He’s been super receptive.”
When Tomalin first brought music to his restaurant in August 2007, he said in an interview with Clubland, “I’ve described it before like ‘my parents are gone and I can have a party.”
Robinson loves the low-ceilinged Sierra Grille concert space for many reasons — good sound, musicians and audience in close proximity — but one of them is that he can still feel the Bay State spirit. “I’ve never had a bad feeling in that place. I’ve toured before, and [sometimes] you’re on a stage and nothing special’s happening, the vibe’s not there. The vibe is always there at the Sierra Grille. Even though it’s a fancy restaurant, in ten minutes it transforms into something different.”