Preserving an era of Northampton’s music scene: Local organizations interview musicians and plan performance showcasing the Bay State Hotel venue

  • The Maggies  Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • The Maggies  Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • Members of the Drunk Stuntmen Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • An 1896 photograph of the Bay State Hotel, a hundred years before the location would serve as a loc al music hotspot during the 1990s and early 2000s.  Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • The Bay State Hotel. Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • The Bay State Hotel. Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • A staircase at the Bay State Hotel. Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • Mal Thursday  Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • Mal Thursday  Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • The Figments performing at the Bay  State Hotel in October 2000.  Seth Kaye Photography

  • Mark Mulcahy performing at the Bay State.  Seth Kaye Photography

  • A lamp at the Bay State Hotel. Seth Kaye Photography

  • The Stone Coyotes Seth Kaye Photography

  • Mark Morrison  Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

Staff Writer
Published: 1/17/2020 9:51:59 AM

The Bay State Hotel was a Northampton music venue on Strong Avenue that many described as a dive bar with a smoky atmosphere, a lackluster sound system and no stage.

But despite its shortcomings, from 1992 to 2002 the Bay State Hotel was a home base for local bands, a mainstay for touring groups and a place where eclectic disparate music scenes converged. Many musicians played at the Bay State, whether that was J. Mascis, frontman of Dinosaur Jr., Mark Mulcahy of alt rock band Miracle Legion, Silvertone guitar playing folk rocker Ray Mason or bands that have since disappeared into the cobwebs of local music history.

During the past two years, Dylan Gaffney, a local history/ arts and music archivist at Forbes Library, along with other members of the archive team such as senior library assistant Jill Emmons and young adult department assistant Callie Sieh, have been working to preserve this local slice of music history at the Bay State Hotel via interviews with Bay State era performers, bartenders, workers and concertgoers, in collaboration with Northampton Open Media.

“There was this necessity to capture these stories now because we’ve lost a lot of people from the community,” Gaffney noted, adding that within the past several years musicians such as acoustic blues artist Ed Vadas, rock drummer Teri Morris of Tizzy and Scott “Bow Bow” Brandon, bassist for the Drunk Stuntmen, have died.

Gaffney added that part of the Bay State archivists’ mission is to capture the oral stories of recent music history.

“The memories fade and also we lose people,” Gaffney said.

On February 23, the work of the three Forbes Library archivists will come alive on stage with “Back to the Bay State,” which will reunite local bands such as psychedelic pop band The Aloha Steam Train, as well as weave video elements, live music and onstage storytelling by now Texas-based musician/podcaster/writer/editor Mal Thursday, who frequently performed at the Bay State Hotel.

Steve Sanderson, event producer for the Northampton Arts Council, said the showcase will be a collaboration between the Arts Council, Signature Sounds Recordings, Forbes Library and the Academy of Music, to recreate the stories and music of the 1990s and early 2000s Northampton music venue for a wider audience.

“The Bay State had thousands of artists through it over the years and it housed so many different scenes,” said Sanderson, who himself played at the Bay State Hotel with local rock band Drunk Stuntmen. “There were so many different types of music that flourished at the Bay State … It was home base for the Valley music scene as far as I’m concerned.”

Sanderson said other artists/bands who’ve been confirmed to be performing the show include J. Mascis, members of Drunk Stuntmen, The Maggies, Mike Flood, The Lonesome Brothers, Mark Mulcahy performing his solo material, Steve Westfield (Pajama Slave Dancers, Beige), The Figments, Mike Ruffino of the Unband, country rock band The Stone Coyotes and Flower Thief, one of the female-led rock bands of the 1990s western Massachusetts music scene.

“We’ve got quite a good crew coming and tons of archival footage,” he explained. “The stories are going to just be intense and awesome.”

As part of the Bay State reunion, musicians who have since left the Pioneer Valley will be returning to play mini sets, which will also give the archivists at Forbes an opportunity to further interview musicians who now live across the country and in some cases, across the world, Gaffney said.

David Newland, production coordinator with Northampton Open Media, started shooting interviews a little more than a year ago alongside the Forbes Library archivists.

Newland said although he never attended a show at the Bay State, from his work filming interviews, he believes that the former Northampton music venue was encouraging to younger and new artists to help them grow.

But Gaffney said former venues such as the Rusty Nail in Sunderland (which burned to the ground in late July 1985) and Sheehan’s in Northampton, a venue that closed around the same time the Bay State Hotel was starting, paved the way for the Bay State.

“Mal Thursday applied for an Arts Council grant and what he received allowed for regular shows at the Bay State, which he called the Bay State Cabaret,” Gaffney explained.

Emmons said oftentimes music was happening four or five times a week with three to four band bills, as well as regular open mics.

In the early days of the venue, some of the most popular acts were alternative country band Scud Mountain Boys, indie rock band Sebadoh, Stone Coyotes, Tizzy, as well as noise/ indie rock band New Radiant Storm King, Emmons and Gaffney, both of whom attended shows at the Bay State.

Gaffney said the first Bay State interview for the archive was Mal Thursday in 2017.

“And then we start ramping up last year with doing more interviews,” he explained. “We’ve interviewed 20 people so far. We have another 30 we’d like to do. It was really designed as a long project.”

As part of their archival work they’ve compiled hundreds of cassette tapes of bands that have played at the Bay State as well as articles, arts weekly covers, and handmade flyers for shows, some of which are one of a kind. Dan Richardson, a former sound person at the Bay State who continues to run sound at shows in the Valley, also recorded many shows during that era directly off the soundboard (from 1993 to 1995), which has proved invaluable to archive, Gaffney said.

“We’ve pretty much digitized all of those,” he said, adding that in the future the group hopes to preserve these mementos and artifacts from the Bay State online.

Another end result of that project will be a documentary film on the Bay State Hotel, he added. As part of the February 23 show, there will be a teaser trailer screened for the film.

“There’s a remarkable amount of people from that scene who are playing music, who are playing out,” he explained. “That’s one of the more interesting things about the project is to see how many people continued even though there wasn’t necessarily money to be made or accessible venues. The scene has changed so much, but people are still going out there and playing out every week, every month, on weekends when they can find time.”

Some of Newland’s favorite interviews were with Ray Mason, who has been performing music in the Pioneer Valley since the 1960s as well as Steve Westfield, who spoke about the raucous atmosphere of shows with audience members shouting and throwing drinks at the band (all of which were a part of the show).

“It’s been really cool to hear about this powerful community that existed in that space and kind of still does with the Reanimate the Bay State shows happening,” Newland said.

Reanimate the Bay State is a weekly Thursday local music show that books everything from louder rock bands to intimate acoustic singer-songwriters at the Sierra Grille (which is located in the former Bay State Hotel building).

On a recent Thursday, Philip Price (a former member of the Maggies, which played at the Bay State in its heyday) and Henning Ohlenbusch (a member of Aloha Steamtrain and a former Tuesday open mic host and sound engineer for live shows at the Bay State), we’re both getting ready to perform their solo material as part of Reanimate the Bay State.

Sitting at a table at the Sierra Grille before their sets, Price and Ohlenbusch reminisced about how much the venue has changed during the past several decades, whether that was the removal of the iconic red curtains around the former venue or the interior changes to the bar and front entrance.

“It was the dive bar and the scene for a while,” Price said, with both adding that it was smoky and the venue wasn’t known for its food.

Ohlenbusch said during the days before cell phones were common, the Bay State was a place where friends would often meet up at the end of the night.

“For whatever reason it was mostly songwriters that came to it,” Ohlenbusch said of the weekly open mic night. “Occasionally people would play covers, but it was mostly people who wrote songs and would come and try out their new songs. You’d have all of this feedback from your friends. It was a good way to work on new material.”

Price said he hopes to reunite his band The Maggies for the February show at the Academy of Music. The band, which got its start in New Hampshire, first played in Northampton before moving to the Pioneer Valley.

“Northampton was kind of like the musical mecca and the Bay State was the center of that,” he explained. “That’s how we viewed it. We’re talking 1993, 1994, and so we really tried to get in and play shows down here. And it was a big deal — ‘We got a show at the Bay State!’”

Chris Goudreau can be reached

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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