A pretty good run: The Iron Horse turns 40 

  • The Nields, who come to the Iron Horse Saturday, Feb. 2, have played the club over 50 times, Nerissa Nields (on right) estimates. Younger sister Katryna Nields is on left. Facebook photo

  • Folk/blues guitar picker and singer-songwriter Chris Smither of Amherst plays the Iron Horse Feb. 8 & 9. Photo courtesy Iron Horse

  • Irish laddies We Banjo 3 blend traditional Irish tunes and bluegrass for what they call “Celtgrass.” They make their first apperance at the Iron Horse Feb. 6. Image from We Banjo 3

  • Marcia Ball brings her blues-soaked piano and voice to the Iron Horse Feb. 11. Photo courtesy Iron Horse

  • Singer-songwriter John Gorka has been a regular at the Iron Horse since former club owner Jordi Herold took a shine to him in the mid 1980s. Image courtesy John Gorka

  • Two-time Grammy winner Rickie Lee Jones will ring in the Iron Horse’s 40th anniversary on Feb. 24. Image courtesy Rickie Lee Jones

  • Veteran troubadour Tom Rush, who emerged from the Boston folk scene of the 1960s, has been a longtime Iron Horse performer. He plays Feb. 23.  Michael Wiseman/Courtesy Iron Horse

  • The Valley Women’s Songwriter Collective plays at the Iron Horse; they’re among thousands of artists to perform at the club over the years. Gazette file photo

  • The Iron Horse will mark exactly 40 years in business on Feb. 24. Gazette file photo

  • A new poster for the Iron Horse celebrates the club’s 40th anniversary and some of the upcoming acts that will be part of it. Image courtesy Iron Horse

  • Singer-songwriter Richard Shindell, who plays the Iron Horse Feb. 22, has been part of Cry Cry Cry with Dar Williams and Lucy Kapkansky. Image courtesy Richard Shindell

Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2019 3:34:32 PM

The Iron Horse Music Hall has been a downtown Northampton staple for so many years that it’s easy to forget exactly how long it’s been around: nearly four decades.

On Feb. 24, when veteran pop/jazz singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones takes the stage at the Center Street club, the Iron Horse will mark 40 years to the day that co-founders Jordi Herold and John Riley opened a modest, 64-seat coffeehouse and acoustic music venue for the first time.

Herold and Riley didn’t know how many people might show up that day. But describing a memoir he published a few years ago, “Positively Center Street,” about his years with the club, Herold recounted that he and Riley counted 265 rings on the cash register by that evening, while near-panic spread in the kitchen as the small staff scrambled to meet a deluge of food and beverage orders.

“We were pulling girlfriends and wives to help wait on tables at night, and pulling milk crates out of the alley from the recent milk delivery because there was no place for people to sit,” Herold told the Gazette at the time his book was published. But he also thought, “Oh my god, we touched a nerve.”

Indeed, the club soon became ground zero for a growing local music scene, though it’s changed much since those days. The Iron Horse expanded twice in the 1980s, to 85 and then 170 seats, becoming a busy stopping point for musicians moving between Boston and New York. A steady stream of up-and-coming performers — Wynton Marsalis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, 10,000 Maniacs, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin — made appearances.

The club also became home to a variety of music, though it built a particularly strong reputation in the late 1980s and early 1990s for its folk/acoustic lineup. As well, it hosted a growing number of bands and artists from abroad, such as Richard Thompson, the great British guitarist and songwriter.

Herold sold the club in 1994, and the new owners struggled with the venue; it closed for a while in 1995, before Northampton businessman Eric Suher bought it later that year and reopened it (Herold returned at that point to work for about nine more years as the club’s booking agent).

In the last several years, the Iron Horse has also had to weather competition from some newer venues, like Northampton’s Parlor Room and Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. A few musicians have also complained publicly about the club’s aging backstage facilities (club staff have said they are upgrading those quarters).

Yet the Horse continues to offer a variety of music, both from older acts and newer ones, which impresses Nerissa Nields, lead songwriter and co-vocalist of The Nields, the Valley folk duo she and her sister Katryna started in the early 1990s. “Not many clubs could keep going for so long,” said Nields, who believes her group (at one time a five-member folk/rock band) has played the Horse over 50 times: “It’s definitely home to us.”

And veteran blues/folk singer-songwriter Chris Smither of Amherst says the Iron Horse reminds him of the old folk clubs he first started playing back in the 1960s and 1970s: “I like that the music comes first at the Iron Horse. The staff and the audience always make me feel good. There's a great energy that flows through the room, probably because the audience is packed in, and you can tell the crowd is eager.”

Jim Neill, marketing director for the Iron Horse Entertainment Group (IHEG), which includes the Calvin Theatre and Pearl Street Nightclub, says staff began planning for the 40th anniversary a year ago, developing a “wish list” of over 100 artists to draw from to play during the big month. Part of the focus was on what Neill calls “perennials” — musicians with a long history with the club — as well as new acts that he says “could be the next generation of perennials.”

The lineup for February reflects that theme, with Iron Horse stalwarts like The Nields, Chris Smither, rollicking blues pianist Marcia Ball and others coming to play. Neill says he’s also excited about the Iron Horse debut, on Feb. 6, of We Banjo 3, an Irish group that plays a high-energy mix of traditional Irish, old time, and bluegrass music; the band calls it “Celtgrass.”

“We’ve always catered to a really big demographic, and that’s still the goal as we move into the next decade — keep offering the kind of variety of music we do,” he said.

Here’s a snapshot of what’s on tap for February, beginning Friday evening at 7 p.m. with a show by a longtime Iron Horse favorite, Aztec Two-Step, the folk-rock band.

The Nields, Saturday, Feb. 2 (full band show) — Nerissa Nields recalls “nagging” Herold for a gig when she, her sister and original guitarist David Jones formed the first incarnation of The Nields in the early 1990s; they were living in Connecticut at the time. In June 1992, she says, Herold gave them a slot — an unpaid one — and the band plastered the area with posters, performed at an open mic in Northampton to generate more pre-show publicity, and “We treated it as this breakthrough opportunity, and we completely packed the joint.”

That sold Herold, she says, who had The Nields open for a couple established folk names, Cheryl Wheeler and Vance Gilbert, then gave them their first solo show in Feb. 1993. “We just fell in love with the Iron Horse,” says Nields. “Looking out at the candles on the tables, feeling the energy of the crowd — it felt like a magical place.”

She also praises the club’s sound — The Nields recorded a live album there later in 1993 — and she’s seen many other artists perform while she’s been part of the audience. The next-generation Nields now play the Horse, too: Saturday’s opening act will be rockers Kalliope Jones, which includes Amelia Nields Chalfant, daughter of Katryna Nields and guitarist Dave Chalfant; in addition, Nerissa’s daughter, Lila, will join The Nields on some songs on her fiddle.

Chris Smither, Feb. 8 & 9 — Smither, who believes his first gig at the Iron Horse was likely in the early to mid 1980s, has been touring since last year in support of his most recent album, “Call Me Lucky,” on which he offers his trademark fingerpicked guitar and gravelly vocals. The songs, including some imaginative covers, also reflect the acclaimed singer-songwriter’s droll wit, his search for meaning and a frank look at mortality (he’s now 74).

In an email, he said “I've got a special fondness for the Iron Horse because it's where I met my wife. As for playing there all these years, the Iron Horse is one of my favorites not only because of the spirit and the audience but also for the fact that it is still around. That means something. It's got a history that you can't beat. It's nice to be part of that history.”

John Gorka, Feb. 10 — John Gorka built a steady following in the mid to late 1980s, earning recognition from Rolling Stone in 1991 as the “leading singer-songwriter of the new folk movement.” Herold was an early champion of him and his razor-sharp images, such as a key line in “Vinnie Charles is Free,” a portrait of an ex-convict: “Most of the weight that he gained was in his eyes.”

In an email, Gorka said he first played the Iron Horse in 1985, when it was half its current size, and he says he’s been continually drawn back to the club for its good sound, its welcoming atmosphere and its sense of history: “Looking at the walls, you see all of the pictures of those who have played there. That music is still embedded in the walls.” 

Marcia Ball, Feb. 11 — If any musician can get you up and dancing, it’s Marcia Ball, the Texas-born, Louisiana-raised pianist and singer whose music embraces a range of styles: boogie-woogie, R&B, Zydeco, New Orleans blues. The winner of numerous awards, such as the 1998 Blues Music Award for Contemporary Female Vocalist of the Year and Best Blues Instrumentalist (keyboards), Ball, another longtime Iron Horse performer, won another honor last fall when she was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame.

Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, Feb. 21, Richard Shindell, Feb. 22, and Tom Rush, Feb. 23 — Speaking of music from Louisiana, Grammy winner Beausoleil is considered perhaps the top Cajun band in the world, blending elements of many kinds of music — jazz, blues, Tex-Mex — with their fiddle-based sound. Richard Shindell and Tom Rush, meantime, long ago established their bonafides on the singer-songwriter circuit. Rush traces his roots to the Boston folk scene of the 1960s and has been a mainstay at the Iron Horse for years, says Neill: “He’s played here 19 times since 2000 alone.” 

Rickie Lee Jones, Feb. 24 — Two-time Grammy winner Jones won widespread fame with hits like “Chuck E.’s in Love” and a number of albums in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over the years, the singer and songwriter has explored a range of sounds, including jazz, blues and electronic music; she’s also covered songs by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and other rockers. “We had filled a lot of our slots [for February] but hadn’t done the actual anniverary,” said Neill. “But then we were able to get Rickie Lee for the 24th, and we’re thrilled.” 

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For a full list of Iron Horse performances for February, visit iheg.com.

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