My Teenage Stride tore it up at the New England Popfest in Northampton this weekend. We played at a club called The Elevens. Last October, the Popfest was held at the Eagles Club, further down Pleasant Street toward I-91. The Eagles Club was little better than a grange hall: candlepin bowling and pickled New Englanders sitting in a downstairs bar, and twee indiepop kids rocking in an unadorned upstairs room with a drop ceiling.
But they had an elevated stage, good lights, and, it turned out, an excellent sound system. Approached from the street, The Elevens looks like the spare room of an adjacent horrid Irish pub. Inside, though, it is more like the Stone Pony: an area away from the dancefloor for equipment, a nice lounge, a well-situated sound booth, good monitors, good mics, and plenty of places to plug in. From fancy restaurants to Fenway Park, every place in New England seems to be built of thin wooden planks that have been painted green. At Drunky McSwiggin’s, or whatever it was called, we watched Mike Timlin throw a few crucial ground balls. Crowds of indiepop fans, a bit intimidated by the bar, pressed their little bespectacled faces up against the windows. The Red Sox are not twee, but it is twee to be a Red Sox fan. Around the corner, at Pearl Street, a long line of locals hugged the curves of the sidewalk; across Main Street, singer-songwriter fans crowded into the Calvin for a early show. Closer to Smith College, a wino with an acoustic guitar (not Sufjan Stevens) banged out songs about Connecticut to bewildered passersby. Northampton is singing. This is the time of the season for parties. By Thanksgiving, Northampton will be positively polar, and even the diehard professional protestors out by the Farmers Market will have to take their No Blood For Oil signs inside. But the music will continue. I went to school in Western Massachusetts, and while that was by no means fun, Northampton was a semi-familiar lifeline for me. I remember seeing Richard Thompson and Robyn Hitchcock at the Iron Horse, where I had my first encounter with horseradish mustard, and taking the PVTA bus from Amherst to catch locals Caroline Know and The Vestrymen open a Pearl Street gig for Mike Watt. Once we’d turned twenty-one, my friends and I would drag our crappy equipment and our cassettes to the basement of Sheehan’s Pub, and we’d play as long as they’d let us. Each time we did, we’d come up with a different absurd handle for the act: Alter Benjamin, Paladin’s Chives, Zapf Chancery. Northampton never flinched. A decade later, we took the stage at The Elevens with slightly more confidence in ourselves, but with the same faith in Northampton audiences. Hilary surveyed the club and mentioned, again, how very easy and profitable it would be for some enterprising sod to open a comparable rock and roll performance space in Jersey City. And of course she is right – and I’m forced to entertain the question once more. What makes some towns music cities, and other towns music sinkholes? The folks who run this Popfest are affiliated with Skipping Stones Records, a Connecticut indiepop label. But they don’t hold their party in Hartford, or New Haven, or even Storrs. They make the drive up I-91 to the Pioneer Valley on the well-established pretext that there’s music in these mountains. In Hudson County, we do something similar. Uncle Joe’s aside, we’ve been taking our performances to Hoboken for as long as I can remember. We complain about the yuppies and the crowds of frat guys at Bahama Mama’s, and about the prohibitive real estate prices – and yet when we want to do an important show, there we are in Hoboken again. Maybe Joseph Condiracci and his band of First Street expats will manage to revive Uncle Joe’s somewhere in Jersey City. But until that or something like it happens, we’re actually worse off now than we were two years ago. Northampton, Massachusetts is no city of a quarter million: it’s a medium-sized, post-industrial college town that’s reinvented itself as a site of cultural interest. They’ve got a place to rock on every block. We’ve got zilch. You can’t blame the proximity of New York City. Hoboken is a PATH train ride away, too. And you can’t point the finger at our local ordinances, annoying as they are. Northampton – and Massachusetts in general – is one of the most overregulated places on earth, a town where they will slap legislation together in a heartbeat to outlaw anything and everything they can. We experienced this firsthand as we struggled with a ridiculous rule that prohibited us from reentering The Elevens after one in the morning – even to get our equipment. Northampton is further proof of something we all should know instinctively by now: petty rules and tightass elders cannot stop the rock. As long as there are places to play with regular slates of performances, no minor-league version of C. Dolores Tucker can lay a glove on an established indie music scene. Now, I can imagine townies becoming extremely annoyed with current Northampton. There are places to dance, but no hardware stores. There are upmarket restaurants and art galleries, but no corner bodegas. Walk a block from the red-brick Downtown, and the composition of the streets changes drastically – suddenly, you’re surrounded by big, drafty houses that exude that distinctive New England horribleness. There’s plenty of evidence that Northampton is a much better place to hang out than it is to live. But when the lights go down and the music starts, this Massachusetts hamlet I rejected way back in '94 has it all over my much bigger and much richer hometown.