A little hay makes way for a lot of music at Hancock Shaker Village
PHOTO GALLERY | 1910 Barn at Hancock Shaker Village
PITTSFIELD — On the uppermost floor of the 1910 Barn at Hancock Shaker Village, a small pile of hay occupies a corner of the wooden structure. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem; the hayloft usually contains plenty of dried grass. But in one day's time, this space will play host to the first musical performance — a concert by Grammy Award-winning artist Dom Flemons — in the museum's history. The Friday show will open the Shaker Barn Music series, a six-concert homage to American roots music and the Shaker tradition.
"A little polish and a little lighting, and we'll be able to make music," said Maribeth Cellana, marketing and communications manager at the Hancock Shaker Village, as she led me up a creaky, winding staircase moments earlier.
"Little" is the operative word. While Cellana and other museum officials have great expectations for the series, those yearning for a night filled with the glitz and glamor of a large concert venue should look elsewhere. Wooden, backed benches will provide most of the seating; shipping crates from The Andrews Shaker Collection will form makeshift tables and a bar; and hanging bistro lights will glow inside as fireflies twinkle over the meadow behind the stage later in the evening. As a result, the Shaker ethos of authentic experience will be on full display, according to Karl Mullen, the museum's music curator.
"It's going to be a real honest musician on a simple stage doing what they do best without too much amplification. It will still look like you're in a barn because we want the experience to be authentic and real. It's not a Broadway show," Mullen said
Maintaining the barn's look and feel is essential to the staff, including president and CEO Jennifer Trainer Thompson. When she assumed her position in January of 2017 after 28 years as a leader at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, she made bringing music to the outdoor history museum a priority, especially once she set foot in the 1910 Barn.
"We have to have music in this barn," she recalled thinking at the time.
Trainer Thompson then reached out to Mullen, who had been operating a concert series of his own in a barn on the property of his Williamstown residence. Mullen had moved to Berkshire County several years earlier after serving as the music director of World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, Pa., part of a more than 30-year career as a curator of sound.
"Where we live has a little barn, and it's funny: Once you're a booking agent, it's almost--it's hard to get out of the business because the phone keeps ringing, and I kept saying to everybody, `I don't have a venue.' And they're like, `Couldn't you do a house call?'" Mullen said.
Mullen began holding concerts in the 50-seat barn during warm months and at The Williams Inn during the winter, drawing artists such as Sean Rowe and bands such as The Guggenheim Grotto.
Now moving to a bigger barn — the 1910 structure, with its rectangular floor split into thirds by wooden beams that support the joists of its pointed ceiling — can fit 200 spectators. "The barns, particularly from that era, are almost made like churches. They've got the vaulted ceilings, so it's a great construction for sound. The sound bounces off and comes back down, and acoustic instruments in a wooden situation work extremely well," Mullen said.
Though the curator said the museum's choices for the series, which will also feature folk-rock artist Sarah Lee Guthrie and banjo player Tony Trischka, represent a wide interpretation of root music, an acoustic folk sound will be central to most of the shows. Mullen has long been a fan of the series' first performer, Flemons, who co-founded the African-American string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, that won a Grammy in 2010 for its album, "Genuine Negro Jig."
"Dom is just a wonderful artist, a musicologist; he's brought a new interpretation to rural music and to the banjo and is a great, great entertainer," Mullen said.
Flemons has achieved widespread acclaim for his versatility as a singer, songwriter and musician. According to his website, he currently plays the guitar, banjo, fife, harmonica, bones, drums and quills, and his lyrics are infused with historical perspective, perhaps one of reasons he was invited to play at the opening of Washington's National Museum of African American History and Culture in September of 2016.
A local folk band — Long Journey — will open for Flemons. Mullens is a member of the group along with Amrita Lash. He said other Berkshire artists are booked to open throughout the summer.
"That's part of our mission, so to speak, that we want to give opportunity to the Berkshire music community," Mullens said.
On Friday night, Hancock Shaker Village will join that community.
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