A Show that Wasn’t… Two that Were

What’s better than a show by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives?

Two shows by the Mississippi-born keeper of the deep-country flame and his Nudie-suited crew.

Check this review at Hoke’s Jukebox of their January 31st show at The Egg in Albany and you’ll see why I was so excited to see them again in Holyoke on March 25. 

Well, that show and a meet-up with my old friend Dennis who leads the New Orleans Jazz Fest posse I joined in 2008 and co-founded the crew of music-obsessives who’ve met in 30-plus Adirondack winters to geek out on tunes together. One winter we moved our meet-up to Northampton and bonus’ed it with a Richard Thompson show at the Academy of Music, a Troy Music Hall-like temple of tunes.

A 30-year resident of that town so blue it’s positively indigo, Dennis is also a former Northampton Council Member, so he knows everybody, everything cool that’s happening, and even where to park in that town of ethnic eateries and plenty of music. 

I first met him and his artist wife Mary Ann at their wedding at Kenwood Academy on Albany’s far south side, where she and my wife Ellie became friends in high school. Doc Scanlon’s Rhythm Boys played their reception, featuring the original Doc, the late vibes player Richard Lainhart. So we go back.

Past pilgrimages there put me just a few feet from Richard Thompson at the cozy Iron Horse, with freezing rain white-knuckle drives two-plus hours each way – and well worth it. Daughter Pisie drove from Boston to meet me at a balcony table in the Horse for a celestially funky Amadou and Mariam Afro-beat explosion; downstairs I bumped into Mona Golub and Michael Eck, fellow hometown fans. When NRBQ united all its members at both the Horse and the nearby Calvin Theater, I caught both shows. And in Dennis’s driveway, I’d met ‘Q keyboardist/co-founder and leader Terry Adams to deliver a pedal steel I’d borrowed from Kevin Maul for my brother Jim to play in a four-show tour that started with rehearsals in Terry’s place near Northampton then roamed Vermont and New Hampshire. My travelogue-with-tunes tale on that run is at https://nippertown.com/2012/05/02/road-trip-four-days-on-nrbq-standard-time/.

But I digress.

Back to Northampton and nearby Holyoke for Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.

But, no.

The Bad News

Friday’s show was postponed by a tour bus breakdown. 

No wonder plenty of parking welcomed us at Race Street Live in Holyoke’s Gateway Arts complex of new creative, entertainment and hospitality spaces in a former electrical goods factory-like MASSMoCA in North Adams but with less art and more dining and drinking space. It was the only lit up, alive area in a faded industrial desert of big brick boxes; the epic work of Dennis’s friends Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta. Vitek came out from chef’ing in the kitchen at Judd’s restaurant to take us on an all-access tour everywhere including Race Street Live (where DSP presents shows) and the newer, smaller Divine Theater.

Vitek Kruta shows Dennis DSP Shows Race Street Live Schedule

Then Dennis and I rambled around trying to find live music elsewhere, but we found that Pioneer Valley section above what even half-embarrassed progressive locals call “the Tofu Curtain” surprisingly devoid of shows. The place seemed that night to be lagging far behind our Capitol District in live-music energy restoration. 

The closest we got to a live show was parking behind a battered small Ford pickup near Pearl Street (another place where I saw NRBQ). Two 20-something musicians, a man and a woman, climbed out and started unloading a drum kit, amps, guitar and bass and a keyboard. Dennis and I helped those music-kids roadie their gear up two floors by small elevator, then tote it all into a music-bar space. But they weren’t set to play for hours, so we bailed and headed to Dennis and Mary Ann’s nice big Victorian just off the Smith campus.

Dennis the Roadie

Even without live music, rambling around that Prius-intensive region, rich in cannabis shops and alt-everything, lifted our moods. So did first-class Indian food and bourbon sipping (Dennis is from Denver) and good, late talk. 

On Saturday the 26th, Dennis and I roamed around the Smith College campus a bit, mainly to see Maya Linn’s modernist (controversial, of course) addition to the venerable main library. Then we drove past Holyoke to Springfield’s museum complex. This impressive gallery-upon-gallery arts and history Mecca boasts five arts display spaces including one devoted to Dr. Seuss. 

Smith College Library

We headed first for the Wheeler Gallery in the D’Armour Museum of Fine Arts for “Front Row Center: Icons of Rock, Blues and Soul.” Photographer Larry Hulst‘s black-and-white look-back at notable shows around California from 1970 to ’99 sprawled through two rectangular rooms and along two corridors. His 70 prints spanned homegrown (San Francisco) giants including the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane plus touring artists who played there. 

Shooting from the audience, Hulst displayed a matador’s micro-precise timing in snapping moments of peak intensity, He caught performers in their most expressive movements and powerful poses including Jimi Hendrix far over the top, Izzy Pop sprawling shirtless and dazed-looking, Grace Slick in nun’s habit, early and late Grateful Dead, bluesman B.B. and Albert King calling the voodoo down. 

Maybe I’m spoiled by the superb music photographers here, and I recognize that enormous technical improvements in both photo technology and stage lighting now allow sharp shooting in even low light. So I  noticed that some of Hulst’s decades-old shots (likely on 400-ISO Kodak Tri-X) were less than sharp. But his pictures still felt compelling in their energy and the way those iconic figures resonate in the soul as well as the eye.

Walking from icon to icon, I felt a strange sense of echo. The images resonated with others I’d seen of those artists, both by other photographers and in live shows I’d seen myself. And I wondered about how that came to be. Do we photographers tend to shoot performers in ways we’ve seen others do? Do those seen-and-remembered images imprinted in visual memory govern our own shutters? Or do performers themselves create those echoes by moving and looking in characteristic ways; in effect, giving us those shots or shaping them? Or – and this seemed strangest and unlikeliest of all – do performers echo movements and looks they’ve seen in photographs of themselves?

These questions, still unanswered, swirled in my head as Dennis and I made our way to the Wood Museum of Springfield History for “Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville.”

But before we could head upstairs for that exhibit, a forceful/helpful guard directed or vectored us around the first floor to a car show about both Duryea autos made in Springfield and Rolls-Royces. Searching for more echoes, I recalled the pale green Rolls-Royce convertible that the late great New Orleans pianist, songwriter, arranger and producer Allen Toussaint – his plate read “PIANO” – had parked outside the Jazz Tent at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, the only time I met him. Yes, Dennis was there. But I digress.

Upstairs we wandered past gleaming rows of Indian Motorcycles, made in Springfield until 1953; then glass display cases packed with weapons, also made in Springfield. Then the sound of Charles Neville’s saxophone called us into a two-room display of artifacts, informative wall placards and a testimonial video on the prismatic life of the late Charles Neville.

Charles Neville at Green River Festival, July, 2016

Here, I’m going to let the gallery’s own website talk about him.

“Healing Chant” from their best-selling album Yellow Moon, earned The Neville Brothers a Grammy in 1989 for best top instrumental performance.

In the 1990s Charles moved to Massachusetts with his wife Kristin Neville and children. He continued to perform with a wide variety of musicians and members of his family, including his children, and he recorded albums with groups such as Diversity and the Songcatchers. His interest in Eastern spirituality was reflected in his 2008 album Buddha’s Palm. Charles continued to travel to New Orleans, especially to perform with his daughter, jazz and funk singer Charmaine Neville. Before a musical celebration of the Neville Brothers slated for November 2017, Charles was hospitalized with pancreatic cancer, which he died of April 26, 2018.

The Wood Museum worked with Kristin Neville to celebrate Charles Neville’s life and musical legacy with this exhibition of personal mementos, musical instruments, photographs, and, of course, his music. The Blues to Green Jazz and Roots Festival in Springfield, started by Kristin in 2013 with support from her husband, will celebrate its 8th season in August 2021, and Charles’s legacy will carry forward with the Charles Neville Legacy Project, a program which will bring acclaimed musicians of color into the Springfield public schools to teach history and literature while centering Black people and social justice.

Dennis recalled spotting Charles surprisingly playing a sparsely attended political fundraiser, standing modestly in the back. And he attended numerous shows and speaking appearances Charles presented around Northampton, always humble, always rich in memories and insights.

I recalled the exhibit title as the words brother Aaron Neville always used to introduce his older brother onstage: “Charlie, the horn man.”

A singular musician who survived drugs, Angola Prison, and exile on parole, Charles led a family band I caught at the Green River Festival in 2016 before he fell ill. Also on the bill, are NRBQ (the reason I went), Dustbowl Revival (a happy discovery I’ll be glad to see again any time), and Peter Wolf (now even more accomplished and interesting than in his J, Geils Band days). But I digress again.

The exhibit told me of a fascinating life by a supremely durable creative spirit; and it was fun to see close up the instruments he played, the all-access passes he wore, the drawings he made.

The video, however, is presented unfortunately in a narrow corridor where two soft benches, each long enough for a pair of viewers, face a wall-mounted screen. Passersby blocked our view at times, but the power of the music and of interview testimonials carries a powerful message anyway. Produced by Charles’s son Khalif, the production awaits funding for expansion into a feature-length film. It deserves that – Charles Neville deserves that – just as it deserves a more private, dedicated venue.

Originally aimed at a particular venue for a specific event, this Northampton pilgrimage brought me to other places and other experiences, in good company and with eye-opening results.

“Front Row Center: Icons of Rock, Blues, and Soul” runs through May 1, 2022; D’Armour Museum of Fine Arts Second Floor, Wheeler Gallery – https://springfieldmuseums.org/exhibitions/front-row-center/

“Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville” runs through August 28, 2022, in the Wood Museum of Springfield History – https://springfieldmuseums.org/exhibitions/horn-man-life-legacy-charles-neville/

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