Music Notes for the Valley: A Tour of Local Venues

Contributor Henry Bontempo ’25 highlights the Pioneer Valley’s diverse music venues, showcasing how Western Mass. is truly a music lover’s dream.

Music Notes for the Valley: A Tour of Local Venues
The soon-to-reopen Iron Horse is featured on this comprehensive list of local music venues from Henry Bontempo ’25. Photo courtesy of Kelly Taylor on

With the rebirth of the Iron Horse, Amherst students will have yet another music venue at which to sate their pretentious little music tastes. Yet the Pioneer Valley may not immediately strike you as the sort of locale for a robust, national-tour-stop-worthy music scene. When I arrived at Amherst, I bore the unfortunate badge of having “just gotten into” concerts, as if they were a type of hat or obscure sub-subgenre of acid jazz. And I came here from New York, whose biggest concert offerings tend to seize hold of the adolescent popular consciousness (to which I can attest, being a survivor of the “Harry’s House” residency merch store). The scene in Western Massachusetts is different — there are hardly any stadium venues. The biggest acts are not liable to stop here and you’re best off seeing them in Hartford or Boston.

However, fortunately for us Amherst students, the Pioneer Valley has a hokey, rusticated-literati vibe that sits right with a whole lot of artists. It’s a garden of pastoral delights that isn’t overrun by billionaires. Musicians, especially those that tour a lot, seem to love it. At fall shows, anticipate at least five minutes of artist-audience back-and-forth over the foliage.

So nearby venues are fairly abundant and mostly cool. But don’t expect anything too big. The largest within evening-trip distance is the Symphony Hall in Springfield, which sits many more people than you think a symphony orchestra in Springfield might draw these days, which is to say enough people for Bob Dylan to trundle his soporific “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour right on through. It also seats enough to be the only venue in the area with well-and-true nosebleed seats, and I should know, because during that concert I was up there and could only make out a Panama hat rasping its way through a ten-minute song about finding God in the Florida Keys.

The most immediate venue is our very own The Drake, located just down South Pleasant Street atop the new calzone place and across from Antonio’s, the overpriced, non-New York pizza. Almost two years old, the venue benefits from having several hundred folding chairs on retainer, which means that it can either be a sedate sit-down-and-listen-to-someone-plaintively-pluck-a-stringed-instrument venue or a rollickingpunk cave. Amythyst Kiah split the difference recently, though everyone still had to sit down, which somewhat attenuated the energy of her Superchunk-styled cover of “Chained to the Rhythm.”

The Drake’s focus is a mix of rock, folk, and world, with the class soul/R&B act Tank and the Bangas (get your tickets!) playing March 5 to a standing-room crowd, and one-hit wonder Wheatus (yeah, them) on April 30. The Drake tends to be pretty cheap and you can skip ticket fees by purchasing in-person.

The Parlor Room is over in Northampton, on a side-street in a sort of grange building. If The Drake is more rock and indie pop, the Parlor Room is queer as folk. It’s got a tiny stage that would probably fit a drum kit if the rest of the band decided to crowd-surf. Its bathrooms are also right next to the green room, which means that on the way to relieve yourself  you will most likely make uncomfortable eye contact with that night’s attraction, a moment of awkward emotional communion a friend of mine shared with the inimitable Haley Heynderickx.

The Parlor Room brings in lots of weird folkies, many of whom are probably good. This semester, look out for Grant Lee Phillips, of Grant Lee Buffalo if you’re an insufferable 90s alternative junkie, and of the Town Troubadour in Gilmore Girls if you’re an insufferable autumn-loving secretly-Yale-coveting citizen of Stars Hollow, or me. The coolest thing about the Parlor Room is that it is a collective and a nonprofit, and that it has recently bought the Iron Horse, a shuttered folk/rock/blues Northampton music venue of yore that is soon to reopen, with shows for May announced last week. The second-coolest thing is that it is often cheap as balls.

On the far outskirts of Northampton (in Florence, to be precise) is the Bombyx Center for Arts and Equity, a lovely mouthful that opened last year in a 200-year-old church, formerly the center of an abolitionist, pacifist utopian community and silk mill. Concerts take place beneath a newly sprinklered roof, courtesy of the exhortations of the Northampton Fire Department, and in pews. Amherst students are prone to arriving late, thanks to the Bombyx being in the boonies, and in such a likely case it is advisable to sit atop the last pews on the second level and not to mind the worrisome creaking, instead of scrounging for an inferior spot at the back of the nave.

The Center’s musical lineup is an extremely eclectic mix. Offerings last year included electric blueswoman Shemekia Copeland, the criminally underrated Crash Test Dummies, Allison Russell, and “gay messiah” Rufus Wainwright (tragically not his superior sister). This semester, Sona Jabarteh, Caroline Rose, and the legendary Robyn Hitchcock will be on scene, and the reader should kindly note that if you have even an iota of interest for dear Robyn you ought to go with me, as my unadventurous friends won’t.

Rounding out the lineup of venues is the Academy of Music. This is an elegantly-appointed seated theater in the middle of Northampton that is a pleasingly Byronic monstrosity from the outside. The few concerts they host tend towards larger audiences. I still rue my friends’ refusal to see Suzanne Vega with me last year. In addition to hosting a semi-professional but magnificent Gilbert and Sullivan yearly, the Academy will see Madison Cunningham and Juana Molina, a member of much- and fairly-maligned flute band Jethro Tull, and semi-musical whiner Adrienne Lenker this year. Academy shows tend to be pricier and go faster.

Worthy of mention is Western Massachusetts’ underground music scene. Hereabouts has historically been quite the fountainhead for big, noisy, foulmouthed guitar-rock bands, and there are plenty of places to see how that sausage gets made. While a list of venues is impossible and totally not rock-n-roll, Instagram accounts @westernmassmusic (General-topic) and @wmasshcshows (Hardcore) are handy resources. Just do exercise prudence when descending into residential basements, and give as good as you get in the mosh (wearing something spikey helps).

Finally, there are some places that occasionally spit out shows. Tree House Brewing Company in Deerfield, though possessing a thoroughly impenetrable website, hosts Foy Vance (sold out) early this year, as well as Waxahatchee with Snail Mail as opener in late August just as we all embark on another nine months pretending at adulthood. UMass Amherst hosts a number of concerts throughout the year, ranging from largely-attended, jazz-nerd-flytrap jam bands (Snarky Puppy, last year) to a collaboration between vocalist extraordinaire Lisa Fischer and traditional Gullah revivalists Ranky Tanky. Mass MoCa in North Adams, not as far a drive as one might think, has the occasional concert, including Soccer Mommy last year, whom I recently learned was not, in fact, Australian. And WAMH brings artists to Amherst every few months, usually indie-r than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Dar Williams, known for the surpassing breakup anthem “As Cool as I Am,” hosts a September music festival in Northampton that last year featured the better half of the Indigo Girls. And this year, if you’re working Commencement and Reunion, Northampton is having a “Field Day” festival with Indigo de Souza, Sheer Mag (Bernie walk-on song “Expect the Bayonet” progenitors), Thus Love (loud, ears still ringing from a truly foul Manhattan punk dungeon two years ago, would do again), and Geese (weird, indeterminably pleasant Brooklynites).

Artists sometimes stop at the Shea in Turners Falls, right by the Book Mill whose stickers, notwithstanding whose books, ostentate from many laptops hereabouts. The Shea might not make the list were it not the serendipitous fact that Rickie Lee Jones, who was to Tom Waits who Joan Baez was to Bob Dylan, except with her own Beatnik lyrics and a sick beret, will grace their stage on May 10 (as well as Sarah Jarosz, sold out on May the Fourth, when we all have movies to watch anyway).

And the college can of course be trusted to source good pop music for our Spring Concert at least once yearly, like TikTok star and air-horn lover Saucy Santana, who dropped bars to a crowd of at least 15 people April last.