Hancock Shaker Village’s Back Porch Music Series Kicks Off July 1 with Ali McGuirk | Berkshire landscapes
PITTSFIELD — Music has always had a place at the Hancock Shaker Village. Nineteenth-century Shakers composed thousands of songs as part of their devotional practices, the most famous of which, “Simple Gifts,” was popularized by Aaron Copland in his score for Martha Graham’s 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring.” .
On July 1, Hancock Shaker’s Back Porch Music outdoor summer concert series kicks off with Boston-born soul singer-songwriter Ali McGuirk, followed July 22 by the American roots of the former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops group My husband Jenkins.
Harmonizing sister duo The Nields performs August 12, and award-winning Rhode Island banjo and fiddle player Jake Blount closes the series September 2.
This is the sixth season of the village featuring monthly summer concerts.
“When I arrived in 2017, one of my main goals was to activate the Village and help people understand Shaker’s story in many ways. It seemed obvious that we needed to do live music – the Shakers wrote over 10,000 songs – so we opened up the 1910 hay barn and started hosting gigs,” Hancock Shaker Village manager Jennifer Trainer Thompson said in a phone interview.
“I wanted to bring out Americana, Roots and folk music, and people who are rising stars,” she added. Many artists come from the Northeast.
Concerts continued each year, drawing 100 to 200 people at a time to the historic post-and-beam building. The pandemic, however, necessitated a change of venue.
“We couldn’t have music inside anymore, so we moved to the [Laundry and Machine Shop] porch,” trainer Thompson said. The public sat dispersed at safe distances on the lawn.
In 2020, classical luminaries Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax performed a thank you concert for 50 essential workers there; it was broadcast live on WAMC to half a million additional listeners.
“We found there was an atmosphere that people liked – very laid back and intimate,” said trainer Thompson, “so we continue to use the Back Porch.”
If it rains, the concert returns to the 1910 barn.
Over the years, Trainer Thompson has seen connections made between artists who show up in the village.
One of this summer’s artists, Grammy-nominated Hubby Jenkins, played in two bands with Rhiannon Giddens, who in turn was part of last year’s “Climbing the Holy Hill” audio installation. Giddens’ former bandmate Dom Flemons played cow bones at a pre-pandemic gig “like maracas,” trainer Thompson said. Additionally, Giddens took over from Ma as artistic director of the Silkroad organization and international music collective.
“There’s a connection between it all,” Coach Thompson said.
The Nields make a welcome return visit.
“The last time was at the start of the pandemic when only a few people could come,” she said. “He’s a hometown favorite, so I’m very excited about it.”
The curator of the Back Porch Music series is Andrew Smith, Events Manager at Hancock Shaker Village.
“He’s found some great bands for this year’s lineup,” Trainer Thompson said.
Smith returned to his hometown of Pittsfield last fall after a decade in Chicago and is putting his lifelong interest in music to good use.
“I’ve been playing music since I was little,” Smith said in a phone interview, “and I’ve been working with musicians for five years. Growing up here, I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what draws people to the Berkshires.
Smith describes the concert series as “good music, smoother singer-songwriters, genres like folk and blues [that] really resonate with the locals.
“I think they will really appreciate what we have to offer,” he added. “Ali McGuirk has a wonderful voice and writes great melodies. She’s developed a following in the Boston area and the Boston Globe has compared her to Amy Winehouse, which is pretty glowing.
“My husband Jenkins is a super talented banjo player, very knowledgeable about roots music. The Nields are Northampton legends, and they’re my mum’s favorite band. They were [performing as a duo] for a few decades now, and have a really loyal fan base. They write music that appeals to all ages, not just adults, really catchy songs.
The folk-rock duo are also prolific artists, with 20 albums to date.
“Jake Blount is a great musician, a wonderful banjo player. I was impressed before I even heard of it how much buzz it got. It was on a bunch of year-end lists in 2020, like the Guardian and NPR, and it got a lot of praise,” Smith said.
An expert in early Black American folk music, Blount is also a founding member of Bluegrass Pride, which supports LGBTQ bluegrass musicians.
“We wanted to make an effort to book acts that aren’t just cis white dudes,” Smith said. “In the Berkshires it is important [to] have people of color and LGBTQ.
According to Smith, the shows will center around acoustic performances, with little to no additional accompaniment.
“There is a certain diversity in the sound of all these acts. Hubby and Jake have some pretty heavy roots music, and Hubby is very much into the blues. The Nields remind me of Alanis Morissette. Ali is more contemporary and really powerful soul music.
“They have a lot in common in that they’re all really talented songwriters; and all seem to be masters of their craft.
The enduring concert series served multiple purposes, said trainer Thompson. “It gave us live music and activated the village at night when it’s so beautiful. Listening to music under the starry skies of a Berkshire night can be intoxicating.
“Basically it’s another way of thinking about the Shakers, thinking about their music. But it is also another way to discover the village. I remember so distinctly the first concert, then walking around the village in the moonlight and thinking, this is what it was like to live here.