Western Massachusetts

by Wendy Eisenberg

May 9, 2019

Improvising guitarist, banjo-player, and vocalist Wendy Eisenberg walks us through the hidden gems of Western Mass.

Long regarded as a hotbed of experimental noise and rock music, Western Massachusetts is where I’ve chosen to stretch my legs between stints in the car and shows in bigger cities.

Many of my collaborators who live in other cities, and aren’t familiar with this rural paradise, wonder why I don’t move to some other place where I’ve been lucky enough to set up a scene presence. In response, I’ll quote a question posed by a dear friend over dinner a few weeks ago: “If Western Mass is the Shire, does that make New York City Mordor?”

The real reason I’ve chosen to live in Western Mass is that with affordable rent, beautiful scenery, and a history of innovative art and progressive culture, it is easy to live here and “slay from far away.” Life is slower and cheaper, so more time and money can be spent running record stores and venues, poring over obscure novels and albums in solitude, and composing and recording complicated music that will remain underground until you die or venture out.

Despite the sprinkling of better known artists that reside here, almost every single musician I’ve met out here has inspired me or freaked me out in productive ways. I find it pretty cool that there’s a Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Speedy Ortiz legacy in the area. Throw a stone and you’ve hit somebody influential, some genius playing an offset or manning a noise table; and, since it’s so beautiful out here, they won’t even be mad you threw a stone at them.

It is hard for me to truly convey the secret joys of valley living, because so much of it has to do with the energy of the area and “the friends you make along the way.” Many of the coolest things around the valley are smaller events hosted in houses or the conversations you have in the woods. This Mass vibe of gruff, efficient kindness might seem prohibitive to the foundation of a real community, but fear not – ask me or another friend, or just go to any of the places below, and you’ll soon become one of us Hobbits.

Flywheel Arts Collective

43 Main St, Easthampton, MA 01027

This sober spot is all ages, giving the youngest among us access to some of the best music and art Hampshire County has to offer. It’s been around forever, and has hosted amazing European improvisers, local punks, and experimental musicians since the 90s and 2000s. Some around here speculate that the experimental improvisation happening in the noise and free scenes in the Northeast helped inspire the Wandelweiser composers who came through the Flywheel for some stateside performances.

The Root Cellar

10 Fiske Ave, Greenfield, MA 01301

The newly revived Franklin County venue, The Root Cellar, makes you feel like you’re at the Roadhouse Café from Twin Peaks. Along with the sweetest staff, it has the best sound in the area. It’s a cool place to hang, play, do performance art, or listen to doom metal, techno, noise, or rock and roll.

Looky Here

28 Chapman St Greenfield MA 01301

Founded just last year by a team of powerful women, Looky Here serves as an art hub for the whole valley. It hosts free-draws that are open to the community, clothing swaps, instrument building seminars, tarot lectures and conversations, shows, and a weekly microtonal class. It also serves as a used/discount art supply store and occasional private karaoke spot.

Electric Eye Records

52 Main St #6 Florence, MA 01062

Literally everything that they have is good. Owner Andy Crespo has impeccable taste in freako music from all genres.

Mystery Train Records

178 N Pleasant St, Amherst, MA 01002

Dustier than Electric Eye, the energy of this spot is like your great-uncle’s spooky old attic, but instead of “The Best of Bread” on a poor quality LP, they have Teitanblood CDs and a semi-secret library upstairs.

Turn It Up!

5 Pleasant St, Northampton, MA 01060 and 440 Greenfield Rd, Montague, MA 01351

This store has my favorite CD selection in the area. A local chain, they sometimes surprise you with rarities and obscurities. I’ve even bought “My Mother: Demonology” by Kathy Acker here – you can’t even find that book at the Amherst Bookstore!

Goat Peak Strings

81 Main St, Easthampton, MA 01027

Goat Peak Strings in Easthampton is the only place I trust to repair my guitars. There are many good gear spots around here, but very few have such a wonderful selection of vintage instruments. Bonus points for being a trans-friendly environment, and for the adorable dogs.

*Wendy Eisenberg photos by Charmaine Lee