The Drake Opens A New Era Of Music In Amherst

Regina Clark at the Drake grand opening. Photo: Julian Parker-Burns

Some things you would miss if you simply bought an album by jazz violinist Regina Carter: the way her face has the intensity of a fierce prayer, eyes closed, as she extracts sounds from a violin that seem to defy the laws of physics; the smiles passed between her and the members of her quartet as they wordlessly synchronize cues and solos; the playful way Carter fans piano player Brandon McCune between songs to cool him off after a particularly aerobic performance; the way the stage lights make her white hair glow like a blue halo; and the palpable energy flowing from the players to the bebopping, toe-tapping, body-swaying audience and then back again in in a positive feedback loop of musical pleasure.

That’s what you get from a live performance. That’s the kind of performance and experience that local residents have, until last week, had to go to Northampton or Easthampton to enjoy. 

On April 28, Carter and her quartet christened the Drake, the new downtown performance venue that, according to Cyndi Harbeson, head of special collections at the Jones Library, is the first such space to be opened since the town was settled in 1703. Concerts used to be played in the old Town Hall or, for a time, at the now-demolished movie theater, but in more than 300 years Amherst has never had a performance space solely dedicated to live music and other forms of live shows.

Gabrielle Gould, Executive Director of the Amherst Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) and a key player in the creation of the Drake, greeted the people streaming in Thursday night. Only five days earlier the space was still covered with sawdust, she said, so to see it filling up with people, the bar crowded, the candles on the tables lit, and the lighting and sound systems ready and waiting was “pretty amazing.”  

“We have an amazing board of directors who threw on gloves to clean and touch up paint and then volunteered to work the doors and usher people to seats,” she said. “It has really taken a village!”

The grand opening was the culmination of years of work and financial contributions from many quarters, including a $175,000 grant from Massachusetts Office of Business Development the BID, more than 200 local donors, and Amherst College, which gave both money and the new black Steinway B piano gleaming from the stage. 

“We were thinking we’d end up with just a keyboard,” Gould told the crowd. “So this is incredible…and it’s part of why we’re able to attract talent like Regina Carter.”

With dozens of acts booked for the months to come, including Loudon Wainwright III, the Cuban jazz group Jorge Luis Pacheco Trio, and guitarist Yasmin Williams, the Drake may be poised to join the Amherst Cinema as a cultural magnet attracting both local and more far-flung audiences and stimulating the local economy.

The audience Thursday night was not thinking about the economy, however. The music was too good, the chance encounters with friends and neighbors too enjoyable, and the pleasure of a live, post-pandemic event too palpable for that.

“It’s so great to play for real people!” Carter said, after ripping through her first song. “There’s just no vibe from a computer screen.” (See the review of her performance in this issue of the Indy.)

After being called back by nonstop applause, Carter and her quartet played an ethereal encore blending non-standard sounds with a deep African-based percussions. Then, with a smile and a bow, the players left and the audience filtered out to allow the long line of people waiting outside for the second show to enter. 

In the audience that night was Clare Bertrand, who echoed sentiments overheard at many tables about how enjoyable it was to have a local space where people could come and enjoy a common love of music. 

“Amherst has long needed this venue,” she said, “Seeing local friends and neighbors all around gave me a sense of belonging. Sometimes our passions and politics divide us, but music and the arts are great unifiers.” 

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, sitting near the stage, agreed. “Having a real performance venue in Town changes everything,” he said. “The quality of life in Amherst just jumped two levels!”

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