The Hudson Valley has long served as a home and haven in the hills for many professional musicians, but as a rule they have made their bread elsewhere. In recent years, however, we’ve seen our resident professionals at every level of “the game” embrace the local and the regional with more consistency and an abiding commitment.
The shabby shape of the industry plays a part in this phenomenon, of course; out of necessity, artists of a certain level are more inclined to cultivate local support and sustenance as the traditional music business withers, revenues from recording dry to a trickle and those big, sustaining road gigs get harder to come by (and less desirable for players who are either entering or well along into the nesting years). But nobler values are at play here as well. Musicians want to play, connect, collaborate in spontaneous and exploratory ways, dress down and jam, try something new and be in their own country beds before dawn to hear the breathing of the ones they love. It’s the cultural equivalent of local, sustainable agriculture.
There are two other vital pieces to this puzzle: venues and audiences. In the former, the Hudson Valley has upped its game in the last half-decade, with the sudden appearance of viable, national-circuit rooms such as BSP, the Falcon and Club Helsinki; the ongoing vitality of the Bearsville Theater and the relocated Towne Crier; boutique, intimate showcases like the Rambles; the grand old theaters in Poughkeepsie and Kingston; and a big shed in Bethel for when Journey, REO Speedwagon and 38 Special decide that it is time to combine forces again. As to audience – well, you tell me.
The Pro Jam at Club Helsinki in Hudson exemplifies this national/local crossbreeding. This blues-leaning, open-ended, jam-oriented series grew out of the partnership of Gary McKeever, who has had his hands in Hudson Valley booking, promoting and radio for a number of years, and the drummer and radio deejay Sonny Rock, himself an accredited pro who did stints with the hard rock band the Cult and many others.
Before they hatched the Pro Jam, McKeever and Rock had been booking Mondays at Helsinki, turning what is typically a dead night into a hopping, no-cover showcase for local acts. McKeever and Rock are men on the lookout for synergies, and from the outset they found ways to enrich the experience for all involved. Bands were paid from a tip jar (well, a pail, actually, if I recall correctly), but another part of the compensation was a 24-track recording of their performance captured with Club Helsinki’s outrageously outfitted live rig. Murali Coryell even released one of his Helsinki sessions as an official album. A week after each showcase, the featured act would follow up with an appearance on Sonny Rock’s radio show on WRIP in Windham, spinning some mixes from the Helsinki show and trying to keep up with Rock’s manic wit.
Hudson is a hard town to figure, but Club Helsinki has always had a solid identity. The Massachusetts transplant venue made its name in roots, Americana, folk and blues, and while the new joint is as eclectic as any national club in a culturally complex town like Hudson needs to be, the American idioms are still home base. After building something out of nothing with the Monday night showcase, McKeever and Rock were eventually invited to handle some weekend booking at Club Helsinki – to be, as it were, the blues specialists. This they have done with fervor and imagination, and this is how the Pro Jam came into being.
Pro Jam 5 goes down on Thursday, April 10. This will be the second Pro Jam sponsored by Woodstock Harley Davidson, employees of which will be on hand peddling swag and showing off some of the iconic merchandise that has always played so well among rock and blues fans. In McKeever’s opinion, sponsorship arrangements like this are one vital way of sustaining the viability of professional live music in an age that is turning all of us “content creators” into hobbyists. He should know: He got his start in Hudson Valley music promotion years ago when his own historic restoration construction company was a principal donor to WVKR’s local-focused program Hudson Valley Rag and Bone Shop, and that ultimately led him to become a talent curator on the program.
The Pro Jam 5 lineup features keyboardist Bruce Katz, a former keyboardist with the Gregg Allman Band who currently tours with the Delbert McClinton Band. The lineup is rounded out by Cameron Melville (B-3), Shorty King (sax), Petey “Hop” Hopkinson (guitar), Vince Leggiere (bass) and Sonny Rock (drums), four of whom are members of the New York chapter of the Blues Hall of Fame. As most inveterate fans of live music will tell you, catching cats of this caliber on their “for love of music, not of money” dates can be a transcendent experience.
Pro Jam 5 featuring Bruce Katz, Thursday, April 10, 8 p.m., no cover, Club Helsinki, 405 Columbia Street, Hudson; (518) 828-4800, www.helsinkihudson.com.