Giant Talent. Tiny Stage.
For more than 40 years now, the Advocate has covered politics, local news, and entertainment from an alternative angle. But nothing runs through our newsprint’s black, white, and red veins more powerfully than independent music.
We’ve been shaped, in deep ways, by the punk, folk, rock, and counterculture ethos that evolved over decades of American upheaval. Today, in certain ways, our future is as unstable as ever. But all the music happening right here, throughout the Valley, connects us, and keeps us going.
Starting this week, we launch a new platform for local music: Advocate Sessions. And we think you’re going to love it.
Sessions is a video series that hosts local and visiting musicians for short, informal sets that showcase the talent, humor, and sense of collaboration among seasoned acts and new bands alike. Candid and intimate, these are video performances that capture music-making as it is off-stage: fun, fresh, and full of Valley spirit.
Recorded in the Advocate newsroom in partnership with Signature Sounds and Northampton Community Television, Sessions concerts are held semi-regularly on workday afternoons. So far, they’ve been a blast to record.
Every set lights up a different corner of the Valley music map. Take the stars of our first four videos.
Ray Mason, the grinning troubadour boomer who is a long-standing member of the Lonesome Brothers, played Sessions solo, with a 1965 Sears Silvertone electric guitar through a Peavey Bandit 65 amp. Folk newcomer Tess Burdick, from Shelburne, went acoustic for us, her silky-smooth voice taking a few wild, wailing turns over strummed ballads about joy, heartbreak, and the smell of good coffee.
Hartford hip-hop artist Tang Sauce sang, rapped, and played trumpet and guitar alongside DJ Stealth. And the young Hadley rock quartet Paper City Exile jammed with some gritty, heartfelt originals.
We’ve got more acts on the way: jazz, soul, blues, funk, and even flamenco are already in the pipeline — but we couldn’t wait any longer to show you what we’ve been up to. Check out the Sessions site. And while you’re here, read on and meet our first four guests!
— Hunter Styles, arts editor
Rap and hip-hop/funk fusion with some old school boom-bap beats
Hartford home-grown hip-hop artist Tang Sauce was one of the first acts to light up the VA Sessions set — and, wow, light it up he did. Tang Sauce, the stage name of John Manselle-Young, is not only a talented rapper and multi-instrumentalist — playing the guitar and the trumpet during his set — but he busted out a few choice breakdancing moves, too. With DJ Stealth at his side, laying down dreamy, hypnotic boom-bap beats (listen to “The Fountain”), Tang Sauce blends hip-hop, soul, and funk influences into a style that’s high-energy and unique. Tang’s mantra of “peace, love, and positivity” permeates not only his music, but his entire personality — and he’s intent on spreading the message.
“I used to be one of those people that used to see only the bad in things. It’s like a pestilence,” he says. “That’s a dead-end road. But a road of positivity is a road that just goes on forever like a long highway. So, once I started to really realize the power of positive thinking, I just wanted to spread it and tell a lot of people.
“As far as peace and love goes, I feel like that’s one of the pillars of hip-hop, you know? Peace, love, unity, and having fun.”
Given his family history, it seems like Tang was destined for a life in the arts. His father is a filmmaker and graphic artist, and his brother led the brass band at church when Tang was growing up. That’s where he began his musical education playing cornet. At age 11, he took up the trumpet and began singing in middle-school chorus. In high school, he got into hip-hop and became heavily involved in the breakdancing scene.
“Dancing definitely had a huge impact on the music that I like to listen to, but still at that point it wasn’t quite a passion for me,” Tang says. “In November of 2010, when I started rapping, I found out what passion was right then.”
Tang would go on to play in the 10-piece soul funk band West End Blend before going solo. He met DJ Stealth, a.k.a. Assad Jackson, at an arts center in Hartford where they started playing together. A few years later, Stealth is Tang’s right-hand man, blending old-school boom-bap hip-hop, Tang says, with a new school perspective, throwing in a hefty dose of funk, soul, and jazz influences.
On his debut album — 2015’s Maturity — Tang’s rap skills take front row-center, setting thoughtful, intelligent lyrics to feats of stunning verbal acrobatics, especially on tracks like “I Like Dat Cha’ll” and the album’s opener “One Time for Your Mind.” Tang’s mentor, Hartford rap veteran Self Suffice, makes an appearance on the album, too, making Maturity feel like a true coming of age.
— Peter Vancini, firstname.lastname@example.org
Surf-pop melody meets grunge-punk thumping drive
Dan Conway’s parents didn’t want him to play the guitar. Everyone plays the guitar, they reasoned.
In fourth grade, the frontman of rock trio Paper City Exile was pounding away on the keyboard, like his parents asked, but the desire to strum was strong.
“But they made a mistake,” says Conway sitting on a stool, grinning, in the middle of Goofy Goober Studio, a room off the Conways’ garage. “They left a Telecaster out of the case.”
Conway’s father, Brian, is a musician — a guitarist, in fact — too. “I’d pick it up and just play with it unplugged and I never put it down.
“Honestly,” Conway added, “I wanted to play the guitar so I could move around while I play.”
Founded by Conway in 2015, Paper City Exile is young, and made up of young musicians, but their sound is solid with experience. The friends met at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts High School almost a year ago and have been jamming together every week since. Zeno Doeleman is on bass and Jackson Silverman is on drums.
PCE is on the verge of releasing their first LP, a self-titled album mixed at Sonelab in Easthampton that will include a few songs from the EP Living in the Know. They anticipate the record will be finalized and available on iTunes and Amazon Music within a few weeks. The band played the Advocate Sessions stage in November to promote their work and spread awareness of their surf-rock meets grunge-punk sound.
“We’re really a melting pot of musical sounds,” Silverman said. “Zeno is very into classical — he started on the upright [bass] — and he’s into alternative music. I grew up on classic rock — Springsteen, Tom Petty — then I got into punk music.”
“I started with R&B,” Conway said. “Later, I got heavy into surf pop.”
“So, we’ve got a heavier playing sound with me and Zeno,” Silverman said, “and you’ve got a poppy guitar with Dan, so you end up with music that has a heavier, but melodic side to it.”
After playing regularly in the Valley for the past several months, the band has switched to focusing on recording new music.
“When you’re new, everyone wants to hear new music at shows, but we need to take the time to write that music,” Silverman said.
— Kristin Palpini, email@example.com
Heartfelt acoustic ballads with a snarl and a smile
A child of the Berkshires, Tess Burdick grew up singing gospel music. She still has photos of herself as a baby, sitting in her diaper on the kitchen floor of her family home in Florida, MA, singing at the top of her little lungs alongside her father. “It was basically a requirement,” she says. At times, such constant musicality within the Burdick tribe felt like a chore — “when you’re a kid and your parents are doing it, it’s not as fun” — but now, she says, she can harmonize to anything. “So I’m really grateful after all.”
The family band mostly faded over time, but Burdick stayed curious about music. At age 13, going through albums collected during her mother’s college years, she discovered Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York. “It was like nothing I’d ever heard before,” she remembers. “It felt so raw and emotional. That was my first taste of the ’90s grunge scene. It was monumental for me.”
In high school, Burdick could often be found wearing dark makeup, with hair that changed from jet black to bleached to neon pink. But she’s mellowed out a lot since then. Now 20 and living in Shelburne, she’s been listening to albums by Joni Mitchell, CSNY, Led Zeppelin, Margaret Glaspy, and Hop Along.
She’s sought out female-led bands and plenty of modern indie rock. Lately, she has arrived at her own sound. At the occasional coffee shop or festival, you can catch her playing and singing her acoustic takes on life — earnest, smiling stuff, but not without some flashes of ferocity and sardonic flair — with more, inevitably, on the way.
Burdick started writing songs about four years ago, while she was applying to colleges — a stressful period in life, as many of us remember. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, she found herself singing an original melody that became “California,” her first song. “It’s much different than the stuff I write now, but it still holds a special place in my heart,” she says. “Music is such a powerful tool for me to work through whatever I’m feeling. It puts these cloudy emotions into something that feels more concrete and approachable. It’s been a wonderful tool for me to work out issues, or even remember things I never want to forget.”
It wasn’t until recently that Burdick began considering music as a feasible career. “It’s still so fresh,” she says, “that I don’t really have any expectations for where it will take me, but I’m feeling really excited about it.”
We were happy to hear Burdick express a desire to play live in the Valley more often, coming into the winter and spring. Even though she is still, in some ways, just starting out, she is confident that songs will continue to ground her in the here and now. “It feels nostalgic to be playing music,” she says, smiling like that toddler in the photo. “It feels like home.”
— Hunter Styles, firstname.lastname@example.org
50 years of Americana anthems on a Sears Silvertone guitar
Half a century in the music business has made Ray Mason a seasoned professional, and Mason didn’t disappoint while starting off Valley Advocate Sessions, performing tracks off his new solo rock and roll record The Silent Requester.
Throughout his career, Mason grasped the opportunity to make an impact in the field, opening for high profile acts, and being the headliner himself as a solo performer and bass player of The Lonesome Brothers. “I was in my first band in 1966, so it’s been 50 years playing gigs. My first were in the local YMCA,” says Mason on his musical beginnings.
Since establishing himself as an artist, Mason has performed at multiple venues across the country, ranging from Western Mass to the West Coast. But even after performing at a diverse mix of places, it’s the Valley’s attitude towards original music that keeps Mason coming back. A mix of other enthusiastic artists and equally enthusiastic guests who participate in live shows makes it a worthwhile area.
“There’s always people going out to see music,” explains Mason on the Valley’s participation, “I try to play everywhere once… I’ll point to a place and be able to say I’ve played there.”
Mason also cites the the Valley’s reputation as a safe haven for both classic rockers and the occasional unconventional musician as a positive. “There’s always people going out to see music. It’s always been good, I don’t want to be someone who says it was better back then,” explains Mason.
As for local musicians looking to make a name in the field, Mason explains it’s the passion that keeps people coming back. He advises new musicians to love what they do, create and distribute their craft, and connect with other bands. “Really like what you do, people pick up on that when they know you like what you do, it could be something that’s not their cup of tea but they’ll enjoy it,” explains Mason.
Mason abides by these principles himself, continuing to put his heart into music wherever he performs. “Whatever I’m doing in that moment is the best I’m doing… I do what I do the way I want it, I play like it’s the last time I’ll play.”
The same goes for his performance at Sessions, where Mason played five tracks from his new album showcasing his iconic style, and equally iconic guitar. Mason explains the live audience created an artistically conducive environment. “There’s a connection there between you and whoever is listening to you, you just can’t get it any other way.”
— Kyle Olsen, email@example.com