Common Folk lights up North Adams' nightlife

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NORTH ADAMS — On the corner of Quincy and Ashland Streets, the nomadic Common Folk artist collective is hoping it has found a permanent home to pursue its dual missions of supporting emerging creators and revitalizing nightlife in North Adams. During a recent Monday morning visit to the group's residential hub, the house had the feel of an early-stage startup. Laptops and cooking apparatuses occupied living and dining room tables. Exotic-looking instruments and a poster celebrating a fermentation festival hugged walls. A copy of Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" loomed above the fireplace.

While Common Folk director Jess Sweeney doesn't own the big blue home in North Adams' downtown area just yet — she and several others are currently renting — her goal is to assume control of the property sometime in the fall and create a place for artists of all different mediums to work on their crafts.

"... all the bedrooms have attached rooms to them, so the long-term vision is to ideally rent to artists, and then they have studio space or practice space," Sweeney said while lounging on the living room couch, periodically checking her Facebook news feed.

But the house has already served a purpose — reuniting a group, Sweeney says, that took a six-to-eight-month break to reassess its objectives after it moved out of its last base at 33 Main St. The group had been exhibiting artwork in the unoccupied unit while partnering with DownStreet Art, a program that is part of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Berkshire Cultural Resource Center. The deal was that the group could stay until a market-value offer came, Sweeney said. Common Folk eventually had to leave.

"That kind of wiped out the group," Sweeney said, noting that the group is made up entirely of volunteers.

According to the 28-year-old director, Common Folk had just begun gaining a stronghold in the community after years of development. The group started as a monthly open mic at Northampton in 2013. Though music was the centerpiece, the group sought other types of artists, too.

"We really wanted to create a monthly gathering for artists of all mediums to express themselves, so we would have a featured artist," Sweeney said. "We'd encourage poets to come and storytellers and musicians and comedians."

But Sweeney ultimately returned to North Adams, where she had attended MCLA. She was drawn to the idea of contributing to a growing arts and nightlife scene rather than adding to the more established one in Northampton. When Sweeney came back to the city, she and other group members were buoyed by what they found.

"There was already a really good open mic at The Parlor [Cafe], and so we were like, we have all this energy. We have these people who are interested in doing something and bringing artists together," Sweeney said.

Observing this enthusiasm for the arts sparked questions. "What do we do that isn't necessarily already being done? What holes do we fill?" Sweeney recalled the group asking.

Common Folk began holding weekly meetings, but it had no money to support its varied ideas. Then, "out of nowhere," Sweeney said, the group booked Moon Hooch, a popular New York City-based band that blends jazz, funk and electronic dance elements, in 2015.

"[That] made us figure out that we could do some big things," Sweeney said. "We were like, 'Wow, we can put on a concert, and there aren't a lot of concerts that are outside of Mass MoCA, and there's not really a nightlife in North Adams, so maybe that's what we do.'"

The group continued to host art exhibits and other events, but concerts became its bread and butter, with about 60 volunteers helping on various projects, Sweeney said. Held in intimate venues around the city, including MCLA's Design Lab, and occasionally other venues in the county, such as The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, the concerts filled an even bigger North Adams musical need when The Parlor Cafe closed in 2016.

"When [owner Jason Morin] closed that, that energy kind of disappeared, and I hear it all the time that the students at MCLA would love to have a more regular music scene in particular," Sweeney said.

Stumbling upon the Quincy Street house and the prospect of having a home base once again, "kind of refocused us a little bit," Sweeney said.

The group has since fashioned itself as a low-cost alternative to Mass MoCA and other major arts players in the area. Yet, it also uses the museum as a setting for some of its events. On Labor Day, the group hosted The Go Rounds — described on the musicians' website as a "psychedelic Americana pop" band — at the museum's beer garden, The Chalet, whose live music on Thursday nights during the summer have helped North Adams' nightlife, according to Sweeney.

"I think a lot of people want that laid-back environment," Sweeney said.

Whether Common Folk can find its own identity is still to be determined.

"The advantage we have is that we're an artist collective, so we can sort of explore different genres and vibes and environments, but I think the main focus will be ... " she said, pausing, "I don't know. It's hard to tell."


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