In the late 1930s, The Gables Ballroom in South Deerfield, Massachusetts (just north of Amherst) held dances with touring big bands such as McEnelly & His Orchestra (“New England’s Waltz King”) and Helen Compton and her 42nd Street Girls (“Dazzling Young Princesses of Rhythm”). It also presented the Robak & Fronc WMAS Broadcasting Orchestra, a local outfit with future Polka Music Hall of Fame inductee Jan Robak.
In 1969, rebranded The Woodrose Ballroom, it hosted rock and blues bands presented by Steve Nelson, former manager of The Boston Tea Party, John Boyd (“Captain Video”), formerly of The Road light show at the Tea Party, and John’s wife Barbara (“Auntie Gravity”). The opening weekend on March 14-15 featured Tea Party homeboys The J. Geils Blues Band. Peter Wolf later sang of their eating at a local joint before a show at the Woodrose and then crashing there afterwards (“Ate in the Four Winds Diner / Slept in the Woodrose Hall”), in the band’s classic cut “Hard Drivin’ Man” on their first LP.
The next weekend it was The Velvet Underground, an unlikely gig for this most urban of bands, but friends from the Tea Party who would return to the Woodrose numerous times. The third weekend featured local bands FAT and Bold (predecessor to Clean Living), mainstays of the emerging music scene in the Pioneer Valley, also known as “Happy Valley” for its laidback vibe. The mix of name acts and local talent quickly made the Woodrose the main music venue in the area.
Among the other acts which followed were Van Morrison, the Charlie Musselwhite Blues Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Gram Parsons and Barry Tashian, formerly of The Remains), the Magic Sam Blues Band, the Blues Project (the lineup which soon became Seatrain), and the Allman Brothers (just after the release of their first LP; they had played their first gig outside the South at the Tea Party earlier that year).
The townies in South Deerfield were not thrilled by the influx of longhairs every weekend; someone even threw a rock through the Woodrose Ballroom sign out front. By the end of the year it became clear that there wasn’t a big enough weekend crowd to pay the bills from ticket sales (no alcohol or food was sold). So to draw from a wider area, the shows were moved to the shuttered but beautifully preserved Paramount Theater in downtown Springfield, and billed as “The Woodrose Presents”.
Opening night on New Year’s Eve 1969 featured Cold Blood, soon followed by the Velvet Underground (with an impromptu solo opener by Jonathan Richman). The Velvets’ train ride from the Woodrose back to New York City was immortalized in their song “Train Round the Bend” (“takin’ me away from the country”) on their “Loaded” LP, material for which they had been performing in South Deerfield. J. Geils played the Paramount three times; Van Morrison was back as was Barry Tashian with his new band Barry T and the Studebakers. Other artists included MC5, The Stooges, Spirit, and NRBQ, as well as several oldies acts — Chuck Berry, Wilbert Harrison (“(Goin’ to) Kansas City”) and twister Chubby Checker – with FAT, Bold, and other local acts continuing to make regular appearances.
By the spring of 1970 finances were shakier than ever. John Boyd was long gone, Steve Nelson was phasing out and “Auntie Gravity” was producing the shows. On the last weekend in April, the Allman Brothers headlined with J. Geils opening on Friday, and Savoy Brown with Family on Saturday. Tracy Nelson’s Mother Earth closed down the place on May Day.
No calls of “Mayday! Mayday!” could keep the good ship Woodrose from sinking into the sea of rock ‘n’ roll memories.
(by Steve Nelson)