NORTHAMPTON — The celebrated sister act The Nields have performed all over, but their favorite venue will always be the Iron Horse Music Hall.
It’s not about the sight lines or the sound system for siblings Katryna and Nerissa Nields. It’s the pedigree of the place. So many magical nights of music have left a mark.
“There are artistic spirits in the walls. You can feel them,” said Nerissa Nields. “It’s like church.”
Indeed, for more than four decades, the Iron Horse has been the beating heart of the live-music scene in Western Massachusetts, hosting everyone from Laura Nyro to Living Colour, Sun Ra to Smashing Pumpkins. But since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the club has been shuttered and many here — merchants, music fans, and city officials — started to wonder if it would ever reopen.
The answer, after months of negotiations between the city and the club’s mercurial owner, Eric Suher, is yes. The Parlor Room, a small nonprofit performance space located around the corner from the Iron Horse, is buying the storied 250-seat bar and, with a little luck and a lot of fund-raising, hopes to begin booking shows by March.
Suher, who made his money as a screenprinter in Holyoke, owns several prominent buildings in Northampton, and the Iron Horse isn’t the only entity he’s unloading. Ordered by the city in May to reopen his many venues — the Iron Horse, the Calvin Theater, Pearl Street, The Basement, and The Green Room — or risk losing their liquor licenses, Suher is divesting.
At a meeting this week of the License Commission, he surprised — and delighted — city officials by announcing plans to sell the 1,400-seat Calvin Theater to Bowery Presents, a concert-promotion company with more than two dozen stages on the East Coast. (In and around Boston, Bowery Presents operates Roadrunner, Royale, The Sinclair, and The Stage at Suffolk Downs.)
If the deal gets done by November, as expected, Jim Glancy, co-president of Bowery Presents, told the commission that concerts could resume at the Calvin beginning in March, and he said the theater would likely host more than 60 shows a year. That prospect pleased the commission, whose chairperson, Natasha Yakovlev, said the new owner’s “caliber of professionalism” would be welcome.
“This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for downtown Northampton,” she said.
In addition to the Iron Horse, Suher is also selling the liquor licenses for the Basement and the Green Room, but relinquishing the Pearl Street license because, he told the commission, he couldn’t find a buyer.
Attempts to contact Suher were unsuccessful, but in a statement to the media he praised the nonprofit Parlor Room for its “passion and commitment to continue the tradition of presenting a great mix of regional, national and international talent on a nightly basis” at the Iron Horse.
Opened a decade ago by Signature Sounds, a local record label whose catalog includes albums by Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive, and Amy Rigby, the 60-seat Parlor Room was originally a for-profit venture. The intimate venue proved popular with artists and audiences, especially while Suher’s clubs remained closed. But without food or bar service it struggled to make money, said Signature Sounds founder Jim Olsen.
“It was one of those things that took a tremendous amount of effort to make happen without a lot of profit,” said Olsen. “So when I was presented with the idea of a nonprofit taking it over, I gifted the club to them so they could keep it going and the community could still have this wonderful resource.”
Chris Freeman is executive director of The Parlor Room and also a musician whose band, Parsonsfield, played at the Iron Horse. He said its status as a nonprofit will enable The Parlor Room to solicit donations and tap grants to make needed improvements at the Iron Horse — including a new sound system, lights, and floor, as well as relocated bathrooms to make the club more accessible. He said The Parlor Room paid Suher $50,000 for the liquor license and $100,000 for the name and the club’s contents. It also signed a 15-year lease with Central Chambers Realty Trust, which has owned the Center Street building since 1914.
The nonprofit has a mostly part-time staff of 40 people whose duties include sound engineering, box office, and booking. (Philip Price, frontman of the band Winterpills, does graphic design for The Parlor Room, while his wife and bandmate, Flora Reed, handles publicity.) In addition, The Parlor Room has an annual membership program, offering discounted or free tickets and access to special events depending on the amount of the contribution.
Similar to Club Passim in Cambridge and Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., legendary coffeehouses that became nonprofits, the Iron Horse will be run as a “community asset,” Freeman said, with a full calendar of shows and other programs, too. (The Parlor Room’s fledgling music school, offering classes ranging from vocal harmonies to hand drumming, may hold classes in the space.)
Jordi Herold, who opened the Iron Horse in 1979 and still lives in the Pioneer Valley, said the idea had been to create “a cafe-society hang.” Music was incidental at first, he said, but the club quickly became a destination for local acts and touring artists, and the audiences grew over time.
“There are names that don’t mean as much today as they meant 45 years ago,” said Herold. “But when Odetta and Dave Van Ronk and Taj Mahal were playing your room, it instantly put you on the map and it rolled very quickly from there.”
Freeman said The Parlor Room will announce a fund-raising campaign soon targeting major donors and longtime fans, and perhaps enlisting the help of well-known acts who outgrew the Iron Horse but still love the place.
“It’s very special,” said Nerissa Nields, recalling a 1996 show when a winter storm suddenly knocked out the power in Northampton.
“We drove home really quickly and grabbed a couple of extra acoustic guitars,” said Nields, who lives in the area. “We played unplugged, sitting on the edge of the stage by candlelight. One of the funnest experiences ever.”