A legendary New England jam band with Berkshire County roots is celebrating almost a half century in Pittsfield, Massachusetts this weekend.
48 years into the band’s existence, Max Creek hasn’t settled on a description of its sound.
“When people ask us, what do you play, what kind of music is it, we’re always saying, ‘we play what we like- and it’s all kinds of music,’" said John Rider. "From jazz to country to bluegrass to hard rock.”
Rider co-founded the band in 1971 with David Reed. Trumpet majors at the Hartt School in West Hartford, Connecticut – the University of Hartford’s performing arts conservatory – the pair ditched the horns for more lucrative instruments.
“Which was the bass for me and guitar for him," said Rider. "And then we found a drummer and we went out on our way to play charts for strippers with that band. And then we got to play our own stuff in-between. That soon ended about a month of that and we went up into the Berkshires, actually.”
They decamped to what was then known as the Maple View Ballroom in Washington, Massachusetts – a venue that would later be renamed Woody’s Roadhouse. It hosted bands like The Cars, Foghat, and Bonnie Raitt before closing in in 1997. Rider’s roots in the Berkshires stretch back even further. He attended Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown, and was in the county when Tanglewood, down in Lenox, embraced rock music.
“I went to the first rock festival so to speak that went from 12 noon to 12 midnight in 1969, which was about a month before Woodstock happened,” he told WAMC.
Max Creek began in the then-popular country rock paradigm of bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. But Rider says the band eventually progressed into a more psychedelic realm.
“It was an experimental time for a lot of things," said the bassist. "We were a part of that late 60s, early 70s culture, and that sort of began to define what our music was and how we improvised and moved from one song to another.”
Max Creek began to embrace the kind of exploratory, free flowing performances they’re known for today – including some marathon sets that have seen the band play for eight hours at a time, which Rider says are his favorite.
“Every show is different from the next one," said Rider. "We have no idea when we step on stage what song we’re going into after the first song. It’s like, we sort of decide just before we step on stage ‘let’s do this song,’ and the rest of the show develops from there – what it feels like for the night.”
This year, Max Creek is celebrating its longevity with a run of concerts around New England and its first new record in 19 years – a double album called 45 & Live.
“If you look at a lot of what we’ve come to know as the jam band scene today, and the bands that are at its vanguard, and what they do and how they construct a show, and the bringing in of interesting interpretations of outside covers, and the mix of styles – Max Creek was doing that decades ago,” said Chad Berndtson, a senior contributing writer for JamBase.com. Berndtson says Max Creek – contemporaries of the bands that spawned the jam band scene like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers – has carved out its place in the community.
“Max Creek is the one that kind of stretches furthest back, and is the one that at least people in the Northeast would cite as the regional jam band model, based on the amount of time they’ve spent doing this,” he told WAMC.
Over the thousands of shows the band has played – sometimes playing hundreds of shows a year for years on end – Max Creek has shared the stage with its heroes like Rick Danko of The Band, Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, and Greg Allman – as well as some less inspiring bills.
“I remember a bill – looking at the marquee at this restaurant in Norwalk, Connecticut – and they had a meatloaf special. We were under the meatloaf special, so it’s ‘meatloaf special,’ ‘Max Creek,’" laughed Mark Mercier. "So we always, our claim to fame was we had a co-bill with Meatloaf.”
Keyboardist Mercier joined the band in 1973. He says his favorite shows are defined by a quality more elusive than tickets sold or prestigious headliners.
“We have always based our existence on stage not necessarily as performers throwing out at the audience but as kind of a back and forth energy, and when that energy happens, that’s really what keeps us interested in the whole thing,” he said.
Max Creek brings its 48th anniversary celebration to the stage of the Colonial Theatre in downtown Pittsfield Friday night.