WILLIAMSTOWN -- This year’s Billstock festival, taking place at Hops and Vines on Friday, March 1 and Saturday, March 2, will coincide with the release of "Exile on Spring Street," a 16-track compilation of Williamstown-based bands and musicians, produced by Karl Mullen of the Wandering Rocks.
New to the festival this year are Jen Crowell, the newly-configured Trophy Husbands, and two Williams College student bands: the 10-piece funk and R&B group Homage, and an unnamed alternative rock band led by Paul de Konkloly Thege, Billstock’s intern since 2012.
"Exile on Spring Street" will be available at Hops and Vines during the festival and also online at iTunes and Amazon.com. The title is a nod to the 1972 Rolling Stones album "Exile on Main Street," and to the older musicians on the compilation who are part of that generation.
Michael Williams, Assistant Director of the Williamstown Youth Center, and Rolling Stones fan, founded Billstock in 2011 in response to a burgeoning local music scene and the shortage of a dedicated music venue in Williamstown where bands could gain live experience.
"We have so many people creating really interesting music here," Williams said, "and in each successive year Š it’s just gotten even crazier with the number of people making music."
All of the Billstock performers are either from Williamstown,
In 2011, during the original Billstock, acts were distributed among different buildings in town - a big mistake, Williams said, due to the logistical problems that arose. The following year, Billstock II took place entirely in the building on the corner of Main Street and Water Street, which is now the New Hope Methodist Church.
Things went more smoothly the second time around, but the space was not without its drawbacks, said de Konkoly Thege, who joined the efforts in 2012 after returning to campus following a marketing internship at CBS Interactive Music Group.
"The room we were in, it was really cool, it was a really nice social atmosphere, but there was also all kinds of crazy reverberation because one half of the room was entirely a glass window and one half was thin plaster," he said. The move to Hops and Vines, he said, will definitely be an upgrade in terms of sound quality.
The festival has made a welcome contribution to the town’s assortment of performance opportunities, but one of its goals, Williams said, is to help bridge the gap between the college-age people and older members of the community who share a passion for music.
While Williams College has long been instrumental (no pun) in reaching out to the local community, he said, "I think for the actual student population it’s somewhat difficult, just given the nature of being in college. It’s a self-contained campus and they’re all very much into their own things and they’re busy and whatever else," he said.
"But over the past couple of years it’s been really nice that there’s been a growing pool of students who are becoming aware of people in the community who share their interests and are interested in things they want to create," Williams said. "It’s hard to quantify that involvement, but it’s been a real vital part of the spirit of Billstock."
The Billsville House Concerts, started by Doug Hacker in 2012, attract artists from around the country and offer intimate musical experiences outside of the college. They began as informal living room gatherings and have recently relocated to The Log, a multi-use event space on Spring Street.
For performers, the local opportunities can seem elusive. Besides the handful of local bars, which do not always offer the most intimate live experiences, there is Songwriters Night at the Water Street Grill every second Wednesday of the month, where musicians of all ages, including a number of Williams students, gather and share music.
In some ways, Williamstown is becoming home to very low-key music culture that recalls the time of early folk and jazz performances.
For the Wandering Rocks, the lack of a dedicated music venue is an opportunity for a more intimate do-it-yourself approach to performing.
"We find our own places to play and make our own situations happen," said Mullen, producer of the new compilation and founder of the group - "whether it’s playing in somebody’s living room, somebody’s backyard, at a restaurant, at an art gallery. I’m not waiting for someone to open a fabulous venue that we could all play in. I think you need to jump on board with a DIY ethos and create your own scene."
The Wandering Rocks’ first performance was at the Browns, a clothing store on Water Street that closed last year, and the group has appropriated various other spaces for musical gatherings - including MASS MoCA’s Building 5, Mezze Bistro, and the Elks Lodge in North Adams.
So there are options, Mullen said. But he also acknowledged the lack of dedicated performance space in town, which has been a growing concern among local musicians for years.
"When you don’t play, I think the air goes out of the bubble or the balloon," he said. "You can rehearse all you like but until you have an audience to some extent, it doesn’t go anywhere. I think you need an audience and an audience feedback in which to develop stuff."
Mullen’s barn, where he records and performs music, has become a gathering place for local and out-of-town musicians, and a sort of underground concert venue in itself. "Exile on Spring Street" was produced there and will be released on Mullen’s independent Barntone Records label.
Playing in barns, living rooms and other everyday spaces, Mullen said, harkens back to the original idea of live performance, which was a communal event, and to early folk and jazz recordings, "where you just set up microphones in a room and people played.
"And to some extent, we’ve gone back to that because of affordability, but also intimacy. I think when you listen to the top commercial radio hits these days it doesn’t sound like somebody’s playing in a living room or somebody singing up the street at the bar," he said.
The over-production of popular music, he said, "removes us from everyday life, to some extent. I think playing in barns and living rooms brings music back as the central point of people’s lives."
The idea behind "Exile on Spring Street" was to reflect the range of styles represented in the local music scene by opening the door to different recording techniques. Contributors used a variety of digital devices, ranging from iPhones to laptops to basement studios.That factor allowed more people to be involved, Mullen said, since not everyone has access to professional recording equipment.
While the tracks were produced at Mullen’s barn, most of them were recorded elsewhere.
Nine of the 16 bands or musicians on the album will also be performing at Billstock III - including Williams (who will DJ), The Wandering Rocks, De Konkoly Thege and many of the groups who performed last year.
Despite not getting official college credit for his internships, de Konkoly Thege has been researching artists, promoting the festival online and helping to spread the word among his classmates and the wider community, in addition to rehearsing with his band.
"I don’t need credit," he said. "I did it last year because I had just had experience in marketing and it seemed interesting to me, and I do it this year because it was a really awesome experience and I know that it’s a community that I care about."
Billstock III will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2 at Hops and Vines on Water Street. For more info: billstock.wordpress.com.