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Cash Tribute Singer Finds Mohawk Theater Good Fit

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Harold Ford checks out the stage at the Mohawk Theater on Friday afternoon. Harold Ford and the Cash Band will play in the empty movie house on Sept. 29.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The man in black swung up his guitar in the dusty theater and belted out a stanza of "Folsom Prison Blues."

"The acoustics in here ...," said a pleased Harold Ford as trod across the stage and dived into "Get Rhythm."

Ford was taking the temperature of the Mohawk Theater on Friday in preparation for a benefit concert Saturday, Sept. 29, that will see "The Spirit of Johnny Cash" return to the historic venue.

The singer said he's not into ghosts and spirits, per se, but he was getting a vibe from the man whose music has changed his life these past few years. 

"I'm sort of sensitive to a ghostly feeling. There seems to be some sort of energy here," said Ford, standing the largely empty shell of the former movie house. "It really puts me in the mood. [Cash] was the last person to do 'Folsom Prison Blues' here and I'm the one going to bring it back."

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were among the last live performances at the Mohawk, appearing in its 50th year. Now marking its 75th anniversary, the theater in its diminished condition will play host to Harold Ford and the Cash Band as a benefit to raise funds for its restoration and for the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.

"This is really exceptional," said Gina Grillo, Ford's agent/manager. "We're really honored to be here and be part of the renovation."

Ford wondered if it was fate that led his tribute band to the same stage where Cash once played. It certainly seems like it, fate being the presence of Joseph Low. 

The two have a few things in common. One is geography — Ford's a former logger working out of the Northwest, Low was raised on a Wyoming ranch outside of Laramie, but both also have roots in this region. Two: They both admire Johnny Cash and sing with his deep voice.

Low likes to say he "drove east to Williams College with 16 cases of Coors beer and a bunch of 33 Johnny Cash albums." He'd spread his love for Cash music throughout the campus during a stint as DJ on the college radio station in 1957-58.

Ford, meanwhile, was a musician with a low profile, playing for family and friends until Grillo, also his fiancee, pushed him to sing at an open mike night three years ago. He sang "Folsom Prison Blues" and was stunned by the audience response. A few weeks later, Harold Ford and the Cash Band — including Grillo's daughter, Laura Lucy, doing the vocals of June Carter Cash — was born.

Two years ago, the band was playing at a packed church-turned-theater in Salem, N.Y., when Low called Grillo for tickets. He snapped up the last two — and left wondering how to "get Johnny Cash to North Adams."

"I said this would be a perfect venue for a fundraiser," said Low, leaning on the newly extended Mohawk stage. The next step would be to blend in Mayor Richard Alcombright's efforts on the Mohawk and his own wish to help the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, where his wife also serves on the board.

"I can't think of two better groups," said Low, noting both efforts are tied to preservation, one a historic building and the other, pristine lands.

The concert on Sept. 29 will feature barebones comfort — folding chairs and portapotties. There's no heat or air conditioning, so concertgoers should dress accordingly. Tickets start at standing-room only for students at $12 up to $75 VIP tickets that include a reception at 107 Main St. and Mohawk-themed goodie bags. Space is limited and only 600 tickets will be sold.

Sue Killam of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts, which is providing lighting, sound, and box office services, said some 20 video interviews about the theater were made during last month's Downtown Celebration. The interviews will be woven into a video and shown sometime before or during the concert.

Before the party left, Ford looked around the theater, sizing it up and feeling the spirit. 

"We can't help but feel Johnny is blessing us."

Tags: concerts,   fundraiser,   Mohawk Theater,   

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