Steve Morse - Boston Globe - 12.22.2000

On the day before last winter's fire, Andrew Stahl recalls saying: "For the first time, I feel on top of the business." His Gamelan Productions, known for promoting jam bands and other adventurous new acts, had come a long way from its start in 1993 when Stahl, a Northeastern University graduate, was hanging fliers in clubs, record stores, coffeehouses, and anywhere else he was allowed to advertise his shows. Gamelan had grown to putting on nearly 150 shows a year, and a high-end computer system had been purchased. Then came the devastating fire of Feb. 9 that killed five people and destroyed Gamelan's office and many others around it at 200 Boylston St., in Newton, across from the Chestnut Hill Mall. Stahl, 31, was one of the last to leave his building. No one from Gamelan died, but as Stahl tried to lead four people from adjacent offices down a hallway thick with smoke, the floor collapsed and only he made it out safely. Once in the parking lot, he hugged and cried with fellow Gamelan survivors Howard Turkenkopf, Steve Robinson, Todd Walker, and Lee Selig. The fire had struck without warning and the cause remains unknown.

The Gamelan staff lost nearly everything, including computers, personal CD collections, memorabilia, and an art collection owned by new partner Rick Kosow. "Our losses were around $130,000 and we only had $50,000 in insurance," says Stahl. "But there's something about a near-death experience that brought everyone closer. Everybody gave a 250 percent effort to get us back on top." Nearly a year later, Gamelan is again a force. The company has temporary office space in Needham (a permanent base is expected soon nearer to Boston), and is finishing its best year yet. Rarely does a weekend pass without Gamelan staging shows at such venues as the Somerville Theatre, the Roxy, the Middle East, Lilli's, and the Worcester Palladium. And rarely does any company match the ingenuity of Gamelan, whose staff masterfully packages multigenre shows that capture the public's imagination. Many fans know the company for its neo-hippie jam-band shows - and for the hippie-filled Berkshire Mountain Music Festival each summer in Western Mass. - but, more and more, Gamelan is expanding its scope.

"We've gotten into hip-hop, electronica, reggae, and world music," says Turkenkopf, a Brandeis graduate who joined Gamelan in 1995. "We found our niche in the jam-band scene, but we love all kinds of music. And there's a lot of overlap. Some of the newer jam bands are into electronica drum beats and synthesizer sounds. We like to mix and match a lot. And that's how we've also been able to get into more world music."

Gamelan now manages three bands - Jiggle (formerly Jiggle the Handle); John Sinclair, the activist once busted for marijuana and the subject of a benefit concert by John Lennon; and Treehouse Union. Until this June, Gamelan also ran a booking agency, but dropped that to focus on concert promotion and managing. "It's hard to buy, sell, and manage talent under one roof," says Turkenkopf. "So we decided to narrow the focus a bit." Gamelan is known for its cleverly packaged series that go by such names as "Road Trip," "Time and Space," "Get Onto the Bus," and "Burnin'," the latter booked after last winter's fire. "Burnin' had several meanings," says Stahl. "It had to do with burnin' music, with the office burning down, and I was going through a strong Bob Marley phase at the time." (Marley made an album called "Burnin'.")

The company is also known for its theme shows, including the recent "Jiggle Goes to Seussville" night at the Somerville Theatre. Jiggle performed, while many fans dressed up as their favorite Seuss characters and watched Seuss-inspired video projections that accompanied the music. There's also an upcoming "Jiggle in the Jungle" show at the Middle East on Dec. 29 (complete with jungle props and models of rainforest animals). Jiggle will also host "Alien Crashdown" at Worcester's Tammany Hall on New Year's Eve, featuring blowup alien dolls, and "pre-Mardi Gras Ball" at the Somerville Theatre on Jan. 26. Gamelan remains a grass-roots company that spreads the word of its concerts by phone (Stahl has made up to 50 calls a day), by mail (and e-mail), and by fliers posted everywhere from clubs and restaurants to laundromats and convenience stores. They are distributed by a network of up to 150 people (many of them students) who get free tickets or merchandise in return. (For more on the company, check out www.gamelan.tv.)

Stahl grew up in Freehold, N.J., also known as Bruce Springsteen's hometown. "I had some of Bruce's teachers in school," says Stahl, who started out by booking shows on Thursdays at the now-defunct Ed Burke's in 1993, then at Harpers Ferry and the Middle East. In 1996, he moved up to the 900-capacity Somerville Theatre, where Gamelan sold out two shows with Medeski, Martin & Wood, then another with the Strangefolk and moe. Along the way, several Gamelan-promoted bands have signed national record deals. They include Soulive (Blue Note label), Dr. Didg (Rykodisc), John Brown's Body (Shanachie) and New Deal (Jive). Other Gamelan-supported acts from the Slip to Deep Banana Blackout are also carving out national reputations.

Stahl founded Gamelan - and now has two other partners in Kosow and Peter Gold (former codirector of the Boston Music Awards). The rest of the current full-time staff is rounded out by Turkenkopf, production manager Steve Robinson (nicknamed Stevie Wonder), and office manager Deb Monahan. The name Gamelan was chosen spontaneously ("A friend suggested it, actually," says Stahl) and was taken from Indonesian ensembles known as gamelan orchestras. "Two weeks after the friend suggested the name, I heard gamelan music in concert for the first time and I loved it."

Despite Gamelan's rise, it remains an underdog next to the giant SFX/Don Law Company in the Boston area. Gamelan used to copromote occasional dates with Law's company before SFX bought it, but those days are gone. "Since SFX came along, they won't have anything to do with another promoter," says Stahl. But Stahl adds that corporate SFX tactics are actually helping Gamelan win a wider, alternative audience. He cites, for example, the "sterile" atmosphere at many shows at the Tweeter Center, which SFX now owns. "The more they make it sterile, the more they're helping us," he says. "People are realizing that it's a cookie-cutter experience out there. We're trying to do something different with our shows. We're trying to make the whole experience creative and fun."