Back to top

Save the Drake

Photos by

When Gabrielle Gould moved to Amherst, she was disappointed to find that this otherwise vibrant town lacked a music venue. As the new executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), she had a well-informed hunch that more live music would be great for the community, too.

And thus, a new Amherst destination was born: The Drake, a nonprofit music venue housed in the former High Horse Brewing building (or, depending on the age of your memories, where Amherst Brewing Company used to be). Now hosting shows four to six times a week featuring everything from Bach to jazz to synth-rock and spoken word poetry, it offers something for just about everyone.

Why “The Drake”? Gould took one look at the decades-old graffiti sprayed on the side of Amherst Coffee and declared it wonderful marketing. “SAVE THE DRAKE,” it still reads. “FOR WILLY, FOR HUMANITY.” (More on that in a second.)

Graphic of a cursive D

Even the logo of The Drake has its roots at UMass. Elisabeth Mansfield ’15 created the swirly “D” that represents the venue. Mansfield, an architect-turned-marketing manager, drew graphic inspiration from the curly shapes of bass clefs and the head of a dragon—or, in Middle English terms, a drake.

This particular dragon head was modeled after a sculpture inherited from High Horse Brewing. The sculpture (seen in the background of the video below) represents a great ship with a dragon’s head at the bow. Constructed by local artist Kamil Peters, it has found a second life as a pair of benches that welcome patrons to The Drake.

Serving guests from the early 1900s to 1985, the original Drake resided on Amity Street, in the building that now houses the Perry apartments. According to a 1998 article in this very magazine, The Drake and its basement bar had a colorful reputation by the time it closed. With equal parts conviviality and seedy intrigue, The Drake was known for a good steak and fries, for allegedly serving anyone who could see over the bar, and for its longtime bartender, Willy—real name Willie Whitfield—immortalized by spray paint.

The original Drake closed in a cloud of public outrage, having become a nuisance to downtown Amherst, and its memory faded from the community’s consciousness. But the plea for its restoration never disappeared from the bricks on Amity Street.

Enter Gabrielle Gould’s vision for her new hometown. And, alongside her, many UMass alums who helped to bring this venue into the world, including Brad Hutchison ’94, ’12MA, who worked on The Drake as a project architect with Kuhn Riddle Architects. For him, The Drake was a passion project as much as a professional one: When, after a decade of touring with his bluegrass band, he returned to UMass to earn his master’s degree in architecture, his thesis project was the design for a small music venue.

A person, blurred, walking in front of a brick wall with graffiti that reads, Save The Drake.

Hutchison says that small venues have slowly evaporated from the area. But these venues are a vital link for performers just starting out in the music industry—he calls them the “Music Minor Leagues.” The reintroduction of The Drake is a big step toward replenishing the local music scene and, hopefully, fostering an arts community for everyone. In its first year of operation, The Drake hosted 53 free events, and the availability of free and accessible performances is paramount in the BID’s plan.

A champion of equity and accessibility, Ellisha Walker ’17 is the youngest town councilor in Amherst, and one of the first two women of color to serve on the council. Walker hopes that The Drake will help to develop a tighter-knit Amherst community across generational, cultural, and racial lines. She caught a glimpse of that future when the venue hosted Tem Blessed ’96, a local artist known for socially conscious hip hop. “The turnout for that was amazing,” Walker says. “This is what I envision when I envision the town being lively and really giving back to the community.”

Walker also hopes to further the incorporation of UMass students into the town, and she sees venues like The Drake—places where students can feel part of a wider community—as key in bridging that “town and gown” gap.

Gould seconds that motion, and adds, “The Drake wouldn’t be here without support from the community—and that includes UMass.” The economy of Amherst rests on the shoulders of the university, she says. And the almost daily concerts at The Drake mean that students of all musical preferences find themselves in town for a show, joining crowds of locals on the neon-lit dance floor.

The venue is quickly becoming a hub of community, while simultaneously putting Amherst on the map in the music world. And then? “I just want it to keep growing,” Gould says. “I want it to become iconic.” (Again.)

Watch Tem Blessed ’96 perform as a part of The Drake’s “Construction Sessions”:

From UMASS magazine, 1998

In its latter days, the Drake was famous, its below-street Rathskeller notorious as a smoky dive, a place where—so one legend goes—anyone who could be seen over the bar could be served. Its upstairs apartments, according to more legend and some hearsay, were the lair of drug dealers and other seamy elements. There were suicides there, but were there murders too? Who can say for sure?.

Jim Foudy ’68, now editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, describes the atmosphere of the Drake in the late ’60s as “sophisticated, funky, a little exotic. It was a place where you saw people you wouldn’t see on campus—black people, artists.” (Artist Chuck Close lived there for a while.) “It was a place to go and hang out that wasn’t a frat, a club that wasn’t a club.” On Friday nights, says Foudy, you couldn’t move, it was that crowded.