One of my favorite things about the Boston/Cambridge area was the variety of great music venues. I didn’t bother with the nightlife in downtown so much, but instead tried to hunt out some of the quirkier music joints littered around the two cities. Not that there’s anything wrong with downtown, you can find a decent dive bar or cocktail lounge pretty much anywhere, but if you’re itching for some live music with a bit of personality there are some great places to explore around the two cities. In no particular order…
Wally’s was my first experience watching music in a hole in the wall and made me decide pretty quickly that I should hunt things like this out more often. It’s nothing like your average trendy Jazz club. The place is tiny, dark, and just dingy enough to make me feel at home in my sneakers. There’s no cover charge but if you enjoy the show you’re encouraged to tip the band. They have a range of different styles throughout the week. I went along on their Blues night, which was fantastic, but I hear Latin Jazz night is pretty awesome as well. The players were incredible, particularly for the size of the place. Mario Perrett on the saxophone is particularly good but the whole band is pretty tight. I think I would have been impressed with them anywhere but the intimate atmosphere really added to the show. Wally’s is right down the road from Berklee College of Music and some of the students there are frequent guest stars. Two of them filled in on sax and drums will I was there and I was blown away by how talented they were. The teachers at Berklee are certainly doing something right.
Keeping on with my hole in the wall theme, the next place I hit is a quirky little place called Toad. It’s well off the tourist trail in Porter Square, past the main section of Cambridge and getting close to the suburb of Somerville. I got in a bit late to catch the regular openers, Fandango, but the locals inform me that they’re fantastic. The band I do catch is called the Ken Clark Organ Trio. Ken Clark is down from New Hampshire and plays the oldest organ I have ever seen. The genre is indescribable but if you’re a music lover with tastes that tend towards the slightly bizarre then you’re bound to appreciate him. Like Wally’s, Toad has some amazing musicians come through but the scene is a little less high class and a bit more off the wall. There’s a really nice energy about the place, with the friendly regulars banging about trying to dance in the tiny space. Like Wally’s, the crowd is all ages, everyone’s welcome. If you love music you’ll be part of the family.
I’m told TT the Bears is one of Cambridge’s indie hang outs but the night I went along there was a couple of Stoner Rock bands playing so it seems to be fairly diverse in the crowds it draws. The bands I saw were pretty average compared to Wally’s and Toad, but they were entertaining enough and the beer was cheap. The crowd were good fun and it seems like a pretty decent little venue overall. Much bigger than Wally’s or Toad but still small enough to be fairly intimate. The location in Central Square is good as well. It’s right down the road from another venue called the Middle East that draws some bigger bands (and consequently a bigger cover charge). It’s a good area to turn up to off the cuff. If you don’t like the music at one place, there’ll be other options close by.
Being a rock fan, no trip to Boston would be complete without visiting the neighbourhood of Allston, also known as ‘Allston Rock City’. It’s famous for its Rock and Punk scene and has produced a fair few famous names including The Dropkick Murphys, The Pixies, and Aerosmith. The whole area is very grunge, but that’s the charm of the place. The only downside is that unless you want to pay for a taxi (and why would you when you could spend that money on beer?), then you’ll be taking the Green Line out there, by far the crappiest of the subway routes. It’s not that bad really, but the trains are these crappy little tram things that are very…rustic shall we say, and not exactly timely compared to getting the Red Line to Cambridge and back. They’re part of the adventure though, and Allston kind of suits having crappy trains. The best venue I went to here is the Great Scott, which seems to have fairly decent rock acts most nights of the week. It’s not huge but big enough to squash a few hundred people into if need be. The scene there seems pretty cool and there are some awesome buskers that hang around the subway stop across the street, so even if the bands aren’t great one night, the general area is pretty entertaining.
A short walk up the street from the Great Scott is a smaller pub called O’Brien’s that has a fair few rock acts as well. I preferred the scene down at the Great Scott but they’re pretty close to each other so it’s a decent enough alternative if the Great Scott has nothing on.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of course, just the places I made it to in the short time I was there. For some other ideas, the Middle East always seemed to have something happening, the Cantab Lounge runs a regular bluegrass night that I was keen to check out (unfortunately it wasn’t on when I tried to go because they were hosting a slam poetry contest) and I’ve heard Smokin’ Joe’s has a great Blues jam. I’m sure there’s many more cool little bars that I haven’t even heard of as well. I’ll certainly be back one day to explore a bit further.
Listening to: Nimrod’s Son – The Pixies