by Emma Parkinson
Photography by Emma Parkinson
In an April 2016 article, Consequence of Sound ranked the nation’s top 100 music venues. Almost all of them were local dives, intimate bars or concert halls with a long history. The message is clear: local venues are the glue of any music scene. From San Francisco’s The Fillmore to NYC’s Bowery Ballroom, the country overflows with places that have changed the lives of musicians and concert-goers.
College towns in particular are populated with venues large and small, which is fitting, considering how many bands get their start in college. From The Doors at UCLA to Phish at University of Vermont to Vampire Weekend at Columbia, it’s clear that those four years can spark something incredible. That being said, these bands would not have been able to take off had it not been for the presence and support of local venues who booked them.
Boston, a town of over 250,000 college students, is no exception. Five venues that were and continue to be instrumental in the Boston music community include Club Passim, The Plough and Stars, The Lizard Lounge Toad and TT The Bear’s Place.
Club Passim, located in Cambridge, is a classic folk music club that opened in 1958. Originally named Club 47 for its original location, the name changed in 1969 to Passim and in 1994 to Club Passim. The club is intimate, seating around 100 people.
Boston University student Abby Freeman (COM ’19) attended Club Passim’s annual Campfire Festival. She enjoyed the intimacy of the space as well as the high quality performance.
“The venue was interesting because there was a small stage with lots of tables and seating, but the downside was that there was no room to dance,” she said. “There was a lot of nice natural light peaking into the room as well. Since we had to walk downstairs from outside to enter the venue, windows on the walls allow the audience to see what's going on outside too.”
The performance was unique as well—four musicians played a solo each, then finished with a song all together.
“They were each so talented that having them all play at once on one stage honestly felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Freeman “I don't think I'll ever hear anything like that live again.”
Club Passim has a notable history that many patrons might not be aware of. Joan Baez performed there regularly in 1958 when she was a student. In 1962, Bob Dylan was said to play between sets for free. Bonnie Rait was also a regular when she attended college in the area.
Club Passim was also one of the first venues in the north to feature Southern African American blues musicians. Staff and patrons gave the performers a place to stay when local hotels refused to rent to them.
In addition to this rich history, Club Passim maintains the interesting position of a non-profit that relies on members, donors and volunteers for support. According to the website, the club believes “it critical to preserve and promote folk and acoustic music by nurturing new artists, offering varied programming, and featuring both new and established talent.”
The Plough and Stars, also in Cambridge, helps to remind locals of how important it is to remember your roots. Opened in 1969, the neighborhood bar is a place to see local bands while drinking a pint of the signature Cooley Distillery whisky. The cozy atmosphere has seen the likes of Philip Roth, Bonnie Rait and the beginnings of the famous literary journal Ploughshares.
As told by Chris Wright in an article for the Boston Phoenix, the Plough and Stars is a snapshot. He says you can walk inside and be thrown back 25 years.
“…the same tables and chairs, the same bottles lined up behind the bar, the same huge windows, the same tiny restrooms, the same customers.” The place is full of regulars, people who have formed and found a community while supporting local musicians and their passion to perform.
The story of The Lizard Lounge and Toad are similar. The Lizard Lounge is known for poetry slams and open mics, allowing anyone to get their performing fix. The space is intimate and warm, with emphasis on jazz, fold and roots rock. It remains a place to come back to over and over again after just one performance.
Toad, a hole-in-the-wall in Porter Square, is a solid spot for roots and Americana. They’ll sometimes book a soul performer or a good Beatles tribute band, despite the venue being mostly cover-free. The actual venue is hardly bigger than a studio apartment, a perfect place to meet strangers who love music. Though both places are small and under the radar, they contribute heavily to the music culture in Boston.
Despite the fortunate longevity of all of these venues, some places are not so lucky. A notable Cambridge venue, TT The Bear’s Place, closed last July. A neighboring venue, the Middle East, purchased the space and is working on turning it into Sonia’s, a new restaurant and venue. Former General Manager and current Social Media Strategist Clay Fernald spoke about the acquisition of the space.
“There are some public statements about this, but we acquired the building, after renting for years, and now own the space that was formerly TT the Bear's.,” said Fernald. I was there for one of the last shows with The Mighty Mighty BossTones. That was a great room. Expect to be hearing about our new club, Sonia's occupying the space. We are finishing construction now.”
With the closing of a popular venue comes a loss in the music community. However, Fernald spoke about the importance of supporting the community and artists and venues.
“There seems to be a lot of hand-wringing about venues closing and I'm of the opposite mind,” he said. “Businesses close and open daily; it is the cycle of things.”
In the end, it’s important to remember that patrons are contributors to the music world just as much as artists and venue owners. Fernald summed it all up perfectly.
“Don't worry about the venues, but support your friends,” he said. “If your friend is a bartender at a club, go visit them. If your friend's band has a CD release in a small room, be one of the people there. Support friendship! Buy drinks, food if possible. Tip generously.”