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Boston's Rock Roots
Suzanne Cope

Known for universities and hospitals, tea parties and baseball, music may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Boston area’s many attributes. Dig a little deeper into Boston’s cultural history, however, and you will see that Boston and neighboring Cambridge and Somerville have been a hotbed of live music for decades, featuring many well-known acts that got their start on some rather small and humble local stages. Today, there continues to be an influx of talented musicians who pass through Boston on their way to New York, Nashville, or Los Angeles. So take that kettle off the stove and put down your pajamas. It’s nighttime and we’re going on a tour of Boston’s Rock Roots.

One major contributor to the music scene is the Boston area’s concentration of colleges and universities. Home to dozens of respected schools, each year brings together a new class of young people from around the country. This diversity has supports new bands and a rich palette of musical styles that are played in the area. And the prominent music schools—Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music—bring the talent as well. With two of the premier locations to study music in the country in our backyard, there are countless undergrads who populate the downtown section near Hynes Convention Center and play frequently at clubs in the area and around the city, infusing the local music scene with originality and youth. Both schools host a wide variety of performances by students and alumni. Headliners such as jazz musicians Pat Matheny and Branford Marsalis studied at Berklee and regularly return to play at Berklee’s Performing Arts Center. Rocker Paula Cole and alt-rock songwriter Aimee Mann could have been seen at one of the school’s frequent concerts before they made it to MTV. Check out the college websites for upcoming performances, which vary from full choir concerts to jazz ensembles.

Just down from Berklee’s Performing Arts Center on Massachusetts Avenue is Wally’s Cafe, probably the best-known jazz club in the city. Wally’s Café—originally named Wally’s Paradise—has been around since 1947, and has hosted such jazz greats as Roy Hargrove and Joshua Redman. Founded by Joseph Walcott, the first African-American nightclub owner in the city, Wally’s was important in integrating bands and booking the best musicians. Berklee students have competed for slots in Wally’s house band for decades, with hopes of achieving jazz stardom like some of the café’s illustrious alumni. Arrive early for a seat in this small and stuffy room. You don’t have to take much cash— drinks are cheap, there’s no cover, and there’s music seven nights a week.

Not far away in Kendall Square is the spot where the infamous Rathskellar (known as The Rat) became the first local club to host rock and punk bands in the early 1970s into the 1990s. Rock outfits like Aerosmith, The Cars, and J. Geils Band got their start in this dingy, no-frill basement club before moving on to arena-sized venues. Two of this country’s first successful punk bands—The Modern Lovers and The Real Kids—formed in Boston and called the stage at The Rat their home. Unfortunately The Rat closed in the mid-1990s but, just down Commonwealth Avenue, The Paradise rock club has been picking up the slack. The Paradise has been around for twenty-five years and has a reputation for booking local and national up-and-coming rock, punk, and alternative bands for their mid-sized room. Most famously, it was the first club U2 played state-side. The Paradise has also helped launch the careers of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Coldplay, local punk rockers Mission of Burma, and REM, all who could have been seen with just a few hundred other fans before they filled stadiums.

Next we head across the river to Cambridge. Not far up Massachusetts Avenue we arrive at Central Square, home to many of the city’s young hipsters and their music. On any given night, you can find a group of leather-jacket-clad twenty-somethings congregating outside the entrances to two of the square’s biggest music clubs. The Middle East rock club, featuring three different sized stages as well as a bar and restaurant, hosts a variety of music. Headliners play the loud downstairs room, which attracts local rock, alternative, and punk acts with large followings and national acts on the verge. Upstairs is a somewhat smaller and quieter space, and the front stage, called “The Bakery,” hosts a variety of bands for no cover. Right next door on Brookline Street is T.T. the Bear’s Place, a dark mid-sized room that has music seven nights a week. A more cavernous room than the Downstairs at The Middle East, they book local and national acts as well.

Since it’s still known as one of the most liberal zip codes in the country, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Cambridge was an early home to some of the most famous folk singers of the 1960s. Joan Baez was a student at Boston University when she began her folk career playing around Harvard Square. She and her sister Mimi Farina, as well as local Arlo Guthrie, could often be found playing the renowned Club 47, which is considered by many to be the birthplace of the folk music scene. A Time magazine article in 1962 featured Joan Baez and this burgeoning scene, leading other folk musicians to the Cambridge area, including Bob Dylan, who Joan brought with her on stage for some of his earliest shows on the East Coast. Over the next few years the liberal Cantabridgian attitude and the obvious talent of these musicians helped catapult folk music into the public consciousness, where it took off and made stars out of some of its early players. Club 47 was re-christened Club Passim in 1969, but the folk music spirit remains. National acts such as Lori McKenna (who calls a suburb of Boston home) and Nancy Griffith play this cozy room on a regular basis. Located in a corner spot in the heart of Harvard Square, Club Passim is a great place to get your folk on. The house restaurant features all vegetarian fare. Tables can be reserved well ahead of time and all have a great view of the stage.

In part a result of the strong folk scene at Club Passim there are a number of fantastic music clubs not far from Harvard Square that feature quality local bands playing folk-rock, blues, and Americana music. Just a few blocks up Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard Square is Toad, a cozy bar that hosts Session Americana every Sunday night. Local musicians crowd the stage each week to sing classic Americana tunes, as well as songs they love that were written by Session members or other local singer-songwriters. The core group that makes up Session Americana is more than just weekend players, however. Musicians that have seen national fame with the bands Treat Her Right, Morphine, The Blood Oranges, and The The call the Boston area home and regularly sit in with the weekly hootenanny. Many of these musicians still write and play music, and have credited these colleagues with helping them craft their songs. The weekly session is sometimes the first place one of their new works will be played for a public audience. This mixing of old traditions with new has been a longtime trait of the Boston music scene and has garnered Session Americana national recognition for their weekly show and the album they released in June 2005.

Next we’ll take a right at the main intersection by Toad onto Somerville Avenue and drive down about a mile or so to Tir Na Nog in Union Square, Somerville. This quintessential Irish pub has been making a name for itself in the local music scene over the last ten years and more than a few musicians who have graced arena-sized stages have played here as well. Known affectionately as The Nog, some of Boston’s original Americana musicians, such as mandolin player Jimmy Ryan, cut their teeth here before moving onto bigger venues. The Nog is smaller even than Toad, and has an eclectic décor ranging from a bicycle and metal lunch box hanging from the ceiling to vintage street signs from Ireland on the wall. Bumper stickers and posters tacked around the bar also make the owners’ liberal political leanings clear, and reflect the traditions of Americana and folk music. Amazingly The Nog rarely has a cover, except for the occasional national acts they convince to play their intimate stage. One such favorite is Hamill on Trial, who has recently toured the country with Ani Difranco, and continues to play a show at The Nog whenever he comes to town.

The night to visit Tir Na Nog, however, is Tuesday. David Johnston is a local roots rocker who has held down the Tuesday night residency here for more than a year. He has an all-star band support him every week, featuring guitar players Duke Levine and Stu Kimball who have recently toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bob Dylan, respectively. Peter Wolf, of local J. Geils Band fame, is a regular and sometimes sits in on a few songs with David as well. With that kind of pedigreed backing band who continues to believe in his music and the power of the small stage week after week, it seems to be only a matter of time before the rest of the world hears about David Johnston.

This concludes our tour of some of the Boston area’s best grass roots music scenes. It is almost one am, after all, and the bars close early here in New England. Raise a glass and toast some of the musicians after the show, or maybe buy one of their CDs. With a musical pedigree like Boston has, you never know if one of the bands playing these small stages tonight will become one of the radio darlings of tomorrow, like so many before them—and alongside of them—have.

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