Who Has the Best Jukebox in Cambridge?

charlie's kitchenThe juke at Charlie's Kitchen: always free. Photo by Jess Benjamin.

We spent a night trying to track down the city’s finest jukes, with varying degrees of success.

“It’s all f***in’ automated now,” a guy, who will later introduce himself as Ryan, proclaims mid-smoke as he stands outside Lord Hobo.

As a longtime fan of jukeboxes and a manager at Night Shift Brewery, Ryan has at least 10 more minutes of closing remarks in him on the state of music in bars, but his crass, simple statement pretty much sums up our Friday evening.

We initially set out to spend a night visiting the best bars with jukeboxes in the city, and what we discovered is that bar music is somewhere between awkward evolutionary stages. Most tips we received on establishments with jukeboxes came up fruitless, leading us either to places with turned-off jukes collecting dust in a corner, soullessly glowing TouchTunes consoles with every pop song known to man in their databases or bartenders who have an iron grip on the aux cable.

Maybe a bar’s taste in music seems like an innocuous detail if you’re more attuned to conversation or drink selection, but the soundtrack can truly define the entire genetic makeup of an establishment. Stand-up bits and viral articles have been made on the furious reactions of bar-goers when an innocent song like Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” or Tom Jones’s “What’s New, Pussycat?” is selected repeatedly over one night. I avoided my favorite dive bar in college on Thursday nights because I knew the bartender would shut off the jukebox and blare nü-metal until close. Hell, our new friend Ryan almost got hit by a bus on his 21st birthday, but the most memorable part of that night for him was playing Jawbreaker on the jukebox at Charlie’s Kitchen.

We did track down a few places that dared to offer carefully curated selections to the eclectic masses, though. To honor the many admirable bars across Cambridge that appreciate good music, here’s our semi-complete list of bars visited in pursuit of the almighty jukebox bar.

***

charlie's kitchenDo they have a jukebox? Two, in fact. One classic CD jukebox, one TouchTunes player.

What did you play? “Jump” by Van Halen, “Allison” by Elvis Costello, attempted to play “Modern Kicks” by The Exploding Hearts

Sidenote: I think the most telling detail about the state of the Charlie’s jukebox was that, after inquiring with an anonymous server about who stocks the box with music, they asked if we were talking about “the sh*tty one” or the TouchTunes.

Overall experience: Yes, “the sh*tty one” is still free—and it still has Jawbreaker on it—but a) no one knows who changed the music on it last; b) the selection only goes up until the early 2000s; and c) the juke music cuts out if someone pays for a song via TouchTunes. If anything, though, its mysterious preservation and modern-day David and Goliath battle versus its all-electronic counterpart makes it an endearing, grimy staple of the Cambridge scene.

the druidDo they have a jukebox? No.

Then why should I care about them? Decorated like a beloved Irish bar that’s been taken over by the owners’ art-school kid, The Druid mingles classic folk festival posters with cartoonish ghost sculptures floating down from the ceiling.

Washed down with moody red lighting, the ambience recalls the recently departed, deeply missed River Gods in Central Square (sans DJ playing surf rock in the corner, unfortunately). Those artsy touches and attention to folk music history help the bar establish its own unique personality, which helps it net curmudgeonly barflies and younger crowds alike.

the automaticDo they have a jukebox? No, but they have more records than any place we visited.

Why should I care ab… wait, what? Yep, The Automatic is a bar that boasts a pretty damn good turntable setup and numerous shelves of classic LPs for selection. Considering they opened last fall, some may jadedly call it a gimmick or a natural conclusion to the past decade’s vinyl resurgence, but the out-in-the-open turntable feels like a bold and welcoming offer. Letting customers peruse and dissect their record collection pays off, and it makes The Automatic feel like a Discogs nerd’s haven inside a sleek, downtown bar.

What did you play? The Go-Go’s Beauty And The Beat LP was already playing, and, considering they had drinks like the “Miami Vice For Two” on the menu (which serves “both Crockett and Tubbs”), we weren’t about to disrupt that pastel-heavy ’80s vibe.

state parkDo they have a jukebox? Yes! A jukebox! No TouchTunes! Just a good ol’ fashioned jukebox, baby!

What did you play? “Can You Get To That?” by Funkadelic, “Jeepster” by T-Rex, “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me” by Jay Reatard and, once again, an unsuccessful attempt at “Modern Kicks” by The Exploding Hearts

Sidenote: All I wanna say is that Guitar Romantic by The Exploding Hearts is a modern classic and, coupled with the band’s tragic fate, it is a travesty that not a single bar could sate my need to hear the sweet, fuzzy riffs of “Modern Kicks.” Seriously, look them up.

Overall experience? A bar like State Park tentatively has my heart and my curiosity. It’s like a wardrobe to Narnia… y’know, if Narnia was an amalgamation of every dive bar I’ve ever sung too loudly in.

Nestled amongst the slightly pricey bars of Kendall Square, State Park throws enough yellowing photographs, glowing brewery signs and taxidermy at its walls to distance itself from its bougie neighbors. And what makes it feel like a good dive bar and not like a bar trying to be a good dive is its jukebox, lovingly curated by the bartenders. Something about throwing back a house cocktail—an impossibly delicious mix of Miller High Life with rye whiskey, bitters and lemon garnish—as our bartender explains how they’ve become somewhat tired of hearing Prince’s often-played “Purple Rain” feels like the experience we originally set out to find.

Sure, recreating the perfect, trapped-in-time magic of a jukebox bar can be a precise science—but State Park is earnest enough in its tribute to win over any skeptics.

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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