Photo By Joan Hathaway
Club Passim’s Manager Matt Smith passes at least three other music venues on his mile walk home from Harvard Square. If he were to walk in the other direction, down Mass Ave. toward Central Square, he would hit about eight more venues in roughly the same distance. And if he were to take a detour towards Inman and East Cambridge, that’d be a couple more.
All of these venues cater to a diverse range of music – funk, soul, R&B, jazz, bluegrass, country, rock and folk. At the heart of the city’s music scene, is not just high quality tunes, but an unshakable sense of community that defines Cambridge and makes its small venues an ideal place to showcase these talents intimately.
“What’s kept me in Boston is that there’s a community here that I didn’t feel in other cities,” notes Tom Bianchi, a New York born and bred musician who has been active in this scene since 1996 as a musician and as a “community organizer.”
Bianchi’s weekly schedule includes running a singer/songwriter series on Sunday nights at The Burren in Somerville, MCing open mic night at The Lizard Lounge on Mondays, jamming with the Baker Thomas Band (now in it’s fifth year of residency) on Thursday nights at Toad and as many events, festivals and gigs as he can get his hands on. “My life is this community top to bottom,” he tells me.
There is a unity among the independent venues in the music scene here: “I don’t feel like other venues are rivals,” notes Smith. “There isn’t an exclusivity. We all want artists to move around.”
The sense of unity that defines this scene also bleeds into relationships among musicians. “Within this community of venues, there is a great spirit of writing and playing songs and doing gigs together,” adds Bianchi.
Local folk musician Jenee Halstead agrees: “The community is so incredible and supportive of each other here. I don’t see that in other cities.”
Many of these spots will also invite different musicians, special guests and characters of all sorts to rotate in on shows, which keeps the music, the atmosphere and the crowd fresh and interesting. On a Friday or Saturday night at The Cantab Lounge, which showcases everything from bluegrass to funk and soul bands, you’re just as likely to strike up a conversation with a cowboy one night, a hippie the next or even your neighbor’s grandmother.
While the high quality music is certainly the center of the scene here, the bohemian, counter-cultural vibe of these venues also draw people in. “It’s something you can feel in your bones,” says Jack Bardy, co-owner of The Beat hotel in Harvard Square. In reflecting on her experiences at The Plough & Stars as both a musician and spectator, Becca Thornblade, of the local group The Cello Chicks notes: “There is something about the vibe there – it’s very free and open.”
“I’ve played in a lot of cities, and every time I leave here I’m like ‘I’ can’t wait to get back [to Cambridge] because the talent is just ridiculous,” says Halstead. “I know I can go out any night of week here. I can walk into Toad or Passim or Plough & Stars, and know I will get my mind blown by having the best musical experience possible. There is never any doubt.”
WANT TO EXPERIENCE THE VERSATILITY FIRST HAND?
Here’s some of the city’s best small venues and what makes them so unique.
TOAD | 1912 Mass Ave.
Porter Square’s favorite hole-in-the-wall, Toad offers free live music every night of the week. Don’t be fooled by its size or price – it’s a hotbed for both local and touring acts. With no TVs, the focus is on music. “I’d put it up against any bar on the entire planet – you can’t argue it out of the top five” says Bianchi. Open till 2 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, Toad is also a great last call bar. “It’s where the musicians go when they are done with their other gigs,” confirms Bianchi.
LIZARD LOUNGE | 1667 Massachusetts Ave.
Toad’s sister venue, Lizard Lounge gives you the same quality of shows with a bit more breathing room. Home to one of the best open mics in the city, the Lounge is also a destination for Slam Poetry on Sunday evenings. And if your looking for food and conversation, Cambridge Common is upstairs in the same building.
CANTAB LOUNGE | 738 Massachusetts Ave.
From the outside, The Cantab could pass for a dive bar, but this Cambridge staple since 1938 parented the talents of musicians like George Thorogood and Little Joe Cook. “When people first walk in here, they look at each other like what is this place,” notes long-time manager, Steven Ramsey. “Then they hear the music and everything changes.” While you can find everything from bluegrass to metal here during the week, it’s a funk and soul heavy environment on the weekends with “feel good music that drives the soul.”
ATWOOD’S | 877 Cambridge St.
A hidden gem in East Cambridge, Atwoods balances a bar, restaurant and music room in one small space, and still manages to leave room for an upbeat, dance friendly crowd. They also host one of Cambridge’s most popular residency’s –The Tim Gearan Band on Friday nights – not to mention one of the best craft beer menus around.
PLOUGH & STARS | 912 Mass Ave.
One of the tiniest venues in Cambridge, The Plough & Stars has an intimacy about it that pulls you in as deeply as the music played there. This place also has as good a reputation for food as it does its music. “What makes us unique is that we bridge the gap between being funky, cool and relaxed, while still being a bistro,” notes manager (and local musician) Jesse Hayes.
PASSIM | 47 Palmer St.
Passim is more like a small theatre with a heavy emphasis on listening, which distinguishes it from other venues in Cambridge.
Come here if you’re looking for more of a meditative musical experience in a traditional folk-friendly environment. The space is also home to the vegetarian restaurant, Veggie Planet, which opens its kitchen to patrons at nighttime shows.
LILYPAD INMAN | 1353 Cambridge St.
At the Lilypad, anything goes. As one of the most eclectic spots around, you can find everything here from live music to dance parties to tango lessons to yoga. Wooden floors, rolled carpets, and couches in the back give the space homey feel. The space perfectly suitss Inman’s quirky, free spirit mentality. Feel free to roll up in sweatpants or come dressed to the nines- either way, you won’t feel out of place.