Who to see. . . .
Simply put, once you look past Aerosmith (and, I guess, Boston the band), Boston’s musical output is sly, subtle and cutting edge. Perhaps it is fitting that the same city that hosted the Tea Party and was a hotbed of radical activity in the Revolutionary era has also played host to some of alternative and indie rock’s smarter musical guerrillas. In the early ’60s, Boston was home to one of the era’s most visionary psychedelic garage bands, the Remains (ironically, though, their contemporaries the Standells, who penned the city’s would-be theme song “Dirty Water,” were from Los Angeles). In the ’70s, this musical mantle was passed to the Lyres, a band combining the trash rock of the psychedelic era with organ-based bluesy grooves. Later on, Boston became home to the Pixies and the vastly underrated Mission of Burma, two of the true prime exponents of the type of alternative rock excellence that could be found in the forgotten corners of 80s college radio. Further out in left field, Boston was also the home of G.G. Allin, punk rock’s most notorious gross-out act (one of the few concerts where most bystanders were at serious risk of getting a staph infection). Meanwhile, local bands like the Cars, the Smithereens, the Lemonheads and the J. Geils Band crept into the limelight in more conventional ways, but without losing a certain local charm. Perhaps this is all par for the world’s biggest college town, but even bookish Harvard has spawned a mix of pop (Weezer), hard rock (Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Bullet LaVolta), and acoustica (most famously, Paul Simon). Today the scene is little different – a mix of quiet geniuses, resolute punks and promising pop bands with a certain edge that makes them distinctly Boston. Here, then, is a quick overview of some of Boston’s current bands of note:
The Sheila Divine – Perhaps Boston’s most promising emerging talent, the Sheila Divine gesture towards U2 and Radiohead while maintaining a certain Afghan Whigs-esque darkness. With one full-length album under their belt, Aaron Perrino and company sit just on the verge of breaking into the big-time (if their major-label packed performance at Brownies in New York this summer was any indication). Those interested in getting in on the ground floor should consider catching them at the Avalon on September 21.
Guster – If you went to college on the East Coast, chances are you already have hazy memories of these bongo-toting acoustic pranksters crashing through some boozy frat-house show with all the requisite Lionel Richie covers. While their Steve Lillywhite-produced major label debut didn’t rattle the charts quite as much as fellow college stand-bye Vertical Horizon’s last disc, their current tour with John Mayer promises to increase their profile.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – BMRC is Boston’s entry in the current “retro” craze, taking their place alongside the likes of the Vines, the Hives, the White Stripes and the Strokes. Thankfully, BMRC has more than just fashion on their side and is, in fact, perhaps one of the best Britpop bands America has produced in quite some time.
Consonant – Lead by Mission of Burma alum Clint Conley and also featuring one of Boston’s most versatile and prolific musical talents Chris Brokaw (who has played with Come and Codeine, among others), Consonant stands with Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth as some of the best “smart noise” available. Dense, mature arch-pop for dank clubs everywhere.
Jonathan Richman – While his work with the Modern Lovers has already secured Jonathan Richman a place in the pantheon of cult legends, Richman’s reinvigorated solo career continues to demonstrate his capacity for songwriting that is both sincere and moving without being campy. Except, of course, when he wants to – it is a little-known fact that it was none other than Jonathan Richman who wrote the theme music in There’s Something About Mary. And, yes, it turns out that he was the guy in the tree!
The Push Stars – Also featured by the Farrelly Brothers on the Something About Mary soundtrack, the Push Stars released their first major label album on Capitol Records in 2001. Poppy, fun, and propulsive, they have continued to grow musically with each release.
The Kickovers – Featuring Nate Albert (from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones) and Mikey Welsh (from Weezer), the Kickovers are driving rock with a pop-punk edge. Good, fun, and loud, their first release, Osaka, came out last year.
The Pernice Brothers – A favorite among rock critics everywhere, the Pernice Brothers sound like what would happen if the Byrds had a moody, brooding sense of humor and a darker guitar aesthetic. Simultaneously intense and buoyant, they remain more a treat for the musical cognoscenti than fodder for the radio-loving masses.
Juliana Hatfield – Back on the road touring on the strength of a career retrospective, Boston’s enigmatic siren remains, like her frequent musical collaborator Evan Dando, one of modern music’s underrated and at times reluctant talents. Regardless, one suspects that time and critical distance will make her catalogue all the more noteworthy.
Dropkick Murphys – Named for the denizens of a Southie rehab clinic, the Dropkicks are a hard-drinking maelstrom of blue collar Boston Irish solidarity. Shout choruses, bagpipes and a fiercely loyal local ethic make them a distinctive phenomenon even amongst supposedly community-focused punk rockers.
While there are many other Boston groups worthy of mention (Dispatch, Piebald, Gravel Pit, and Mary Lou Lord come to mind immediately), the bands above at least demonstrate the breadth and variety of acts that make this city their stomping grounds. So, next time you’re in Newbury Comics or up for a show, consider sampling some of the local flavor and giving one of these groups an audition.
. . . . and Where
One-Ls looking for the Boston “scene” might find themselves at a momentary loss. Unlike so many other towns that boast about half as many colleges, Boston hides its hotspots in unassuming corners – there is no East Village or Sunset Strip. While there is admittedly a total dearth of hip hop and a relatively thin calling for electronica, Boston’s music scene has a distinctive character that many will find appealing.
Like so many other things in Boston, there is a refreshing if initially off-putting “localness” to many of Boston’s best rock clubs. Tap a longtime Bostonian for stories and she’ll reel out story after story of transcendent performances playe/d for the knowing few: a Modern Lovers gig at the Middle East, Mission of Burma at the Orpheum, or the first time the Dropkick Murphys incited a riot on Landsdowne Street. Part of this, of course, is simply a product of Boston’s fiercely loyal indie rock scene, a quirky calling card for a city just outside the flight pattern of the MTV mainstream. But beyond that, Boston has always had a special relationship with the wealth of musical talent lying just across the Pond- for instance, it was Boston radio that first played U2. The Police played one of their first revelatory American shows at the Orpheum, and many relatively unknown Irish and Welsh bands such as JJ72 and the Saw Doctors continue to have their strongest American followings right here in Boston. So, anyway, get out and explore it if you can- it’s a close-knit and galvanizing corner of the American musical landscape. Here are a few places to get you started:
The Middle East (280 Massachusetts Ave.) – Not one but two indie rock clubs, the Middle East in Central Square is one of Boston’s oldest and most-revered music spots. Originally a Middle Eastern restaurant, over time the owners began to experiment with hosting live music. Before they knew it, they were a hotspot. “Downstairs” at the Middle East is one of the city’s larger spaces – a loud concrete box of a room where a variety of mid-sized bands make their appearances. “Upstairs” you’ll find a smaller stage, walls painted with murals from a twisted kindergarden classroom, and a variety o
f local bands and smaller regional touring acts. To round out the package, the restaurant itself sometimes has live music on a small stage in the main dining room.
T.T. the Bear’s (10 Brookline Street) – Next door to the Middle East is T.T. the Bear’s, one of the oddest names and true gems in the Boston music scene. Featuring a tiny stage (which has the misfortune of being located directly on top of the Middle East downstairs – expect the floors to rumble), T.T.’s has a habit of booking excellent bands that are way too big to belong there, like the recently renamed Trail of Dead.
Moreover, T.T.’s has a delicious habit of bringing in indie legends to play intimate solo shows – Evan Dando, Bob Mould, Grant Hart and J. Mascis come to mind, for example. Plan on showing up somewhere in the middle of the program – while the opener that immediately precedes the headliner is usually great, sometimes the local groups earlier on the bill tend to attract audiences that are largely comprised of parents and friends – and for good reason.
The Paradise Rock Club (967 Commonwealth Ave.) – The Paradise’s strange, wide shape and generous balcony mean that almost every spot in the house provides great stage views, and their aggressive bookings mean that the calendar is always stocked with treasures ranging like Jack Johnson, the Super Furry Animals and Cornershop. Located on the slow part of the Green Line, the Paradise does require some extra effort to get to, but after one show you’ll realize it’s well worth your while.
The Avalon Ballroom (15 Landsdowne Street) – Located just across from the entrance to the bleachers at Fenway, the Avalon is one of Boston’s big showcase clubs with a size and repertoire comparable to New York’s Irving Plaza or the 9:30 Club in DC. Once owned by Aerosmith (when it was called the Mama Kin Music Hall), the Avalon is a bit schizophrenic, scheduling shows early so it can host a black-pants and barely-out-of-high-school coed house music scene after hours.
The Orpheum (1 Hamilton Place) – Located near the Suffolk Law building, the Orpheum is Boston’s other big showcase club and has a rich and noteworthy history (it once served as the home for the New England Conservatory). Chosen by the Stones for their Boston club date, the Orpheum is one of those places that commands a certain nostalgia among not only Boston music buffs, but rock historians nationwide.
Johnny D’s (17 Holland Street) – Tucked unassumingly in Davis Square, Johnny D’s is a great spot to catch a variety of rockabilly, alt.country and roots acts that manage to make it this far north. Set up like a supper club, Johnny D’s can be a mixed blessing logistically – those wishing to take in a show will find that they get the best seats if they make a dinner reservation on top of paying the cover. The good news is that their stylized Southern cooking is quite good (easily on par with the House of Blues), and the whole excursion can make for a great night out.
Harper’s Ferry (158 Brighton Ave.) – Smack in the middle of Allston’s thriving BU party axis, Harper’s Ferry is the place to catch a variety of funk, R&B, and blues acts. Greats like Maceo Parker, Taj Mahal and others of like mind make this their Boston home, and it also serves as a natural outlet for Boston’s vibrant jamband scene.
Axis (13 Landsdowne Street) – Next door to the Avalon, the Axis is the Avalon’s surly little brother, hosting a more stripped down after-hours dance scene and an unabashedly punk concert calendar. Although it only hosts a handful of shows a year, preferring instead to delve into hip-hop and house club nights most of the time, the Axis is tight, sweaty and loud – all you’d ever want in a nouveau punk hangout.
House of Blues (96 Winthrop Street) – Those coming from New Orleans, Vegas or L.A. will be disappointed to find that Harvard Square’s House of Blues location is their smallest in the country and perhaps more suited for law firm receptions than concerts. That being said, they make up for their limited facilities with the occasional truly smart concert booking in the deep blues genre. Past catches have included Corey Harris and Peter Green.
Huge shows tend to usually come to the Fleet Center, Gillette Field and occasionally places like the Tweeter Center in Mansfield. Those seeking acoustic music and open mic nights should check out Club Passim in Harvard Square, the Lizard Lounge (under Cambridge Common), the Cantab Lounge near MIT or the Burren in Davis Square. Also in Cambridge, Toad’s is a delightfully tiny rock club, while the Hong Kong has on occasion been known to host dreadful punk cover bands (I refer, of course, to my own humble outfit, Dr. Teeth). Keep checking back for more concert calendars!
The legendary Boston band Mission of Burma. Hey, some of us age more gracefully than others.
Originally printed in the Harvard Law Record, November 21, 2002