Boston Venues: Five Best, Five Worst, and Five Worth the Roadtrip
By Joel Barrett
Sweet music, sweet spots
For lovers of live music — rock, folk, or jazz, and everything in between — the Boston area really is the promised land. There are more concerts in one week in northeastern Massachusetts than most areas of the country have in a whole year. We don’t have to travel too far for our music, and there’s tons to choose from. Whether rock, folk, blues, or Americana, all the big-names — and most of the best of the up-and-comers — make Boston a touring priority. And the venues available are diverse as the acts that take the stage in the region.
In that vein, this music fan humbly offers the Top 5 Best spots to see concerts, the Bottom 5, and picks for “Onstage on the Road.” These are just opinions on the venues, based on intimacy, ease in getting there, cost and overall enjoyment value. Nothing scientific, just based on gut instinct and hard-won experience.
1. Shalin Liu Performance Center, 37 Main St., Rockport: The lovingly crafted 334-seat theater is the gem of the North Shore. It’s only four years old and represents a collaboration between acclaimed architects Alan Joslin and Deborah Epstein of Cambridge, and internationally heralded acoustic expert R. Lawrence Kirkegaard of Chicago. It’s small, the staff is friendly, the crowd is respectful, and the acts are top-notch. And then there’s the stage. The whole back of the stage area is framed by plate-glass windows looking out onto the harbor. As main attractions perform, waves, boats, and seagulls stream by, making this room and experience the best in the area. It really is something extraordinary. The only drawback can be summer traffic and parking, but in off-season it’s a breeze.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, the building’s sheer beauty and its stunning harbor views sells itself,” Tony Beadle, executive director of Rockport Music, said. “But we like to think that our programming — which regularly features some of the world’s finest classical artists as well as a wide spectrum of well-known and rising star jazz, folk, and pop artists — has something to do with Rockport Music’s growing success as well. It’s unique in that the building itself is a work of art, so attendees get a full sensory experience when they come [here].”
2. Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, North Londonderry: A great little BYOB club with national acts flooding its calendar. You can catch legendary acts such as Aimee Mann, Tom Rush, Squeeze, Stanley Clarke, and Carole King in a very small, sweet-sounding room. In its theater format, it seats 250 patrons while, with tables, it accommodates 150.
“Tupelo Music Hall is akin to a very large ‘high end’ living room with a ridiculously great sound system,” owner Scott Hayward said. “We look like a club but operate like a theater. What makes Tupelo so special is the programming and ability for such a small venue to get artists with big names.”
Tupelo just celebrated its 10th year on Sept. 11. The venue opened in ’04 as a part-time venture by Hayward, who purchased the property and decided to run an existing “coffee house” under a different name and format. After a couple of years, the venture grew so fast that Hayward quit his “day” job to pursue Tupelo full time. It hosts about 240 shows per year and draws about 35,000 music fans.
3. Club Passim, 47 Palmer St., Cambridge: This is the granddaddy of them all. It traces its musical lineage to Club 47, the legendary folk club that helped spawn the folk boom in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It was where superstars like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez honed their craft when they were no-names. The club is in a basement near Harvard and hosts an amazing 400 shows a year (early and late shows) and draws about 30,000 fans. It’s tiny, it’s tight, but the vibe is right. The venue seats only 110 patrons and prides itself on being an “all-ages” venue where families can enjoy music the way it was meant to be heard.
“Club Passim offers a type of concert that doesn’t exist in many places anymore,” said Kristina Latino, assistant club manager. “Our space is truly a listening room – people come to focus on the music. In a world where concerts are increasingly filled with loud talk, drinks and cellphones, it’s refreshing to come to a concert venue this intimate and respectful. You hear things in this room you can’t hear anywhere else. Artists and audience members often interact during shows, creating an intimacy and sense of community that’s really strong. “
Club Passim spawned a nonprofit organization that hosts a music school and special community programs. It also runs the Iguana Music Fund which gives out money to talented New England artists to fulfill special projects and goals. Club Passim is undergoing some changes this year as it begins to take over food service from a long-time vendor that provided delightful vegetarian entrees. Club Passim will also be tackling some physical improvements in the coming months, she said, and has expanded offerings with open mic nights, lunch-time concerts and morning children’s shows.
4. Local coffeehouses: It’s ironic but many older rock and roll fans are spending more and more time seeing shows at churches that host coffeehouse-style performances. The area has a some of the best. Me&Thee in Marblehead, the Old Sloop Coffeehouse in Rockport, and New Moon Coffeehouse in Haverhill all attract well-known folk and Americana artists. The price is right, the crowd is nice, it’s easy to get to, and they usually have the best baked goods. These all are great places to see folk and Americana acts like Ellis Paul, Jeffrey Foucault, Kris Delmhorst, and Mary Gauthier.
Me & Thee, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead: Celebrating its 45th year in 2015, Me & Thee offers something special not only for the audience but the artists as well, according to Kathy Sands-Boehmer, publicity manager and booking coordinator for the 225-seat venue at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead.
“I like to think that there’s a magical musical force within our four walls,” she said. “Many artists tell us that they feel like they’ve come home when they play here. Audiences feel a sense of community and are very appreciative of each and every act. There’s a lot of love shown between the artists and the audience. It’s impossible not to have a good time at a Me & Thee show.”
The coffeehouse has embraced social media and makes a point of offering interviews for upcoming acts to get the proper recognition.
“I feel it’s extremely important to promote independent musicians and give them proper recognition. Today’s opening acts will be tomorrow’s feature artists. It’s vital that they are given decent listening rooms in which to play,” she said.
Old Sloop Coffeehouse, 12 School St., Rockport: Founded in’ 09 as an outreach of the First Congregational Church with its sanctuary dating back to 1804 when it was built as the Sandy Bay Meetinghouse. The venue seats 150 and is part of the church’s mission to give back to the community that supports it.
“There is a real sense of community,” Geof Lyon, of the coffeehouse’s coordination committee, said. “Everyone is enveloped by a pervasive feeling of friendliness. The musicians feel this, too, and the boundary between performer and audience is softened. We are often treated to first performances of new songs, and that occurs only when a musician is most comfortable.”
Tickets prices are kept low, with discounts for juniors, seniors and families. With its elevator, all shows are handicap accessible.
New Moon Coffeehouse, 701 S. Main, Haverhill: New Moon Coffeehouse at the Universalist Unitarian Church began in 1988 as a way to provide community outreach and to give music lovers a safe, inviting, smoke and alcohol free environment to hear top-notch nationally acclaimed performers.
Concerts are presented in a classy, acoustically perfect listening room with wood paneling and stained glass windows while larger shows are held in the 120 year-old sanctuary that can accommodate 350 patrons.
In addition to up-and-coming acts, New Moon has a track record of attracting legendary performers like Dave Van Ronk, Bill Morrissey and Utah Phillips. But folk music isn’t the only genre that fills the air at New Moon.
“We often use the term folk music to describe our shows but our mission is to expand the definition of that term to include modern singer-songwriter originals alongside acts that may veer into the realms of blues, bluegrass, rock, traditional ballads or work songs, jazz or even classical,” Carol Allen, who handle booking at New Moon. “We also usually have a short opening act because another of our goals is to nurture talented individuals who deserve to be heard and need a friendly place to hone their musical and performance skills.”
5. Portsmouth Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth, N.H.: Built in 1878, the hall has a long and storied career that includes performance by Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show and the very first moving pictures on Edison’s Graphophone in 1898. In the ’20s, Broadway companies made regular stops here. Closings, the auction block and long runs as a movie house are also part of its past. In 1987, it was saved from demolition and was reborn as a cultural hub, attracting 100,000 visitors a year. Restoration and renovations brought the architectural charm of this 900-seat venue back to life.
Admittedly, any of the fine theaters off Tremont Street in Boston could fill this spot on the Top 5. The Wang, The Shubert or The Colonial are all deserving mention but downtown Boston is hectic on even a good day and expensive. Portsmouth has plenty of fine dining, plentiful parking and easy access to the highway. That’s why the Music Hall earned this spot.
1. Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave., Boston: This may be Ground Zero for Boston rock and roll, but it’s a big zero for comfort, ease of getting there, and sound quality. It’s a standing-room-only venue with a concrete floor. For the head-bangers or ravers, this may a great place to see a show, but for a night out, it’s about as painful as walking on broken glass with bare feet. It does have a barroom attached where you can watch the show on closed circuit TV, but what’s the point? Might as well stay home and watch your favorite’s band DVD from your couch.
2. Orpheum Theater, 1 Hamilton Place, Boston: May have been top-notch in the 1970s but it seems like they haven’t cleaned the place since. Broken seats, no legroom and sticky floors. Yuck. A pain for parking and big-buck tickets earn this venue No. 2 spot on the list of worst places to see a show. Sure, it lands big-name acts, but it’s worth it to travel out of town if your heart is set on seeing one of your favorite singers or bands. Skip this place.
3. TD Garden, 100 Legends Way, Boston (or any other of the large arenas in the region): They’re all the same cookie-cutter arenas whether you are in Boston, Providence, Portland, Worcester or Manchester, NH. Tickets are expensive, cost of refreshments and food through the roof, parking costly and the experience is about as inspiring as the Patriots’ season opening against Miami. Don’t expect an intimate musical experience here and get ready for rude, drunken people obstructing your view, spilling beers on you and talking over the band. No, yelling over the band.
4. Wilbur Theater, 246 Tremont, Boston: This could be a great venue but they just don’t get it. It’s set up like a comedy club, with many seats not facing the stage. The sound is horrible. Front-row seats in most venues normally are great but not at the Wilbur. Actually have seen front-row patrons move to the back of the room to get better quality sound. The waitstaff is constantly pushing overpriced drinks and blocking the view of concertgoers.
5. House of Blues, 15 Landsdowne St., Boston: Avoid this place like the plague. Situated down an alley sandwiched between Fenway Park and the Mass.Turnpike, it’s a really difficult location to get to and the expense of parking makes it prohibitive. The treatment of concertgoers entering by security there makes TSA workers at Logan look like the Welcome Wagon. Really wanted to like this place as it has some great artwork on the walls, but the overall experience is lacking so much. Like the Paradise, the main floor is concrete with no seats and sardine-like capacity. Crowd control upstairs in the mezzanine and “stadium” seats is awful as walkways are constantly full and fans’ line of sight blocked.
Five on the Road
1. Parlor Room, 32 Masonic St., Northampton, Mass.: This 50-seat venue was opened by Signature Sounds, an indie record label with world-class talent, a year ago and has been winning over music fans who frequent the college town’s Ironhorse Music Hall, Pearl Street, and Calvin Theater. The renovated button factory hosts BYOB shows with label artists and other well-known acts. It’s almost like Club Passim West with great acoustics, a respectful crowd and a wonderful atmosphere. Well worth the drive.
2. Prescott Park, 10 Marcy St.,Portsmouth, N.H.: Hosts The River House Restaurant series’ concerts throughout the summer and is home to the popular Americana, folk and country festivals on the banks of the Piscataqua River. It’s a great place to spend an evening listening to live music, taking in the summer air and enjoying the sights. The park encompasses ten acres of riverside lawns, gardens, piers, and an island with picnic tables, shelters and grills. This year, Chris Smithers, Loudon Wainwright III, Dr. John, Mary Gauthier, the Wood Brothers, and Jilly Martin graced the stage here. Admission is based on donations, with the suggestion $8 -$10.
3. Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, 20 Greenwoods Road W., Norfolk, Conn.: Originally constructed as a combination opera house, barbershop, and saloon in 1883, the 300-seat venue has a long history. It still features its original proscenium stage and wood, as well as many other beautiful details. It was reborn in 2007 as a top-shelf stop for bands and performers traveling the East Coast. It hosts more than 200 a year and features a four-star restaurant on the first floor. It’s a haul from the Boston area but road warriors are rewarded with unforgettable shows. Ticket are a bit pricey, but you get what you pay for.
4. Narrows Center for the Arts, 16 Anawan St., Fall River: A hidden gem in an old mill town. The non-profit venue combines a great listening room and an art gallery on a third-floor of an old mill near Battleship Cove. In the past 20 years, the volunteers and sponsors of this idea have taken a former textile building and turned it into a favorite for performers and fans alike. It’s a BYOB venue that attracts big-name acts such as John Mayall, Robert Cray, Susan Tedeschi, the Avett Brothers, and Richie Havens. Tickets are reasonable and parking plentiful.
5. Capitol Theater, 44 S. Main, Concord, N.H.: Opened in 1927, the Capitol Theatre was a prime stop on the Vaudeville circuit. Later, The Cap became Concord’s premier movie house and concert hall. The theater was revived in 1995 and then fully restored in 2003. Hundreds of volunteers contributed over 5,000 hours to paint and restore the magnificent “High-Hollywood,” Egyptian-motif artwork that gives the theater its unique charm. It offers great sound, top acts, easy access to Interstate 93 and plenty of free downtown parking. A winning combination fairly close to home.