Boston’s Live Music Scene: Venues and Up-and-coming Bands

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Boston has always been revolutionary. From its very beginnings, Boston has been a world leader, constantly pushing the boundaries in multiple disciplines – education, science and medicine, literature and the arts, dumping tea into harbours. World-class talent is everywhere. Boston’s music scene is no different.

From local artists to internationally touring acts, fans fill Boston’s smallest clubs and biggest concert halls each night to see their friends or favourite band perform. Sound of Boston‘s Jon Simmons surveyed some of the city’s best musicians to help uncover what makes Boston’s most essential venues worth a visit.

Paradise Rock Club

With the words “Rock Club” as part of the name, you know Paradise isn’t messing around. Paradise Rock Club has lived up to its name since opening in 1977. “The Dise,” as the venue is lovingly referred to in the city, has seen heavy hitters U2, The Police, and Red Hot Chili Peppers come through as young bands, and the crowd is always ready to have a good time. These days you’ll find Boston acts such as post-R&B band Bad Rabbits, folk-blues artist Ryan Montbleau, and electronic rock group Magic Man taking the stage at The Dise.

“We saw Betty Who there last fall and it was incredible,” said Alex Caplow (vocals) and Sam Lee (guitar/keys) of Magic Man. “She’s a captivating performer with great songs. One of the most enthusiastic and passionate crowds – they knew every single word of every song. The energy was amazing.”

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(Left) Kodaline – Photograph by Knar Bedian (Right) Asaf Avidan – Photograph by Thanasi Kastritis

Though the club fits close to 1000 people, it still retains an intimate feel with a wide stage and broad floor plan, so everyone has a good spot to stand. And if you happen to show up early, the Paradise Lounge, located just inside the entrance of the club, offers food and drink with massive flat-screen TVs. The guys from Bad Rabbits, who have also performed at The Dise, emphasised the social component of the club. “The Paradise is a great room to see a show because it’s not just a concert venue, it’s a hangout where people come to socialise, mingle and meet with friends at the bar before and after the show. It’s also super close to Allston which is the heart of Boston’s music community.”

With tickets usually priced from $18 to $30 and a wide range of music offered on a near-nightly basis, Paradise Rock Club is a can’t-miss stop in Boston.

Don’t Take Our Word For It:

‘The Paradise feels like home and that’s always a good feeling. The production is great and the space just feels cosy; the way that the room is set up, nobody in the crowd is ever that far away from you. Definitely feels like you’re all in it together.’ – Ryan Montbleau, Boston-based singer-songwriter

Address: 967 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215

Royale

In a word, Royale is lush. Whether you’re going to see a touring group or one of the many DJs the nightclub hosts, you’ll be taking it all in in an ornately decorated, vibrant, multi-tiered 1000-person concert hall. With balconies and a grand staircase, you might think you’re in the ballroom on the Titanic. Thankfully, you’re not.

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(Top Left and Bottom Left) St. Lucia – Photograph by Scotland Huber (Top Right) Lake Street Dive – Photograph by Scotland Huber (Bottom Right) Woodkid – Photograph by Knar Bedian

However, you are in downtown Boston’s Theatre District in one of the city’s premiere concert venues. Touring acts like St. Lucia, Future Islands, and The Head and the Heart have all stopped in to perform, as well as Boston-natives and folk rockers The Ballroom Thieves, punk band Dropkick Murphys, and rising rock star Will Dailey. Rock, hip hop, EDM – it all happens here. Royale offers a versatile line-up of musicians on a weekly basis. “No matter what kind of music you’re into, you can find it at Royale,” said Martin Earley, vocalist and guitarist of The Ballroom Thieves. “You can safely assume that you’ll have a good time while you’re there.”

Get washed away in the city lights and the sounds from Royale. Check out who’s playing here.

Don’t Take Our Word For It:

‘Before you even get in the room you are walking around a vibrant Boston with theatres swallowing or pouring people out of them all day. The tone is set before you walk in the door. Then you find yourself in this gorgeous club where you can still see a wild show and not feel like you don’t want to see the place in the daylight.’ – Will Dailey, Boston-based singer-songwriter

Address: 279 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116

The Red Room @ Cafe 939

Berklee College of Music is a music industry powerhouse in the middle of Boston. Hundreds of Berklee alumni have won Grammy Awards, including Quincy Jones, Bruce Hornsby, and Esperanza Spalding. The question is not if each year’s graduating class will produce the next big thing, but who it will be.

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(Top) Benjamin Cartel – Photograph by Becca Chairin (Bottom) Hozier – Photograph by Knar Bedian 

At Berklee’s all-ages venue, The Red Room @ Café 939, audiences can experience some of the best student groups in town as well as touring acts in an intimate setting – the room fits about 200 people at most. The Red Room has hosted performances by superb local indie rock groups Nemes, Grey Season, and folk duo The Western Den, as well as now internationally recognised artists such as Hozier, Young the Giant, and Ingrid Michaelson. With plush couches lining one wall, it’s as if you’ve invited the artist right into your living room.

Not only is The Red Room sure to produce an up-close-and-personal experience, but it’s also easy to get to. Chris West and Deni Hlavinka, who together make up The Western Den, highlighted the venue’s central location as one of the factors that make The Red Room one of their favourite places to play and to see a show. “With so many different sub-cities around the area, being right in the city of Boston is a huge plus for fans travelling to and from the venue.”

With Berklee you expect top-notch performances night after night, and that’s exactly what you’ll get at The Red Room @ Café 939. See who’s up next.

Don’t Take Our Word For It:

On the best show Grey Season has seen at The Red Room @ Café 939:

‘The Milk Carton Kids – this was back in 2011/early 2012, before they had their big break on [David] Letterman. They were captivating, and though the room can be rowdy and loud with a burning live act, on this occasion it was filled with chairs and everyone sat quietly and attentively listening to the duet fill the room with golden harmonies and rooted, bluegrass, country solos, reminiscent of when America was a much greener, pastoral place. It was the type of show that could change your life.’  – Ian Jones, Bassist/Vocalist, Grey Season

Address: 939 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02115

Club Passim

Club Passim resembles the earliest classroom you can remember, where you learned the difference between squares and triangles. Brown beams support a popcorn ceiling, bread crumbs cover white radiators that line one basement wall, the opposite marked by wooden cabinets you’d expect to hold antique versions of Monopoly and Battleship. Passim is completely unpretentious, yet one of the most influential clubs in Boston’s musical history.

This legendary venue opened in 1958 as a jazz club and soon became a staple in the burgeoning folk scene of the 60s. 17-year-old Joan Baez first performed here (then known as Club 47). After building a following, Baez would introduce the audience to a young man named Bob Dylan who would perform between acts.

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Club Passim

Today Passim is home to more than 400 concerts a year, with tickets ranging from $5 – $50 depending on the show. Listeners can take in an evening filled with folk, jazz, blues, Celtic, and more. You can find local artists such as folk duo Tall Heights, indie acoustic quartet Darlingside, and banjoist Mark Whitaker performing to audience members sitting around small tables, drinking craft beer and wine. “Even the farthest seats from the Passim stage are still closer to the action than you’d find yourself at most venues,” said Don Mitchell, guitarist and vocalist for Darlingside. “Can’t beat that. Also, there are delectable local beers.”

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(Left) The Suitcase Junket (Matt Lorenz) – Photograph by Steve Wolkind (Right) Ryan Montbleau – Photograph by Clever Sangalaza

Boston banjoist Mark Whitaker had similar thoughts about the venue that sits just over 100. “Club Passim keeps the focus on the music. It’s a cosy room with table seating, food, drinks, and a great vibe,” he said. “But musicians aren’t just thrown in a corner to add to the ambiance – they’re front and centre at Passim. People really listen to the music, you’re close to the performers, and the sound is top-notch. It’s a wonderful place to take in a performance.”

Don’t Take Our Word For It:

‘Club Passim is at the crossroads of storied and hip. It’s where classic meets modern. It’s the only place that could have so much history, and remain relevant in today’s music scene.’  – Paul Wright, Vocalist/Cellist, Tall Heights

Address: 47 Palmer Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

The Sinclair

In the middle of Harvard Square, and neighbour to folk-hub Club Passim, stands concert hall and restaurant The Sinclair. Having just opened in late 2012, The Sinclair has quickly become known as one of the best venues in Cambridge. Names like Sam Smith, Grouplove, and Cold War Kids have all performed in this roughly 500-person capacity venue, and tickets usually sell for around $20 or less. If you feel like busting a move, step onto The Sinclair’s large dance floor in front of the stage – or if you want to relax and just listen, climb up to the balcony that wraps around the venue. And with its kitchen next-door serving up delectable entrées like miso roasted chicken and Parisian gnocchi, The Sinclair is a one-stop shop for a satisfying night.

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(Top Left and Right) Photographs by Stop.Down.Fire.Photography – (Bottom Left) Shakey Graves – Photograph by Knar Bedian

Lead singer and guitarist Ross Livermore who has played at The Sinclair with his rock/soul outfit Ross Livermore Band cited the venue’s sound quality and the hospitality of the staff as two factors that contribute to it being a great place to perform. “The staff were so humble and accommodating to us, it was almost surprising in a way,” he said. “Because of that we were all super relaxed and played a great show.”

Livermore went on to describe his favourite show at The Sinclair – Boston folk duo Tall Heights in April 2014. “I think it was my favourite because those guys have been such good friends of the band over the years and I was so proud to watch them up on that stage, but also I think I was just amazed at how a two-man act could sound so full and rich in a room that otherwise would be more of a rock setting,” Livermore said. “It just was great to see how this club can be so versatile with genres.”

Oh, and according to The Sinclair’s FAQ section on their site, if you’re named Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, Carl Yastrezemski, or Tom Brady, you get in for free.

Don’t Take Our Word For It:

‘You go see a show at The Sinclair because it’s easy to get to, the sound is amazing, there isn’t a bad spot to stand, the food is great, and the best up-and-coming bands and artists in the business are rolling through – like Lake Street Dive, Bernhoft, Allen Stone, and countless others. There really isn’t a reason NOT to see a show at The Sinclair.’  – Ross Livermore, Lead Singer/Guitarist, Ross Livermore Band

Address: 52 Church Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

The Middle East

Actually three live performance venues packed into one (Upstairs, Downstairs, and Corner), as well as a restaurant called ZuZu that hosts live music, DJs, and dance parties, you’d be hard pressed to find a place that has more music going on in the city than The Middle East. Located in Central Square in Cambridge, you’ll find a diverse crowd at The Middle East, made up of college kids, young professionals, and folks young and old. Up-and-coming Boston rapper Dutch ReBelle loves the community aspect that The Middle East fosters. “It’s in the heart of the college and art scene of Cambridge,” ReBelle says. “It brings out the most diverse crowds of all different ages and musical tastes.”

If you’re a fan of hip hop and rap, The Middle East is the place to be. Many hip-hop artists featured on Sound of Boston’s Beantown Beats column perform at The Middle East, such as Dutch ReBelle and hip-hop/funk group Viva La Hop, and the venue has even had the likes of superstars Eminem, Big K.R.I.T., and KRS-One grace the stage.

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(Top Left) Viva La Hop – Photograph by Clever Sangalaza (Top Right and Bottom Left) Photograph by Knar Bedian (Bottom Right) Nick Hakim at The Middle East Upstairs – Photograph by Knar Bedian

Viva La Hop’s founder and drummer Andrew Ellington has fond memories of playing at The Middle East Downstairs – a 575-person capacity room. “The best show I’ve seen at Middle East was either The Pharcyde or Pete Rock & CL smooth, a show that Viva La Hop was a part of two years ago in our younger stages. They aren’t afraid to turn the subwoofers up, and boy do they have some speakers to get it thumpin’.” Bring some earplugs. It’s about to get loud.

However, the venue does not exclusively showcase hip hop artists – far from it. With so many concerts every night in each of its venues, The Middle East offers almost every type of music. From folk to punk, rock and reggae, this venue has it all. Alex Glover, bassist for local rock group Nemes, described his experience playing their sold-out CD release show at The Middle East Upstairs in front of nearly 200 people. “Its intimate atmosphere and expert in-house sound technician make for an excellent opportunity for a rock band to melt some faces (and hearts),” Glover said. “To look down from the stage and see so many of our fans packed in close, singing along with us was a memory we’ll cherish for many, many moons to come.”

Don’t Take Our Word For It:

‘If you’re a fan of unique and thought-provoking bathroom graffiti, look no further.’  – Alex Glover, Bassist, Nemes

Address: 472-480 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139

Brighton Music Hall

Before Brighton Music Hall (BMH) opened in 2011, 158 Brighton Avenue was home to Harpers Ferry, a staple in the Boston music scene since 1970, hosting raucous shows ranging from artists like Bo Diddley, to Maroon 5 and Jefferson Starship. Nowadays you can find Boston bands such as funk group Ripe, indie pop crew Gentleman Hall, and indie rockers Air Traffic Controller getting the party started at the 476-person capacity venue. Tickets are routinely sold for $15 or less, and with an intimate yet open layout and a bar located on either side of the hall, you’re bound to see a lively performance.

“The concerts that come through Brighton Music Hall have been consistently the highest energy shows I’ve ever been to,” said Ripe‘s lead singer Robbie Wulfsohn. “Even without knowing the act I can tell you this room lends itself to bands giving everything they have.”

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(Top Left) Sir Sly (Bottom Left) Damien Jurado – All photographs by Knar Bedian

Not only will you witness a band poised to break out or one that’s just starting to gain national recognition, but the venue itself provides for a well-rounded experience. “The sound system is great, the staff are professional, and the artists are treated well,” added Rory Given, the bassist for Gentleman Hall. “They do a good job of booking some great touring acts and putting together a good night of music as opposed to just slapping bands together based on availability.”

Wulfsohn recalls going to show about a year ago at Brighton Music Hall where he saw Vance Joy, the opening act, play a free set when the headliners weren’t able to make it. “Nobody had heard of them, but people showed up because the show was free, and they absolutely tore it up,” Wulfsohn said. “I hear that song Riptide on the radio now, and it’s just crazy to watch bands that are about to break through go absolutely wild at BMH.”

Whether you’re into indie rock, EDM, rap, or another genre, one thing is for sure: the artists who play Brighton Music Hall will be moving up the ladder soon, so catch them here while you can.

Don’t Take Our Word For It:

‘You have this feeling that you are one of the few people that is excited about this band, and you walk into Brighton Music Hall and you find an army of people around you that are in the same boat…shouting out song names, singing along, waiting in line to meet their personal music heroes. It’s an unforgettable experience.’  – Dave Munro, Lead Singer, Air Traffic Controller

Address: 158 Brighton Avenue, Allston, MA 02134,

Written by Jon Simmons, Sound of Boston

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