It’s an eclectic bunch. They come in all shapes and sizes, old and young, acoustic and electric. On a windy Tuesday night, these 20 or so musicians are tucked away in the historic Club Passim, one flight below Palmer Street in Harvard Square.
The venue’s exposed brick walls and clustered four-person tables seem to glow in the darkness, punctuated by the electric candles scattered around the room. Occupying a world completely different from the one that is inhabited by a mix of tourists, students, and workers who walk the Cambridge streets during the day, Passim channels the vibe of one New York City’s Greenwich Village mainstays, like the Bitter End. Drop everything stressful and listen, the very walls of the place seem to echo.
Tuesday’s show, a weekly, free “open mic,” draws people ranging in talent, experience, and style. Indeed, the Cambridge music scene features diverse performers and patrons and extends from Harvard Square to Porter Square to Inman Square to East Cambridge and beyond. On a given night, audiences can choose from bluegrass, jazz, folk, rock and roll, and spoken word performances, shows that can run until the early morning hours. “The best thing about the music in the area is that you can always trust it’s going to be good, so take a chance on something you don’t know,” says Passim’s managing director, Matt Smith. “I think that in a lot of ways when you have a vibrant local scene, it’s sort of ageless.”
Starting in the 1950s, Cambridge became a hotspot for up-and-coming musicians: During the following decades, many jazz lounges, listening rooms, and other spaces opened up to fit the growing demand for daily live music. Artists who stopped and played in Cambridge left their musical mark here and often moved on to become household names. With the opening of more and more venues, today’s artists have built on their predecessors’ legacies and formed a community of their own.“It feels great to just know that you’re a link in this chain that goes back generations,” local musician Patrick Coman says.
Current performers both value the city’s rich musical tradition and continue to add to their own flair to that tradition. With a variety of shows and venues, the Cambridge scene promotes inclusivity, experimentation, and creative expression, according to local club owners, booking agents, and musicians alike.
The City of Cambridge’s recent history is grounded in musical tradition. From Joan Baez’s and Bob Dylan’s visits to Club 47 (now Club Passim) in the 1960s to the up-and-coming band Lake Street Dive’s performances at several venues around the area, the scene not only features a variety of music but also spans a great stretch of time.
Today’s performers value the city’s longstanding musical roots. In addition to supporting Baez and Dylan, Cambridge clubs and other venues have nurtured folk singers, jazz improvisers, and other artists, including Regina Spektor, Tom Rush, and Suzanne Vega. “I think you can definitely feel the ghosts and the spirits of those people,” says Coman, who moved to Cambridge after living in Oklahoma, Nashville, and Berlin. “That’s what makes [the venues] special.” One such venue, Club 47, opened as a jazz lounge on Mount Auburn Street in 1958. The club went through several iterations before becoming the Club Passim it is today. Since the venue needed a special license to have more than three instruments and to operate simultaneously as a restaurant, Club 47 transformed into a private, non-profit club and began to charge 25 cents for membership, according to Club Passim’s executive director, Daniel B. Hogan. Although the end of the 1960s marked the end of Club 47 because of persistent legal trouble, Bob and Rae Anne Donlin bought the space in 1969 and transformed it into the Club Passim that exists today.
In Porter Square, Toad opened in 1993, and the Lizard Lounge opened a few years later, according to Billy Beard, the executive booking agent for both venues. “Cambridge has always been a hotbed [for music],” Beard says. With more clubs including Lilypad in Inman Square, Atwood’s Tavern in East Cambridge, and larger venues like The Sinclair in Harvard Square opening up over the years, the Cambridge music scene has expanded, providing artists with a variety of places to have weekly, or even nightly, gigs.
Performers can build upon and create dialogues with the city’s decades-old music history as they develop their own sound often in response to it. “Cambridge and Boston have got such a strong local music scene that—it is really one of those cities, like Nashville—that people know when they move here that there’s going to be this really strong base of community music that’s really high quality and really great,” says Club Passim’s operations manager, Kristina F. Latino ’13.
A Cambridge Harmony
The club and jazz lounge scene around Cambridge thrives as performers bounce around from one venue to another, often frequenting multiple clubs in the same week. Bands typically start out in the smaller clubs and, with increasing publicity and success, move on to larger venues. Like an ecosystem, Cambridge’s venues nurture performers as they find their style, sound, and fan base and then build on what they have accomplished. According to Latino, this scene breeds not competition but camaraderie among the city’s many club owners, booking agents, audience members, and musicians. “I remember when I started working [at Club Passim] someone asked me…‘Oh, how do you deal with the competition from the Lizard Lounge?’ And the answer is, truly, that it doesn’t feel like competition,” she says. “We really are a community, and it’s a really tight-knit one.”
Local musicians say that sense of community has strengthened over the past five years with the opening of new clubs and the ongoing patronage of old favorites. Many people involved in music in the city—from the agents who hire bands to the players themselves—describes the atmosphere and Cantabridgian attitude as “tight-knit.” Some musicians feel like they can rely on one another for help, and they often do. “If I need a guitar player, I can get one in a pinch, just by making a couple calls—or if I need a banjo player to come record on an album or something like that,” says mandolin player Brian Carroll, who performed at Club Passim in March.
This community, in part, contributes to the singularity of Cambridge’s music scene and allows artists to grow and thrive here, according to Coman. Unlike the “intense” competition he felt playing in Nashville, Coman describes Cambridge music scene as friendly and inclusive. “I’ve been living here for about five years now, and I think what’s interesting about the Boston music scene is that it feels in some ways like a more close-knit music scene,” Coman says. “There are a lot of venues where you’re sharing a stage with other musicians. You’re sitting down on stage and playing with different people any given night of the week. There’s a lot of people that know each other’s material and can play it live.”
Networking, in this way, is a crucial part of entering the Cambridge music world, according to several musicians. For example, Tom Bianchi runs a weekly open mic at the Lizard Lounge, and the event draws in musicians from around the country. Bianchi’s open mic features judges who give feedback and award winners. The event allows performers to socialize, connect with their peers and colleagues, and find future gigs in the area. “It’s a good open mic because it demands a listening audience, so artists come to it, even people who have played for years...even people who technically may be above open mic talent,” Bianchi says. “Amateurs are welcome and also flourish because it’s a listening room….Sometimes you’re listening to someone in a bar... but they don’t get a fair shot.”
Coman says Bianchi’s open mic was one of the first places he played upon arriving in Cambridge. “It’s one of the best open mics in the country because there’s a tremendous amount of talent,” Coman says. “I think these high level events...make it easier to know that if I go here, I’ll meet 40 or 50 other songwriters. You can start building on that network of people. Events happen all the time where you can go as a new face.”
Booking agents and club owners say the small size of their venues makes the experience of attending a show primarily about the music. Affectionately dubbed “listening rooms,” rather than hole-in-the-wall spaces, the venues foster connections among the musicians, their music, and the audience. As opposed to clubs in other cities, where the bar scene and mingling over food and drinks may take precedence over the music, listening rooms here strive to ensure that the music does not fade into background noise. More than the room itself, the venues provide space for musicians not only to entertain but also to tap into their viewers’ minds and shape their experiences. “Well, there’s an intimacy for sure,” Beard says. “It’s not just the physical size of the room. As a performer…there’s a certain vulnerability that you experience as a player in rooms like that, that lead you to create things that are immediate.”
The music at venues like Club Passim takes precedence over eating, drinking, or even talking with companions and people at neighboring tables. “It’s not background; it’s not a bar where people are chatting,” Smith says. “It’s a focused listening experience.” In addition, the setup of the listening rooms allow the audience members and performers to interact with each other more closely than people do at other venues. “You’ve got people basically sitting right on top of you, so basically everything you do is under the microscope,” Beard says. “It leads to really creative outcomes.”
According to several performers, having an audience there purely to listen to the music is different from how most people interact with music and musicians nowadays. Instead of plugging in their earbuds or hearing poor-quality recordings, audiences in Cambridge can look forward to engaging with the artists and often attend shows multiple nights a week. “Saturday is for the people who have to get their weekend on because it’s the only night,” Smith says. “People around here make it work with their schedules—that they can go out any night of the week.” Having shows available every night of the week has made the music scene more accessible to a variety of audience members, according to Smith. “I don’t think that it has changed the audience so much as opened it up a little bit,” Smith says. “We have people that come to shows two, three times a week, or even more. Some that don’t live right in town.” Smith characterizes his job as an opportunity to “grow artists from opener to headliner”; he often introduces the Club Passim audience to names and faces they have never seen or heard before. “I actively seek out artists, as opposed to just being a place to present whatever sells tickets,” Smith says.
Cambridge often serves as the breeding ground for bands to develop their sound before an audience who appreciates styles from North African music to experimental jazz. Acquiring a sizeable, supportive fan base close to Boston, those bands then look to grow their following in larger cities. In addition, experienced bands on tour often play in Cambridge because they know that they will receive a warm welcome. Since Cantabrigians involved in and appreciative of the diverse music scene here often attend shows multiple times a week, their ears are attuned to different styles of music. As bands move from club to club around the city, fans can find and support their favorites. “The people from Cambridge like to rally around bands they’ve discovered,” Beard says.
Lake Street Dive, an indie jazz band, started playing at Toad on Sunday night, for example, and soon after moved to the Lizard Lounge. They since have been featured in Rolling Stone and have headlined shows at the Sinclair, a larger venue on Church Street which typically draws bigger names in the music world. “It feels really good,” says Beard, who first booked the band. Styles come and go, but the supportive audience remains a constant, according to musicians, and just looks to hear good, high quality music. “When I first moved here there was nothing on the radar of any type of country, whether you think of pop or traditional,” Coman says. He notes how those styles have gained traction around the area, as new bands step into the spotlight and experiment with their music. “I feel like people cross over to other genres, and there’s more of a community feel,” Coman says.
At its core, the Cambridge music scene owes its longevity to its depth and breadth—and particularly to its firm roots. “I think it’s all very deep rooted in folk music, but the umbrella term that they use now is ‘Americana,’” Carroll says. “It’s anything that has its roots in early American music—hints of bluegrass, rock-and-roll, blues, and folk, obviously storytelling kind of stuff.” Ultimately, Cambridge serves as a refuge for many artists looking to experiment and to hone their talents in front of a receptive audience. The venues provide the space for a variety of styles and songs to flourish. “You don’t have to go far to hear great music every day of the week,” Latino says.
—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 9, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the position of Kristina F. Latino ’13 at Club Passim. In fact, Latino is the music club's operations manager, not its assistant director.
—Crimson staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @melissa_rodman.