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Boston's White Rock Palaces

By Salahunddin I. Imam

Boston Tea Party

53 Berkeley St., Boston

IN THE Bad Old Days Boston used to be widely known and feared as the town to break the heart of a touring rock musician. Audiences were sparse, musically illiterate and seemingly permeated to the core by a strong helping of Yankee reserve. Today, however, Boston is emerging as one of the major capitals of the whit rock world (along with London, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles) and it is clear in retrospect that the notorious apathy and lack of interest displayed by Boston crowds in earlier years was merely a function of the fact that three were just no congenial rock dance-halls around. Which is another way of saying that the Boston Tea Party is doing for Boston what the Fillmore Ballroom did for San Francisco.

Considering the area's huge college population there was obviously no inherent reason for Boston's rock drought and the organizers of the Tea Party had the foresight to realize that a well-run, inexpensive, and attractive rock establishment would, in all probability, draw large and enthusiastic crowds. And so it proved. The Tea Party has had some down periods (notably early this summer before the left Beck Group then on its first triumphant tour of the U.S. brought the doldrums to an abrupt end) but the major part of the story is one of continued and extravagant success.

THE SUCCESS was not unearned. The Tea Party is a large square hall with a low stage. When it is full of people, as it often is, the performers seem very close to the crowd, nearly submerged BY it--which makes it all very warm and intimate--not intimidating as is the case in some circus-like arenas. The simplicity of the setup does mean that acoustics are virtually non-existent but this is made up for by the immediacy and directness of the sound, which comes out quite powerfully amplified over the speaker system.

In addition the Tea Party boasts a lively, competent organization. The friendly and hip young managers are widely respected throughout the rock industry, and especially so by rock musicians. Most of the groups who appear here seem genuinely pleased with the hassle-free treatment they receive from their handlers at the Tea Party. The importance for rock groups of sympathetic contact with the managements of the clubs they stop at on tour should not be underestimated. Eric Clapton explains the Cream's notorious record of poor live performances by saying that the groups was often harried by insensitive officials at its gigs. A rock group, apparently, plays best where it feels most at home. Judging from the record, most groups have felt at home at the Tea Party.

THE MAIN stimulus for a rock group, however, remains the audience response it gets. In this respect too, Boston's crowds have come to be highly regarded. Typical was B. B. King's reaction of unbounded delight at his audience's warmth and appreciation when he was last at the Tea Party. People who know say that B.B., who is always expansive and easy to please, had never been so moved in his life.

This sort of news spreads like wild-fire in the music world and today the Tea Party has come to be established as one of the hottest places to play on the East Coast. All English and West Coast groups now regard Boston as a mandatory engagement, as much for aesthetic as financial reasons, since they do not make all that much money from an appearance at the Tea Party.

This sort of a rush on slots at the Tea Party often produces some magnificent double-bills. Last weekend, for example--when, in a battle of modern country-music giants in front of a packed house, the Byrds narrowly outplayed the Flying Burrito Bros. (made up of ex-Byrds).

ONE OF THE most interesting aspects of the Bosten Tea Party is its resident light show company, the Road. There was a time when the light show was a mere irrelevance, to be glanced at when one's attention wandered from the group on stage. The art form is much more highly developed today and the light shows these days are real accompaniment to the music on stage. The Road's members have been together for a year and they approach their lighting task as if they were a group playing along with the group on stage, trying to fit their light show to the music. One member of the group elegantly described the analogies that can be drawn between the various components of the light show and musical instruments in this way. "You can think of lights and the tempo of changing lights and the tempo of changing lights as providing the rhythm, the liquids correpsond to the drums, the slides to guitar and the films to lyrics." And indeed the parallels more or less work. The Road's members are insistent that they have an edge on most light shows, which are pre-programmed on a computer, because they exert human control over their components and so are free to improvise in the attempt to capture the emotional and musical impact of whatever is being played at any one moment. They have a good case.

The Boston Tea Party thus combines excellent music from the biggest names in rock today with a sensitive and simulating environment. The crowds are hip, or perhaps too hip, because there is almost no dancing at the Tea Party. But then it's probably just as well that people listen attentively to good music.

The Ark

15 Lansdowne St. Kenmore Square, Boston

THE BUILDING and the whole of the main dance hall of the Ark, a newly opened club, is much more interesting than the Tea Party's box-like shape. Not surprisingly, the major emphasis at the Ark is on creating an elaborate and stylized fantasy environment, with the music as more a contributing than dominating factor. This effort at atmosphere is sometimes pursued a little too relentlessly but the overall result is nevertheless an interesting, sometimes fascinating, blend of modern multi-media techniques.

The walls curve and sway, the floor winds round and round in ramps that dip and rise. Most of the ground is covered in thick blue carpeting expect for the main dance floor, which is to be painted in bright colors. With all this structural complexity there is much acoustic modulation. The sound has definite variations in texture (depending on where you are in the building) though the volume is never weak anywhere, owing to the incredibly expensive and sophisticated sound system that the club uses. Surprisingly the system sounds best when records are being played between sets.

One area of the floor is ringed by tent-like walls and you feel like walls and you feel like you're in the middle of a growing plant. Another, a raised section, is entirely strobe lit, great waterfalls of light white light, and people dance as if bathing.

EVERY INCH of wall space is covered with light shows of various kinds indifferent themes, with pictures ranging from ten foot high shots of Janis Joplin's singing face to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Fascinating things happen in isolated corners with the slides, but these shows are in fact all pre-programmed by computer; there is not the spontaneity and musical relevance of the Tea Party's light show, but rather a static grace.

The groups that play at the Ark are not established rock groups, which is in line with the club's intent of emphasizing the whole experience--light and colors and sound rather than solely the musical. Occasionally one is able to catch a really fine group that has not yet made its name. One such was a group called Man, who did a remarkable, aggressive gig recently at the Ark.

Dancing is not frowned upon at the Ark as it is at the Tea Party and most people do take to the floor at some tome or other, though one is slightly dwarfted by the cavernous height of the ceiling.

The Ark caters to a different set of interests than the Tea Party and does it's thing pretty well.

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