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Key Change in Harvard Square

By Kerry M. Flynn, Crimson Staff Writer

When Dan Aykroyd of The Blues Brothers and Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of Hard Rock Cafe, were looking for a location to open a music venue in the early 1990s, Harvard Square was an obvious first choice.

“[Aykroyd] wanted to open it up in a place that celebrated all kinds of music,” said House of Blues Vice President of Marketing David Fortin, who worked at the Harvard Square location from 1994 to 2001. “He was very passionate about the community of Harvard Square, a place where all walks of life are coming together.”

After all, the Square had a good track record. A few decades earlier, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Joni Mitchell all got their start performing at Club Passim off of Church Street.

But after House of Blues left its 180-person space in the Square, opening spin-offs nationwide and eventually a 2,425-person capacity venue in Boston, it seemed the beat had moved on, leaving Harvard Square behind.

Today, the Square at last looks poised to re-invigorate its legacy of up-and-coming live music. Two new music venues opening within the year—the Sinclair, a 525-person-capacity concert hall and restaurant, and a yet-to-be-named American bistro with nightly live music—hope to bring spunk and soul back to historic Harvard Square.

TUNING UP

Set to open later this month, the Sinclair is backed by The Bowery Presents, a New York-based promotion company, and Boston chef Michael Schlow. The Bowery Presents has been operating out of Boston since 2010 and is already involved in the Cambridge music scene, promoting shows at The Middle East and TT the Bear’s Place, both in Central Square.

The Sinclair is still under construction at 52 Church St., a space built in 1982 that once housed Atrium Cafe and later Brew Moon. The first show in the new restaurant-concert hall is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 30.

“To find a space that ended up being the perfect layout for a venue and restaurant right in the heart of the Square was amazing,” wrote Josh Bhatti, head of The Bowery Presents: Boston.

The Sinclair already has 30 shows on its line-up until December, some of which have already sold out. Acts include Andrew Jackson Jihad, K’Naan, Converge, and David Wax Museum.

“We’ve worked really hard to curate an opening line-up that is diverse and caters to a lot of different musical interests,” Bhatti wrote in an email.

The other music venue will be a second location for Boston restaurant owner Jack Bardy, who currently operates The Beehive in Boston’s South End. Both of Bardy’s venues are full-service restaurants with live music every night, focused on jazz and blues.

“It’s a natural extension to Harvard Square. It has an incredible history with music and a captive audience,” Bardy said.

Bardy said he plans for the restaurant to open at 11a Brattle Street in the spring and is still thinking of a name. The intimate semi-underground restaurant will have a capacity of more than 100.

Bruce Ferrara, music director of The Beehive and of the new Harvard Square location, said he hopes to see the spot helping a vibrant music culture return to the area.

“It’s a place that people want to see what is going on,” Ferrara said. “It used to be exciting and interesting and inspiring. It really hasn’t been that way for 20 years.”

Trinity Property Management, a major Harvard Square property owner, leases both spaces of the new music venues.

“The idea of a live music venue is something that we think will really add to the character of Harvard Square,” said John P. DiGiovanni, president of Trinity Property Management.

DiGiovanni said that his company has spoken with officials at Harvard, but the University did not contribute to discussion about the new use of the spaces.

“We spoke with some folks over there just so they’re aware,” DiGiovanni said.

Yet Bhatti said he envisions eventual collaboration between the Sinclair and Harvard—perhaps hosting University events in the concert hall.

REACHING FOR THE HIGH NOTE

Alongside the new music offerings entering the neighborhood, existing venues in the Square are making improvements.

In the former home of the original House of Blues, Tommy Doyle’s, an Irish pub with a 165-person capacity, features bands several nights each week. Josh Caress, talent buyer, said that most of the bands who play at Tommy Doyle’s find out about the space because their friends’ bands played there or because it used to be the House of Blues.

But recently, the pub launched a website solely dedicated to the venue’s live music, hoping to attract more nationally recognized artists. Now, when looking for a small Boston-area venue to play, booking agents and artists will come across Tommy Doyle’s more easily.

An even older Harvard Square music standby, Club Passim, is also looking at revitalizing. Though the legendary folk music club has been at the same location at 47 Palmer St. since 1963, the operators discussed looking for a new address last May.

New firecodes had shrunk the venue’s capacity from 125 to 101 people. “We had to ask, can you survive with a 101-person venue, and is that the best model?” said Dan Hogan, executive director.

But the club’s long history felt compelling enough to convince its managers to keep it in Harvard Square.

Instead of moving, Club Passim will undergo renovations that may start as early as this summer, Hogan said. The space occupied by the Club is currently owned by Harvard, and Hogan hopes to partner with the University for the renovation.

Keeping the small setting, he said, provides the perfect intimate environment for appreciating great folk artists.

“You can hear a lot of great people up close and personal,” Hogan said.

HARVARD SQUARE HARMONIZING

While Boston often hosts national touring acts, Matt Smith, managing director at Club Passim, describes the current scene in Cambridge and Somerville as more indie.

“That river is a big divide,” Smith said.

Perhaps the most eclectic venue in the Square is the Democracy Center, a nonprofit organization that makes space available for activists and bands. Concerts there are alcohol-free and pay-as-you-can.

“If you can’t pay anything then you can still come in, but if you can give something, it’s appreciated. The Democracy Center exists to provide a space for nonprofits,” said Sarah Cadorette, the organization’s co-coordinator.

The Democracy Center, at 45 Mount Auburn St., has a 150-person capacity, with four rooms for shows. For the most part, its shows are punk and hard-core metal and rock. Many of the punk shows are hosted in a room with closed doors to facilitate moshing.

As the Harvard Square music scene grows, most proprietors say they are not worried about the increasingly crowded landscape. The main competition for Harvard Square’s music venues comes from Boston and from Central Square establishments like The Middle East, which hosts nightly entertainment in 200- and 550-person rooms.

Hogan in particular said that Club Passim has no reason to fear competition from its new neighbor, The Sinclair on Church Street, not only because concerts at Club Passim tend to start earlier in the evening than other shows but also because of the cooperative environment he sees among local music venues.

—Maya S. Jonas-Silver contributed reporting for this story.

—Staff writer Kerry M. Flynn can be reached at kflynn@college.harvard.edu.

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