date published: March 4, 2002

From Jazz to Rock to Blues clubs, the best places to hear live music in Boston
by Andrew King


HEADLINERS AND LEGENDS—(from the top) Avalon on Lansdowne Street, The House of Blues in Harvard Square, and Scullers Jazz Club at the DoubleTree Hotel pack the houses with live performances each week.
It’s been almost five years since “Boston Bad Boys” Aerosmith closed the doors at Mama Kin, their famous Lansdowne Street rock club. But in no way did that signal an end to the city’s music scene. Boston’s incongruous cultural influences draw musical acts of nearly every genre to venues large and very small—artists ranging from pop diva Madonna to the bizarre melody-makers the Kronos Quartet, from jazz legend David Brubeck to R & B newcomers like Alicia Keys. Though Boston has roots in folk, jazz and rock, it also attracts an increasing number of hip-hop, R & B, blues and international acts. Here’s our survey of some of the city’s best venues for live music. Refer to Jazz, Pop and World Music, page 12, for performance dates and times.

CLUB PASSIM, 47 palmer st., harvard square, cambridge, 617-492-7679. To get an idea of Club Passim’s role in the history of American folk music, consider that this is where a 17-year-old Joan Baez got her start, offering her friend Bob Dylan a chance to take the stage between sets. For the past 50 years, this intimately small, basement-level Harvard Square institution has been Boston’s best version of a 1960s Greenwich Village coffee house.

KENDALL CAFE, 233 cardinal medeiros way, cambridge, 617-661-0993. Perpetuating the stereotype that folk music magic takes place in crowded back rooms in forgotten bars, the Kendall remains a rite of passage for anyone holding an acoustic guitar with hopes of winning over Boston audiences. Elvis Costello and Jewel have stepped up to the mic at this fun-loving, living room-size venue, in addition to the late Jeff Buckley and local favorites such as Jen Trynin.

REGATTABAR, the charles hotel, one bennett st., cambridge, 617-876-7777. Jazz is serious business at this nationally renowned bastion for top shelf acts. Really—when the music starts, the crowd goes silent. Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman make regular stops here, and the annual Water Music Festival, which is hosted by the Regattabar and plays at venues around the city, attracts the legendary likes of David Brubeck (who’ll be at the Berklee Performance Center on March 9 & 10) and Herbie Hancock.

RYLES JAZZ CLUB, 212 hampshire st., cambridge, 617-876-9330. Jazz is one of the purely American music forms, but at this popular Inman Square club, an international crowd and innovative musicians give the scene a spicy twist. For example, last year the club hosted a 60th birthday party for keyboard legend Chick Corea and the upcoming performance on March 16 features the Teresa Ines Group’s Brazilian jazz.

SCULLERS JAZZ CLUB, doubletree guest suites hotel, 400 soldier’s field rd., 617-562-4111. Legendary jazz man Fred Taylor has brought world-class credibility to this warm, dimly lit jazz room on the second floor of the DoubleTree Hotel. Like Ryles, Scullers is know for serving a diverse musical diet that includes Latin, R & B and world acts, as well as traditional faves like Roy Hargrove.

WALLY'S CAFE, 427 mass. ave., 617-424-1408. At Wally’s, jazz really means something. You won’t find poseurs looking for nice background music and a single malt scotch here. This tiny, 50-year-old nightspot is the last remaining club from Boston’s jazz heyday in the 1950s. It hosts talented combos, including lots of up-and-comers from the nearby Berklee College of Music. There’s no cover, but there is a one-drink minimum, and very little room to move. Yet it’s worth every wailing note of it.

DIFFERENT DRUMMERS—The array of acts that play Boston includes (from the top) Cracker at the Paradise, Bush at the Orpheum Theatre, and Enrique Iglesias, also at the Orpheum.

AVALON, 15 lansdowne st., 617-262-2424. In the spirit of glittering performances like those at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, Avalon has emerged in recent years as one of largest non-stadium venues presenting rock concerts in the area. It’s also known as one of the city’s most fashionable nightclubs, and its sleek, expansive layout makes for a dreamy rock concert setting, if a slightly odd one. Most shows start around 7 p.m. and end in time for the shaggy rock fans to depart before the hipster club-goers arrive.

FLEETCENTER, causeway st., 617-931-2000. Elton John, Billy Joel, Madonna, U2, Britney Spears and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Acts so big they need no introduction or opening band are the caliber of stars that concert-goers can expect to see at the FleetCenter—which is also home to the NBA’s Celtics and NHL’s Bruins. It may not have the charm of the old Boston Garden, but it has already been the setting for some of the most elaborately memorable shows this city has ever seen.

THE MIDDLE EAST, 472-480 mass. ave., cambridge, 617-931-2000. As Cambridge’s Central Square morphed from working class to urban elite during the early ’90s, The Middle East kept its place as the launching pad for Boston’s most talented rock bands. Repeatedly voted best rock club by local publications like the Boston Phoenix, this grainy, three-room haven for talent attracts serious music fans from around the Boston area. Already known for its support of indie-rock and punk acts, the club has recently embraced performers from the burgeoning hip-hop scene.

ORPHEUM THEATRE, hamilton place, 617-679-0810. History has its place in this ornate, 19th century concert hall in the middle of downtown. The Boston Symphony played its debut concert here; Booker T. Washington and Ralph Waldo Emerson lectured here; and, after several renovations, the Orpheum became a vaudeville house, even a movie theater. These days it’s dedicated to performances by live music acts ranging from Bush (on March 12) to Enrique Iglesias (on March 13).

PARADISE ROCK CLUB, 967 commonwealth ave., 617-562-8800. Infamous for Drew Bledsoe’s lawsuit-inducing stage dive several years ago, the Paradise has closed, re-opened and gone through some changes, including a stint as a part-time dance club. But it is back to its rock ‘n’ roll roots and better than ever. The atmosphere is a remarkable mix of the intimate and spacious, with an upper balcony that gives the audience the feeling that they’re practically on top of the stage. With four bars, a state-of-the-art sound system and a consistent line-up of established and avant rock performers, this is one of the best clubs around.

T. T. THE BEAR'S PLACE, 10 brookline st., cambridge, 617-492-BEAR. A friendly neighbor and kin of The Middle East, this down-and-dirty Central Square rock club also boasts a proud history of helping launch smaller acts into the realm of stardom, including The Smashing Pumpkins and P. J. Harvey. The spirit here is friendly and welcoming, teeming with open-minded music fans.

HOUSE OF BLUES, 96 winthrop st., harvard square, cambridge, 617-497-2229. Okay, so Boston is not exactly the Bayou, but this soulful shrine in Harvard Square is a magnificent exception to the rule. From Muddy Waters to James Cotton to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ Victor Wooten, this is the venue for blues, funk and roots music. The House also presents a strong lineup of reggae acts. Along the walls are bright-colored paintings with a reverent, Afro-centric tone, while the layout of the upstairs concert hall feels like a Mississippi Baptist Church. Don’t miss the popular Sunday Gospel Brunch.

, various locations throughout the boston area, 617-876-4275. The people at the non-profit World Music organization bring some of the most talented performers from all corners of the globe to music lovers in Boston. The cultural reach of its mission means that artists who are popular in their own countries but otherwise unknown here are able to educate and entertain an entirely new audience. Upcoming acts include traditional Irish music from Altan (March 8 & 10 at the Somerville Theatre) and Solas (March 15 at the Sanders Theatre).

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