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Boston’s Music Scene

A new wave of acts and fans in the Boston music scene show promise … but not everyone loves that dirty water.

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It is a weeknight in Cambridge’s Central Square, but the atmosphere is more like that of a weekend. At the epicenter of the excitement lies the Middle East club, a gritty 550-capacity haven for both big local and small national rock bands. Tonight this dirty yet charming, hole-in-the-wall club has a dense line extending from the door to around the corner and past the adjoining restaurant. An overflow of diverse music fans- some pierced and tattooed, others still in office attire – is almost bursting into the street. A couple of college students are begging for tickets to the sold-out show. They offer to pay three times the face value, despite the fact that the bands on tonight’s bill, Indiana concept rockers Murder by Death and alt-country drunks Lucero, are hardly marquee acts. Scenes like these have become commonplace outside of all the Boston area’s independent small rock venues, where both national and local acts are selling out show after show.

With a wave of local punk, hip-hop, and alternative rock acts leading the way, the Bostonmusic scene has recently become a location of interest for industry scouts and music fans alike. “I would say right now [the scene] is doing pretty well with a good amount of venues that host live music nights and [the number of] people who go see shows on the rise,” says Shred, booking agent for the Middle East’s mostly local upstairs room. “We definitely have lots of people from record companies large and small paying attention to what bands from our city are up to.”  

However, looks can be deceiving. While Boston music is thriving from a business perspective, local artists have conflicting feelings on the scene. Underneath the surface of high sales figures and crowded clubs, are indifferent concertgoers and a debilitating public attitude toward local music.

Historically, the Boston scene has been one of high points and low points, with periods of excitement followed by droughts of interest. “A music scene will always have its highs and lows,” says Shred. Even with its cyclical nature, the local scene has consistently produced an eclectic mélange of artists. A fixture on the scene since the 1970s, Shred emphasizes that Boston is unique for having “lots of great bands without anyone ever really being able to pinpoint our city for having just one sound, one scene.”

Dropkick Murphys

Rising from the humble, folky beginnings of 1960s Cambridge, the Boston music scene would produce a number of hugely successful rock acts by the end of the 1970s. AerosmithBoston, the Cars, and the J. Geils Band found success outside of Boston and at the top of the charts, but with national attention came local resentment. Boston scenesters “like to tear down any band that does well,” points out James Lynch, guitarist for Irish folk/punk rock hybrid the Dropkick Murphys.  National success, the ultimate goal of nearly every musician, can trigger jealousy and shatter local credibility. This backlash often causes bands to either straddle the line between commercial success and local celebrity, as the Dropkick Murphys have done, or to abandon their Boston roots altogether. Aerosmith and the Pixies, among others, have chosen the latter.

By the late 1980s, excitement over homegrown arena rock gave way to an explosion of influential alternative rock bands. This movement, led by the Pixies and Mission of Burma, proved to be the antithesis of the previous decade’s celebrity excess and commercialism. While acclaimed by critics and scenesters, they shunned the music industry in an act of defiance toward their predecessors. Music fans also rebelled against the trendy nature of pop culture, but to a greater extreme. The scene became smaller, alienated, and exclusive. Boston’s famously pretentious attitude was born.

Throughout the 1990s, exclusivity hindered the scene’s growth and destroyed local rock clubs. At this point, it was understandable; there was no new music to share, and local insiders were not willing to share it. Most of Boston’s prominent acts had broken up and few were stepping up to take their places. Boston rock culture was in a rut. In a decade dominated by pop singers and dance clubs, public interest had crawled from Boston’s modest rock clubs to the glitzy nightclubs of Lansdowne Street. Local rock bands failed to thrive and rock venues like the Middle East, T.T. the Bear’s, and the Paradise Rock Club struggled to survive. In 1997, this shift from rock to dance music forced Boston’s most notorious rock venue, Kenmore Square’s the Rat, to close its doors forever.

The surviving rock clubs have since recovered and the Boston music scene is seemingly headed for another peak of talent. Bands like the Dropkick Murphys and the Dresden Dolls are gaining national attention with their originality. Punk acts the UnseenStreet Dogs, and Lost City Angels appear on the Vans Warped Tour annual punk festival and hit the road with revered punk veterans. Chris Rucker, host and programmer of the New England Product show on WFNX, also sees an optimistic future for the scene. “Boston is always on the up,” says Rucker, “[But] I think people need to do a better job of finding what is going on in this city.” In addition, underground rock culture has recently accepted hip-hop with much success. “Boston hip hop is really starting to bubble,” adds Rucker. “Clinton Sparks, 7L & Esoteric, [and] Edan are all ready to blow up real big.” However, without local support, this talent is wasted.

Fans are interested in live music once again, crowding clubs for shows by both national and local acts. Shred believes that Boston musicians will always be able to rely on a solid audience: “I think in a town as populated with college students and art schools [as Boston] that the excitement level for live music will always be there.” However, as bands are quick to point out, a return to club culture does not necessarily mean encouragement. While those in the local media remain optimistic, the bands themselves are not happy. Although Boston clubs and the press are more supportive than ever, the attitude of the underground remains a problem.

The Dresden Dolls

Amanda Palmer, pianist and vocalist for the Dresden Dolls (pictured right), has found it difficult for her punk-influenced cabaret duo to win respect from the hometown crowd. Citing concertgoers’ “crossed-arms-impress-me attitude,” as a problem, Palmer finds Boston to be “a strange place; on the one hand it’s very liberal politically and very tolerant, but on the other hand, there is a really pretentious attitude and a lot of posing and judgment.” Because of this, Boston is not the ideal springboard for budding musicians, as suggested by the local media. “I’ll always wonder if this band would have had an easier time being from a slightly weirder, more performance-oriented city like New York or London,” says Palmer. Mark Civaitarese, vocalist for the Unseen, agrees.  “I don’t think it helped our career just being from Boston. I guess the only way it may have is that years ago it was easy to book gigs because there was a lot of bands to play with.” In a crowded scene with high expectations, concertgoers do not always have the patience to give a new band a chance.

For better or worse, Boston stands apart from other bustling music scenes. The unique relationships formed in the music scene can be either very good or truly bad. “If you’re from Boston and you run into someone from Boston anywhere else in the world there is a weird bond that you share, and you can just feel like you’re with your best friend,” says Adam Shaw, drummer for punk outfit the Lost City Angels. “Or to contradict that you can feel like you’re with your worst enemy… it’s a Boston thing.” Palmer attributes this strange phenomenon to the city’s size, adding, “You can’t throw a rock in Boston without hitting a musician or a musician’s significant other, and that breeds a weird kind of hostility.” 

Like relationships in Boston, the relationship of the Boston musician and their hometown is also complex and contradictory. “Some people say the music scene here is a bit too close knit,” says Lynch, “but I won’t have a bad word said about Boston.” The artists and scenesters, while eager to air their grievances with the scene, are often the first ones to defend it. “People complain but I do not see it in negative light. Do not believe the hype,” stresses Rucker.


“If you’re from Boston and you run into someone from Boston anywhere else in the world there is a weird bond that you share, and you can just feel like you’re with your best friend.”


– Adam Shaw, Lost City Angels

For many rock artists, Boston underground culture provides not only opportunities but also goals and a unique state of mind. “Honestly, Boston has given us everything, not only our start playing shows, but mentally where we come from,” says Shaw. “We cannot thank the fine city enough.”  The fierce independent spirit, do-it-yourself work ethic, and fervent camaraderie of local bands sometimes make Boston a more positive environment than the impersonal, competitive music scenes New York City or Los Angeles. Lynch insists that a hometown show is “just like a big party and easy to forget that some of the people we know actually like the band beyond knowing us all personally.” On tour, things often become a bit less comfortable. “When you go to other towns there is more of a myth about the band ‘the Dropkick Murphys from Boston are here!’ I think Boston people have a reputation for being tough.”

Despite mixed feelings expressed by current local heroes, the next generation of Boston bands will continue to strive for the city’s next big thing status. Boston is increasingly opening doors for bands both young and established. “Smaller bands from the area are learning how to promote themselves in a crowded marketplace,” says Shred, who also moonlights as music director at Boston rock radio powerhouse WBCN. “Also, the indie bands on the circuit these days are putting up some impressive sales figures.” These newly developed promotion outlets and independent album sales are not going unnoticed. Industry presence in the city is up, encouraging high school and college bands to build serious careers. More importantly, young fans are responding to local music in a more positive way than their older brothers and sisters.

Nearly six months after the performance by Murder by Death and Lucero, the Middle East is once again the catalyst of an oddly timed mob of rockers, but this time most of them are underage. The club’s upstairs room, which holds 200 concertgoers, is sold-out for a 1pm show of young local bands Eighty-SixAmalgam, and Harry and the Potters. Rather than turn away, the ticket-less fans wait in the restaurant with hopes that some people will leave after the first or second acts. Inside, concertgoers smile, dance, and cheer as their peers take the stage. They aren’t at the club to drink. They do not intend to heckle the band. They are there for the excitement of live music.

From the Archives

Son Volt – Okemah and the Melody of Riot

Okemah and the Melody of Riot very serendipitously follows the May release of a Son Volt retrospective album, acting to a certain degree as a well-defined point of demarcation for the band’s second incarnation.

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When country-rock pioneers Uncle Tupelo split for good following their Anodyne tour in 1994, it was less speculated than completely understood that Jay Farrar’s new ensemble Son Volt would find both quicker and greater success than that of Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco. As fate has a funny way of doing sometimes, though, Tweedy made massive and sometimes disturbing strides as a songwriter and performer, with Wilco reaching the summit of the indie rock world on the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002. Son Volt, meanwhile, muddled their way through three well received if underperforming albums between 1995 and 1998, with a single modest hit to their name (“Drown” from 1995’s Trace). The band never officially broke up, but did go “on hiatus” while Farrar commenced his inevitable solo career. 

Okemah and the Melody of Riot very serendipitously follows the May release of a Son Volt retrospective album, acting to a certain degree as a well-defined point of demarcation for the band’s second incarnation. Farrar is the only member remaining from the original Son Volt, giving him near-unilateral creative freedom if he somehow didn’t have it already. Whereas much of his solo work found him ambling around within a loose, vaguely rootsy indie framework, Okemah is the sound of a man who has purged those musical indulgences from his system, full of vim and loaded for bear. It might get caught up in lyrical frivolities that have been rendered obsolete since the last time Son Volt recorded an album, but it succeeds more often than it fails.

The “Okemah” in the album’s title refers to Okemah, Oklahoma, the birthplace of one Woody Guthrie, whom Farrar wastes little time in name-dropping in the album’s opening cut, “Bandages & Scars.” While the album’s direct, rock and roll approach bears little immediate resemblance  to Guthrie’s sparse, Dust Bowl-era recordings, Farrar’s tendency towards broad, sometimes cutting social observations does aspire to Guthrie’s levels even if it never actually reaches them.

Farrar spends a fair amount of time grinding his rusty ax against that great immovable object known as the United States government, but after seven years on the sidelines and two contentious elections by the boards, you’d expect that he might have a missive or two tucked away in the coffers. It might have been a more noble artistic motion had not Farrar drawn such a high number at the Protest Song deli counter. Simply put, it ain’t as fresh a topic as it used to be. For each pertinent lyric like “Piecemeal solutions will only leave scars / Bandages for nosebleeds,” there’s a simple, unveiled screed like “His daddy has a job in Washington / Wants to raise a Harvard son / Junior liked to let his hair down / Only trouble is, word gets around…” Fortunately, it becomes easy to revel in the power chords on “Jet Pilot” even as Farrar invokes silly lines like “everyone needs a hunting pal” and the well-worn “the revolution will be televised.”

It’s a shame that Farrar gets carried away by his inner rabblerouser as much as he does, because the band and the music on Okemah are top-notch all the way through. Guitarist Brad Rice provides some stalwart, timely leads, while bassist Andrew Duplantis and drummer Dave Bryson anchor the rock-solid rhythm section. Farrar’s world-weary drawl is also in full form, making it easy to see why many saw Son Volt as Uncle Tupelo’s heir apparent in the first place. There are very few moments where Okemah is anything less than an engaging listen, whether you take to the spirit of Farrar’s words or not. The formula hasn’t changed much since he spurned the original lineup, but it’s a damn fine rock and roll record all the same.

(Legacy Recordings)

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