Hip To Be Square:
A Quadrilateral Guide To Cambridge
Visitors to Boston often stay in Cambridge—part of the Greater Boston Area, though not of Boston—to keep prices low and avoid the stress of city accommodations. But while there are good reasons to enter the city proper after grabbing a complimentary continental breakfast, it's a mistake to think of Boston's smaller, nerdier sibling as just a place to crash. If you've had your fill of Fenway Park and Quincy Market, you can still eat well, hit the clubs and find plenty else to do without even crossing the Charles. Like Boston, Cambridge is helpfully divided into squares for ease of exploration. Here are the big ones, all within walking distance of each other.
For a night out dancing, you'll be spending some time on the stretch of Mass Ave known as Central Square. Middlesex Lounge, Phoenix Landing and Enormous Room are among the top venues for dance music in the Greater Boston Area as a whole, with nights featuring DJs of international renown as well as the best local talents. If you arrive early, grab a drink beforehand at Green Street, where the cocktails are widely considered among the best on the east coast.
Cambridge is full of schools, and Harvard is the most prominent. Though campus is a couple gates away, Harvard Square happens to be the most touristy area in Cambridge. If you have shopping to do, you'll do it here. But that doesn't just mean clothing and souvenirs—between Newbury Comics, In Your Ear and Planet Records, vinyl addicts won't have any trouble getting their fix.
Entering Inman Square is almost like discovering a secret; without its own T stop, the area isn't quite as bustling as Central or Harvard. But here's the secret—you could eat every meal of your whole stay here without being disappointed once. Try the innovative East by Northeast for an innovative array of small-plate Chinese dishes made with New England ingredients, Lord Hobo for expert pub food and a long list of awesome beers you've never heard of before, Ole for perfect margaritas and guacamole mashed at your table or Punjabi Dhaba for cheap and authentic Indian street food.
OK, this is cheating—Union Square is technically in Somerville, just north of Cambridge. But its location, halfway between Harvard and Inman, makes it a convenient part of the loop. Forget Dunkin Donuts—between Sherman Cafe, The Biscuit and the exemplary Bloc 11, you've got your morning coffee covered right here. Try nearby Highland Kitchen on a bleary-eyed Sunday morning for a terrific brunch.
The Greater Boston Area, an ambiguously defined region that includes other Massachusetts cities like Cambridge, is home to more than 100 colleges and universities. Communities are hard to build and maintain with students always coming and going, and their presence makes 21+ a firm rule at most venues. This rigidity extends even further—establishments that serve drinks have to close at 2:00 AM, while public transportation stops running at 1:00 AM, a state of affairs that delights cab companies while frustrating everyone else.
The combination of a student population in constant flux and legal restrictions on the city's nightlife may make Boston seem like barren soil for dance music. But discontent has bred dedication—constituents of the area's dance underground work hard to make their music a viable part of the city's nightlife and musical culture.
Though it may not match the artistic heritage of New York, Boston's contemporary electronic music is not without precedent. True to the city's nature—being both New England's most prominent urban center and a typical Northeastern town—many of the architects of today's club scene came up through the mid-'90s suburban rave scenes of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut and Vermont.
Pat Fontes, promoter of Boston's longest running dance night, Midweek Techno, is one such former raver. In the mid-'90s, says Fontes, there wasn't much else for New England kids to do but "sneak out late, hitch a ride with somebody, and drive to the ends of the Earth to party with a bunch of freaking strangers." Two of Fontes's fellow ravers, Charles Levine and Eli Goldstein, are now production and DJing duo Soul Clap, touring the world and releasing successful records on New York's Wolf + Lamb label. The two remember attending parties not only at Elks Clubs and old warehouses, but at sundry locations like the Boston World Trade Center and Children's Museum as well.
The scene tuned in and turned on plenty of kids to contemporary music, but dropped out as the culture grew stale. As Levine puts it, "New England kind of killed itself with terrible DJs." As a result, Goldstein adds, "everything moved to Lansdowne Street. There was Avalon, Axis, Playhouse, Karma Club, all these clubs that were across from Fenway Park, where House of Blues is now. There was tons of electronic music there. [But] it wasn't underground at all, and there wasn't like there was any kind of movement behind it."
The presence of House of Blues, the most corporate of rock clubs, stands as neat symbolism for the transition music in Boston went through in the late '90s and early '00s. With rock clubs and Irish pubs securing hegemony, dance music was hard to find. These years were documented by filmmaker Amy Grill and her then-husband David Day in the recent documentary Speaking in Code, which found the two frequently traveling to Europe and struggling to import its electronic sounds.
Soul Clap remember their own residency at Midweek Techno as "a labor of love" that required both dedication and financial investment from everyone involved. "There was a lot of heartbreak, especially when we started playing out of town," Levine adds. "We would play Berlin, London and Amsterdam in one weekend, and get back to our Wednesday gig and there would be no one there. We'd have to go across the street to the ATM to pay our guests." A recent guest set by Prosumer found the floor distressingly spare—though the Berlin DJ didn't seem to notice, enthusiastically spinning track after track of characteristically excellent, joyful house. According to Lauren DeVain, who was involved in promoting parties in Boston during the recent club renaissance, "names don't really work to bring people [out] in Boston," she explains. "This is what we discovered, and it's why we had to build up our own parties, and our own names there."
The ironically titled Enormous Room.
The sense of New England sprawl that the rave scene drew on pervades on a smaller scale in the Greater Boston Area today. The Phoenix can be found on Cambridge's Mass Ave, the most likely successor to Lansdowne Street, if one were to be identified. With Enormous Room, Middlesex Lounge and rock & roll institution Middle East all along the same strip, the area's dance cognoscenti are frequently found on its sidewalks.
Gabi Aguilar, a hostess who helped build the scene through furtively police-approved parties at her Jamaica Plain apartment, is one dancer who made the transition into developing Cambridge's club culture. Her flagship night, Middlesex's Petrol, features resident DJ James Gerard, a deep house and disco specialist who got his start collecting records and playing clubs in Chicago during the late '90s. His expertise has made him an equal partner in the night, and he helps book underground guests like Berlin DJ and producer Hunee.
Petrol takes place on a Monday night, which is symptomatic of a larger trend in Boston. "Nobody I know goes out on the weekends," says David Day. With clubs catering to crowds with lowest-common-denominator Top 40 tastes, weekends are notoriously hard for dance promoters to book. "There's not many clubs that have dance nights," Day elaborates. "They're mostly rock clubs. But, then again, now they all have turntables and disco lights."
Monkey Maffia of the Wighnomy Brothers rocking the Middlesex lounge.
Mass Ave's Middle East is one of these clubs, sometimes featuring DJs and, more frequently, live electronic acts like Caribou. Day's own night, Middlesex's Make It New, reliably packs the club full of dancers on Thursday nights, both aficionados of the genre and club regulars—frequently students at nearby universities like MIT and Harvard. Lineups have featured internationally renowned DJs like Efdemin, Actress and Michael Mayer. With Boston being a convenient stop on the way to New York, a Thursday night before a big weekend further south is easy to plan.
Uhuru Afrika, a Saturday night party dedicated to an understanding of house music as a product of the African diaspora, takes place at Mass Ave's All Asia club. The night proves it is possible to fill an entire club with dancers who still know all the words to "Gypsy Woman," as a recent set by Philadelphia DJ Rich Medina capably proved. The percussionists and breakdancers who regularly attend the night make it particularly stimulating, but it takes place only once a month, and is the only consistent weekend dance night on the street.
Among those people who really really really care are the members of the Casual Encounters crew, members of which are affiliated with nearly every dance night in town. The group occasionally manages one-off nights in Boston proper, with Financial District club Good Life being most receptive to their efforts. The Never Say Never parties, spearheaded by Alex From Queens, have brought Omar-S and Traxx to the venue, both of whom found the crowd receptive enough to dig deep into their bins. Another Casual Encounters participant, Brenden Wesley, has put nights together at Good Life that feature disco and deep house jockeys like Runaway and Cousin Roy. Good Life has also been home to events organized by dubstep crew Bassic, who most recently booked acclaimed producer Martyn.
Further west, clubgoers can find the last vestige of the Fenway-area phase of Boston clubbing. DJ Bruno, who Eli Goldstein calls "the godfather of house music in Boston," built the scene at the Loft from 1991 until its closing in 1996, and claims to have introduced hometown hero Armand Van Helden to house music. He continues to spin soulful house for his Utopia Sunday party at Machine.
The other major downtown venue, Rise, is an unusual one. It's the city's only after-hours club. By not serving drinks, the 300-person capacity club is permitted to keep its doors open between 1 and 6 AM. Though it's the only game in the neighborhood, Rise faces some challenges. Resident DJ and booking manager Mike Swells puts it concisely: "Boston is a drinking town."
Though "local DJ's are the foundation of the club," according to Swells, and "we take a lot of pride in giving people opportunities," Rise is one of the few places in Boston where superstar DJs like Danny Howells and Josh Wink are likely to play. "We have good relationships with DJs," Swells says, explaining how he can book these stars without paying their full fees. "If they're more focused on artist development and having a great soundsystem, a great booth and a great experience, we end up getting those DJs who are more focused on having a great party."
At the same time, Boston may be moving towards not only distributing music from elsewhere, but producing its own. Eli Goldstein points out that producers in Boston have "started working together...and influencing each other more and more, so there's this Boston Sound that's starting to happen." He describes this as a slowed-down, song-based sensibility that many in the area share. Soul Clap collaborators Sergio Santos and Tanner Ross, who have been affiliated with Dirtybird and Mothership, Brenden Wesley, Pat Fontes and other locals have released records on prominent labels and intend to follow them up in the near future.
A new label, Fort Point Records, was recently established by administrative staff at Good Life for the purpose of releasing music by local artists. Another contribution to putting Boston on the map is one of America's few dance music festivals, called Together. Mike McKay, David Day and other area luminaries have been involved in organizing and curating the event, which took place for the first time in February 2010 and just announced the dates for its second edition.
In spite of these advancements, Boston has still proved too small for some members of its dance scene. Speaking in Code ends with Amy Grill's move to San Francisco, while Lauren DeVain now runs a Berlin promotional company called Carousel, working with producers like Martin Eyerer. Another former Bostonite, Vicki Siolos, is now in New York, working as a booking agent at Francois K's Forward Management. After getting to a certain point in Boston, Siolos found herself asking, "What's the next step?" DeVain concurs, saying, "I knew music was what I wanted to do, and I knew it really wasn't possible in Boston."
Dance music's struggles in Boston are not all that different from those in most American cities. Whether the next few years make the city inextricably linked in the minds of listeners and dancers to a "Boston sound" remains to be seen, but it's undeniable that DJs, producers and promoters are making new things happen. "The circumstances are what they are—and they couldn't get much worse—so you have to figure out how to work with them," says Mike Swells. "The only way to look is up."