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Putting the 'rock' back into "Allston Rock City"

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Rock city revival

With its clubs once again booking an edgy brand of live music, Allston is returning to its raucous roots

By Sarah Tomlinson, Globe Correspondent | August 27, 2004

Allston Rock City. The nickname is in-your-face and independent, like the tattoo-covered punk rockers and mop-topped indie rockers who call the neighborhood home. Their bands rehearse in its practice spaces, their parties rage through its (relatively) inexpensive apartments, their sunglass-clad forms slink into its dive bars.

Over the past few years, though, the live music scene hasn't quite lived up to the moniker, with area clubs offering only a scattering of vital shows and rock bars morphing into more generic hangouts. Now, things are changing again.

O'Brien's Pub, which became a live rock fixture not long after the dawn of the area's first rock rise in the late '80s and early '90s, has a more dynamic sound thanks to new booker Shred, the WBCN local music director who also books the Middle East Upstairs. Harpers Ferry, the neighborhood's former jam band headquarters, is hosting nights of hip-hop and edgy rock. Great Scott, once a sports bar, is offering live bands nightly for the first time.

Even esoteric neighborhood spots, like the ICC Church and the Jackson Mann Community Center, are being employed for all-ages punk and hardcore shows, while tried and true dives like the Silhouette Lounge and Model Cafe still woo rockers with cheap drinks and a bare-bones vibe. Collectively, they're putting the rock back in Rock City.

At O'Brien's, one of the cornerstones of the resurgence, Shred knows what he's aiming for. He remembers well

the good old days, and he still gets nostalgic about having seen the Del Fuegos and Faith No More at the Common Ground, back when it was called Johnny D's. "It really did have a storied history," he said. "All of the businesses and all of the clubs sort of made it Allston Rock City." Shred is trying to use his local and national indie-rock connections to make the club a rock beacon again. "I think it seemed to kind of lose its course for a while, and I'm in there to right that course," he says.

Part of his strategy is to recruit local bands to throw CD release parties there and book more popular touring acts, such as last night's show featuring two New York City-based garage punk bands, Bad Wizard and the Witnesses.

There are physical improvements, too, including renovated bathrooms and a new PA system. But amid all the changes, Shred wants the 70-person-capacity venue to retain its seedy charm. "It's a dirty rock bar, and there's nothing wrong with that," he says.

Even more dramatic are the changes underway at several venues once known for scenes that tended to scare local rock fans away. At Harpers Ferry, Dan Millen has actually been trying to introduce more rock at the 340-person-capacity venue for three years. He has offered shows by ska visionaries Fishbone and indie-rock crooners Maroon 5. But it wasn't until management changes occurred in the past year that booking really loosened up.

There still will be abundant blues and Grateful Dead-inspired jam sessions, but expect more of a mix, like recent shows by Boston's Southern-rock-vibed Antler and the harder rocking Stoic, whose growling vocals led Millen to dub it "Cookie Monster rock."

Millen is especially excited to draw new patrons to the club. He acknowledges that before he took over booking, he was prejudiced against seeing shows there. "The staff was always rude, and it just always seemed like if you were wearing a black T-shirt, you got hassled on your way in," he says. "It definitely is not like that anymore, but we're still kind of shedding that stigma."

It also has taken time for past assumptions to fade about Great Scott, the latest nexus of cool DJ'd and live indie music.

The change actually began in 2002, when popular Mod dance night the Pill was seeking a new venue. Although it eventually settled in Chinatown, the night's promoter, Carl Lavin, began making inroads at Great Scott when he began the Plan in 2003. The weekly night focused on DJ'd music and live performances by up-and-coming local indie bands. This summer, Lavin was given free reign to book bands seven days a week. Now he just needs to persuade the locals that it's safe for rockers.

Even though recent shows have included beloved indie acts such as John Vanderslice and the Ponys, rock fans have been slow to trust that the room has been exorcised of its frat-boy past. To help draw a wider crowd, Lavin has tapped other local indie organizers including Ben Sisto, who books the monthly Dynasty night at the Milky Way and other local shows. Sisto took over Sunday nights at Great Scott this month and featured indie electro act Mahi Mahi last week. That show attracted about 40 or 50 enthusiastic fans, who reveled and danced in the dark room as dramatic red and blue lights slashed across the floor.

"I've kind of accepted it as a place to see my friends' bands play and touring bands play," said Brian Maharochia, 27, of Allston, who attended the Mahi Mahi show. "But it still kind of trips me out a little bit."

"It's exciting," says Sarah Richardson, a former Allston resident who moved to Toronto but recently came back to play with her band, Memories Forever, at Great Scott. "There are finally shows to go to in Allston."

With upcoming shows getting better and bigger, it may be only a matter of time before Allston is raucous again. A perfect example is the upcoming performance at Great Scott by revered experimental noise rockers Lightning Bolt, organized by local indie promoter Eximious Productions.

The Sept. 9 show is sure to draw some fresh faces. The reaction of kids who follow the band, Sisto says, will be, "All right, even if this place is a little weird, they let our favorite band play."

Still, Allston's rock-centric residents may always make up the core audience. Says Lavin, "Having lived in and around Allston for 11 years now, you know how many people there are there that really enjoy music and going to see bands and having a heightened awareness of the indie-rock scene. . . . I mean, it's Allston Rock City."

From The Boston Globe

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