Consider this: Just about every tour, production or exhibit that hits the prime-time cities on the opposing coasts comes to our little town, too. And our little town isn't so little. We're talking about 560,000 people in the city itself and 3.4 million folks in metro Boston. And these aren't folks contemplating a quiet retirement in Florida and a life of shuffleboard and bridge. These are folks - many of them anyway - with disposable income, looking for arts and entertainment options ... at least while they're not dodging falling bolts in the Big Dig tunnels.
"Day in day out, there seems to be perpetual motion in all of the arts," says David Bieber, director of special projects for the Boston Phoenix/WFNX radio and a longtime observer of the Boston arts world. "All the arts seem to be thriving, There has to be a constituency and that's what is striking - people responding to what's being presented. To varying degrees, there's clearly an audience. Boston, on a national basis, is seen as a breakout environment, and it's emerged from (perceptions of) 'quaintness' and a small town feeling."
People live in or near Boston because it provides a variety of all things artistic - as well as proximity to an ocean, A-level medical facilities and libraries, vast parks, and a sports scene where two of the big four are likely to be in the hunt right up to the end. (Sorry Celtics and Bruins. Maybe next century.)
What else works in the arts favor in Boston? Students. A constant influx of students attending a myriad of institutions, from the grandest to the humblest. These are curious students, working students, students with their parents' money to spend, students away from home - say Iowa, North Dakota or Montana - for the first time in their lives with more options than a Mohegan Sun gaming floor. You bet their eyes light up like slot machines when they take a big gulp and realize what's happening ... right outside their dorm room.
Some of those students stay on after graduation and they don't lose their curiosity. They move into the professional ranks and then they have actual real money to spend. "That's the regenerative beauty of the Boston area," says Bieber. "You have that highly desired demographic - people who are active, exploratory, people willing to take a chance. And they've got the dollars."
And that's what's important about the Boston arts scene: People are inquisitive and active, whether it be about the potential next big thing like English bluesman James Hunter or the big thing that will last forever like "The Lion King." People were intrigued by intellectually challenging productions like the visually stunning play "The Far Side of the Moon" at the American Repertory Theatre. People scrambled to get tickets because comic Chris Rock, maybe the funniest man in America, decided to do four shows at the comfy confines of the Comedy Connection. They went nuts when Aerosmith treated the locals to a gig at the 575-capacity Middle East Downstairs.
Music - Rock, Folk, Jazz, World
In the realm of rock clubs, my specialty, Boston has never been lacking, even if the venues change. (RIP: The Rat, the Channel, Storyville, Nightstage, Jack's, Jonathan Swift's, the Idler, etc.) It boasts holes-in-the-wall specializing in hard rock or metal (O'Brien's) and top-flight, multi-tiered facilities like Avalon, which can play home to anyone from Coldplay to AFI to Insane Clown Posse to Tricky. (Prince and David Bowie once treated fans to intimate gigs there.) Great Scott's, once a run-of-the-mill college bar, has emerged as a player on the alternative rock scene.
The Paradise, for more than 25 years, has been the rock of Boston rock 'n' roll. It's gone through more than a few renovations, but the bookings have been consistently top-notch (the Pretenders and Police in the early days) and it remains a primary showcase club for the young, fresh acts like Bloc Party and KT Tunstall. Also of note: After years in flux, the other room at the Paradise (once a comedy spot, Stitches) has come into its own as the Paradise Lounge, selling good bar food and drink and hosting a bevy of strong acts like Aqualung, Jon Langford and Lloyd Cole.
Not far from the Paradise is Harpers Ferry, which had been known as a blues and R&B haunt, but has beefed up its talent roster over the past couple of years. You'll still see some cover bands, but also Dan Bern, the Rebirth Jazz Band and the infamous Nashville Pussy.
Across the Charles River in Cambridge, Central Square has become the rock mecca with the Middle East club complex boasting its very own brand of Upstairs/Downstairs. The larger room Downstairs, a former bowling alley, might host a Throwing Muses reunion, a Cracker or Flipper show, or an English ska tour with the English Beat and friends. Upstairs (cap: 94) is geared to acts like the Explosion or Reverend Glasseye which draw smaller crowds. In both clubs, any genre is welcome - and in this the complex is most like the lamented Channel which could Black Flag one night and Parliament-Funkadelic the next.
Around the corner, T.T. the Bear's offers three or four bands a night, sometimes scoring a coup like red-hot Scissor Sisters, and consistently offering quality acts in from all corners like the Sam Roberts Band, Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, Dear Leader and the Waco Brothers. Over in Somerville, Johnny D's boasts an eclectic lineup of performers, leaning toward roots and ethnic music. You'll see John Hammond, Tony Bird, Mikey Dread and Asleep at the Wheel. There are also Saturday and Sunday jazz brunches.
Up from clubland, there's the Somerville Theater, the Orpheum, the Wang Theatre, the Opera House and the Berklee Performance Center. Larger? The new Harry Agannis Arena at Boston University. Larger still? The TD Banknorth Garden and the Worcester Centrum Centre. Outdoors: The Tweeter Center in Mansfield (where Roger Waters will play) and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough (where the Rolling Stones will play). Occasionally, radio stations sponsor gigs on the Esplanade or City Hall Plaza.
Folk music thrives at Cambridge's Club Passim, which picked up in tradition of the old Club 47, the Idler and the old club called Passim, owned by revered folk supporters Bob and Rae Anne Donlin. (Suzanne Vega, Tom Rush and Peter Wolf played there; Bob Donlin famously turned down a young Bruce Springsteen.) Lori McKenna and PF Sloan will soon play the no alcohol-Passim and the club retains its status as a must for the young folkie on the way.
The much larger Sanders Theatre at Harvard will often host a more popular folk artist or a group of acts. And there are various coffeehouses and churches throughout metro and suburban Boston where acoustic guitars are heard.
Primary jazz outlets are three intimate rooms: Scullers, the Regattabar and Ryles. But you'll also hear jazz at Wally's Café, Toad (which also has rock) and the Lizard Lounge (ditto).
It's no surprise that Boston, with its diverse population, sports a vibrant world music scene. World Music/CRASHarts is the primary booker of musicians from Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Ireland, India and elsewhere with flamenco, jazz, cabaret, Celtic and many more styles being played.
World Music celebrated its 15-year in 2005. Executive director Maure Aronson calls Boston "one of the strongest world music markets in the United States," adding, "over 55,000 people attend our events annually and we average an 80 percent capacity. Audiences trust our programming and are great explorers of the familiar and unfamiliar artists we offer."
Music - Classical and Opera
Not my areas of especial expertise, so I tapped into the wisdom of Maureen Dezell, who also worked at the Globe. She was the paper's long-time arts reporter.
"Boston is the classical music capital of the United States," Dezell says. "There's the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by the incomparable James Levine and home to the Boston Pops, led by Keith Lockhart. The BSO has started a lot of free shows and lectures (to attract a new audience) because a lot of people are afraid of classical music."
"One of the city's great umbrella organizations for music, dance and spoken word is Bank of America's Celebrity Series. Very eclectic. And we have top-notch smaller orchestras, like the Boston Philharmonic. Boston is the undisputed early music capital with the Handel & Haydn Society, Boston Camerata and offerings from the Boston Conservatory and the New England Conservatory, which often perform at mid-size halls."
"With opera, there are two major opera companies, Boston Lyric Opera, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary season and Opera Boston."
"Boston Ballet has gotten much more adventurous under director Mikko Nissinen, a mix of modern and traditional ballet, more contemporary," says Dezell. "Jose Mateo's Ballet Theatre in Cambridge has presented 20 years of singular choreography."
"He is excellent," agrees another former Globe critic and colleague, Christine Temin. "His thing is he has a wonderful 40-year lease on this space he's done over in a Harvard Square church and every performance is sold out, a delightful problem to have.
"The dance scene here is dominated by Boston Ballet," continues Temin, "which is doing fantastically well artistically, but the dance community, the larger philanthropic community, doesn't realize that. They're under-funded ... I've seen every one of the 41 last seasons - I grew up here - and I'm most optimistic about what Mikko has done now. He's managed to do more than any of his predecessors in terms of bringing up the level of dancing and choreography." She gives high praise to choreographer Jorma Elo.
Boston's proximity to New York means Boston will sometimes get theatrical tryouts before they hit Broadway - though those are fewer than they used to be. More likely now, Boston will get the road-show version of Broadway hits. Much of Boston theater is booked by Live Nation. Live Nation puts plays in the Theatre District at the Cutler Majestic, the Colonial, Shubert and The Wang. You might have seen "Monty Python's Spamalot," Eddie Izzard's one-man-show or "Cats." This year you might see the world premiere of "High Fidelity," the Tony-winning play "Doubt" starring Cherry Jones or "Twelve Angry Men," with George Wendt and Richard Thomas. Oh, and "Stomp!" will be back for more banging.
But Live Nation is not the whole show. It does not book the Wilbur, Huntington, Boston Center for the Arts (including Calderwood Pavilion), Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre and its sister the Zero Arrow Theatre, the Lyric Theatre, Boston Theatre Works and the New Repertory Theatre.
We asked the Huntington's artistic director Nicolas Martin for his take on the Boston theater scene. "There's a strong current of enthusiastic audience support for theater," he emailed, though cautioning that the country, including Boston, was struggling with support for the arts. "The Boston audience, god bless them, have always been game for new plays, even if they end up despising them. ...There are certainly challenges, and Boston is slow to change but - unless I'm really kidding myself - I detect a growing audience of younger people at the Calderwood theaters." Arts funding, he added, tended to go to the MFA and the BSO.
Other spaces: The Devanaughn is a tiny black box theater in the South End, with many small-scale plays put in by scrappy producers. Way out on the Cape, is the excellent Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. We've seen several challenging works out there under the direction of Jeff Zinn. Sometimes, his pal, Provincetown's Norman Mailer comes out to read.
The Boston museum scene is ever-changing. "The nicest thing that's happened here is the slightly postponed opening of the ICA," says Temin. (The ICA - formerly known as the Institute of Contemporary Arts - shut its Boylston Street doors and moved from that small space to a much larger and versatile facility near the Boston Court House. It postponed a mid-September opening.) Temin: "They've made really bold moves. They're collecting" - the ICA had never had a permanent exhibit - "and they picked hottest architects, genuinely great. The design is daring and the thinking: bravo. The ICA could be the key institution to building a new downtown for Boston."
The 65,000-square foot building, which will have a performing space and media arts area, will have works by Thomas Hirrschhorn, Kai Althoff, Nan Goldin and Cornelia Parker in its permanent collection. During its first year, the ICA will host exhibitions by Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Anish Kapoor.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is noted for its unchanging nature - Gardner dictated it in her will, after all. But Temin says, "The Gardner is doing beautifully, in contemporary art. They have a space devoted to contemporary art that's in relationship to what's in the Gardner collection." After the page one heist in 1990, "they came out of a huge slump, and have done brilliantly in terms of making the place alive after this disaster."
The Museum of Fine Arts, under the direction of Malcolm Rogers, has opened up its programming and exhibits to include much more contemporary (and sometimes controversial) work. There was an exquisite exhibit of Ralph Lauren's classic cars, and before that another of guitars. They've also got brilliant music (left of center acts like Antony and the Johnsons and the Dirty Three) and numerous film series, such as the French Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival and the Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival.
You'd think the Museum of Science might be a staid place, but currently it is in the midst of controversy vis-à-vis its "Body Worlds" exhibit by Gunther von Hagens. In it, human corpses have been vivisected, treated, posed and offered up for, pick one or more: a) scientific curiosity, b) grotesque amusement, c) shock value in an unshockable age, d) an edifying exhibit of Plastination done by the leading anatomist of our age. Of course, the Museum has much more than that, from IMAX films to the always wonderful planetarium (hey more planets now!) to exhibits on fish and algae, mapping and computing. And we should not forget the dinosaurs.
This one may get lost in the big scheme of things, but try and sample Dreams of Freedom, the Immigration Museum downtown. You will truly be touched by the stories and exhibits surrounding how most of us got here - not all of us by choice. And the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, which often has special exhibits (The PT-109 exhibit was fascinating) and connects you viscerally to our young president who would be 89 today had he lived. The museum also has serious political lectures and presentations.
There's much more ... from the Children's Museum to the Tea Party Museum, Harvard's Art Museums and the striking DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park out in Lincoln.
During the '80s comedy boom - where Boston was America's launch central (Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Lenny Clarke, Denis Leary, Paula Poundstone, and scads more) - there were half a dozen comedy clubs worth checking out regularly. That's pretty much dropped to the Comedy Connection, a longtime stalwart relocated to the Fanueil Hall area, where Paul Nardizzi, Tony V., Michael McDonald, Kevin Knox, Harrison Stebbins and Frank Santos are regulars and this fall will see Craig Ferguson, D.L. Hughley, Anthony Clark and Richard Jeni.
"I think Boston is a great market for comedy," says the Connection's Colette Greenstein. "It's very viable and very strong."
There's also Nick's Comedy Stop. In September, the two clubs co-host the Boston Comedy Festival. Nick's Comedy Stop is a smaller, long-running club in the theater district, nearby where the old Comedy Connection was.
In fact, occupying that space now is the Charles Playhouse, where the comical-but-serious, thought-provoking and rocking Blue Man Group has set up shop for eternity. The ultimate hybrid entertainment vehicle they are and they keep packing the place.
There's ensemble improvisation at the Improv Asylum (as you might expect). The Comedy Studio in the Hong Kong Restaurant is a space for young comics working their way up. It's in Harvard Square. Political satirist and comic Jimmy Tingle holds the lease to Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway in Somerville (as you also might expect), but it's both a comedy and performance space. (Currently Tingle's own "American Dream" is running.)
Movies can be seen everywhere, of course. We're happy that after years of neglect Boston proper has two worthy complexes in AMC Fenway 13 and in AMC Loews Boston Common 19. But we never really worry about space for Hollywood product. What's especially rewarding in these parts are cinemas like the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which has three rooms of varying sizes, and a mind-scrambling array of indy film and themed-nights. Also of note: the Landmark Kendall Square theatres, which has much indy fare, and the West Newton Cinema, where indy, semi-mainstream and children's films all mix. The Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts have films, too.
Bookstores & Readings
Bookstores? We've got the biggies - Borders and Barnes & Noble - and both have branches that offer readings/autograph sessions/Q and A's from big name authors. But we've also got smaller, funkier outlets like Newtonville Books, where owner Tim Huggins got his pal Dennis Lehane to read from his new book recently, Brookline Booksmith, which has a steady roster of quality authors coming by for readings, and the Harvard Bookstore, ditto. Don't forget the Boston Public Library has an ambitious schedule of authors speaking. Boston's a literary town and there's something gained from hearing an author read and having the ability to engage in a give-and-take.
As to the Boston arts scene in general, we'd agree with Dezell, who says: "Music has always been incomparable, as have the museums. But in the last decade, what's happened is we now have a breadth and depth of offerings in all of the arts, collaborations, interactions. It's almost gotten to be an embarrassment of riches, there's so much to do throughout the year."
Downside? "It can be expensive, so you have to do a little research, go on artsboston.com and explore the web sites of the larger organizations," says Dezell.
Oh, and who am I to pontificate? Well, I was a staff writer for the Boston Globe for 17-plus years, covering pop music and culture, among other things. I also came to a measure of acclaim (notoriety?) as a rock critic. While there, I wrote stories for virtually every section of the paper at some point. I held down the Names & Faces celebrity column in 2000-2002; I wrote the arts and events column Go! in 2004-5, before leaving.
I've interviewed and hung with Neil Young, Pete Townshend and David Bowie. I've hobnobbed with historian/activist Howard Zinn and musical activist Billy Bragg - in fact, I introduced them. One of the proudest moments of my life. I've talked tattoos with Cher; I've been brushed off by David Mamet while crossing Boylston street after a function at the Institute of Contemporary Art. I've spent time on TV sets, most notably HBO's "Oz" where - being temporarily unshaven - I was mistaken for a cast member (read: convict) - and "Married with Children" where I sat on the set couch with a young Christina Applegate.
More semi-gratuitous name dropping: I've sipped libations with Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, and, post-midnight, I've driven madly with former Clash singer Joe Strummer to make last call at a dive bar. I've listened to Eric Bogosian talk about his decadent past and his sedate present. I've talked theater with former American Repertory Theatre director Robert Brustein and said nothing but "it's an honor to meet you" when introduced to the venerable playwright Arthur Miller. (What could I say?) It was all part of the gig. Good parts.
And, on Aug. 12, 2006, I started this on-line column, JimSullivanInk.com, which is a guide to the Boston arts and events scene written with, as I say on the site, attitude. That is, I'm not just listing things for the sake of filling space. When I write about something it's a bonafide - or, maybe, qualified - endorsement. Sometimes, I'm interviewing the participants; sometimes I'm stepping into the critic's role. At the very least, it should be a lively read and, at the most, it will prompt you to take action and leave the couch and the TV crime worlds of Jerry Bruckheimer and Dick Wolf.