The People, Places, and Parties that Brighten Boston After Dark
by Miles Howard and Scott Kearnan
| April 20, 2012
Every nightspot has its list of VIPs: people whose reputations precede them and make velvet ropes part like the Red Sea. So for our first Night Shift issue, we likewise compiled a list — of very important people, places, and parties. We gave nods across the nightlife world, from DJs who keep us dancing to promoters pushing new social-media tech, from traditional nightclubs to sleek restaurants that double as social scenes, and from longstanding party series to late-night movie and comedy offerings. Here’s to nightlife’s shining stars: this round’s on us.
The Big Draws
Even for big-name DJs used to playing massive arenas, America has long been the toughest commercial market to crack. So when they tour the States, it’s usually bigger, more nightlife-friendly cities like New York, LA, Miami, and Vegas that get a visit. Boston has rarely been on the radar — until lately. Suddenly, an influx of major electronic-music artists are playing at Hub clubs, including venues where capacities are a fraction (of a fraction) of what they’re used to.
“It was like having the Grateful Dead play at your little concert venue,” chuckles Mike Swells, DJ and jack-of-all-trades at RISE, where Grammy-winning techno legend Dubfire played in April. Boston’s only (legal) after-hours nightclub, RISE has a devout following among true-blue EDM aficionados. It’s booked many revered acts, but scoring Dubfire was the club’s biggest coup yet.
Royale deserves credit for taking an early initiative in attracting huge DJ acts to Boston. Immediately after taking over the former Roxy space in 2010, Royale started pulling in some of the world’s top talent, like Paul van Dyk, Kaskade, David Guetta, and, most recently, Alesso. (Next up: Armin van Buuren on May 22 and Ferry Corsten on June 7.) Other clubs have since follow suit by nabbing big names; recent headliners include Bob Sinclar at Gypsy Bar and Nervo at Splash. The shift reflects how interest in EDM has skyrocketed over the last couple of years. Deadmau5 and Skrillex are nearly household names (to the under-40 crowd anyway), and pop stars are cranking out collaborations with DJs.
“The music has grown in popularity, so now Boston promoters have a reason to take a risk,” says Swells. And it is a financial gamble; the big guns don’t come cheap. (Picture five-figure price tags.) But clubs can charge higher ticket prices for these names, and VIP tables can go for several grand — so recouping the cost is entirely possible. But sometimes the cachet of the booking is enough reward on its own, says DJ Mete Aslan, part of the team behind Bijou. The Theater District hotspot has been bringing in major players, but none as high-profile as trance legend Tiësto, who came through at the end of March (check out our interview with him in “The Top Talent” on page 36). “He came from playing to tens of thousands of people at festivals to 350 at Bijou,” says Aslan. “And he doesn’t get paid less because he’s playing to fewer people. But to have Tiësto is a big advertisement for your club — and a big accomplishment. It’s great for the Boston music scene to have someone of that caliber.” As long as EDM continues to grow in popularity, we hope to see even more.
The Hotspots on the Horizon
In the nightlife world, you’re only as hot as your latest venture. And we’re burning with curiosity to see what comes of two upcoming projects from major nightlife players. This summer, Big Night Entertainment Group will add Empire to its, well, empire. The 13,000-square-foot Asian restaurant and lounge will be a massive addition to the Seaport scene, and considering that it’s from the same team behind the Estate, Red Lantern, and Shrine at MGM Foxwoods, we expect it to attract a healthy nightlife crowd. And though it’s been packing them in since 2006, District is slated to get a totally new look and concept courtesy of the 6one7 Productions team before year’s end.
The Breakfast Clubbers
Corvette blue. Cocaine white. Molly Ringwald red. If you dream in such shades, you probably have a soft spot for the ’80s. So do the members of Mirrorshades, a DJ collective that burst onto the scene this fall with floor-buckling, retro-electro sets of ’80s synth-pop and new wave, combined with modern house and nu-disco that’s inspired by ’80s synth-pop and wave. Catch their parties at Good Life — and for a similar vibe, check out Videodrome Discothèque, a solid standby that recently moved its twice-monthly throw-downs to Radio in Somerville.
The Late-Night Laughers
After a particularly dreary week of weather or weary week of work, we crave comedy. The Wilbur regularly brings in big-name bookings, of course — but what if we find ourselves in need of a late-night funny fix? We’re partial to Nightcap, a showcase of comedic and improvisational talents that hits the stage at ImprovBoston at 11:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. The best part? The shows are totally free. (More money for booze at the bar!) And if you’re in the mood for really risqué fare, be sure to check out Raunch, an über-uncouth laugh riot from the dirty minds at Improv Asylum, which goes down every Saturday at midnight.
The Double-Duty Dining Spots
In Boston, “nightlife” is a malleable term. We now have fewer nightlife-dedicated venues than we did back in that Jurassic period when behemoths like Avalon ruled Lansdowne Street, and our labyrinthine licensing hurdles can make it hard to get thumping new spots started. As a result, Boston has birthed a mindset that treats certain restaurants, by virtue of their look, vibe, and propensity to attract pretty people, as nightlife-y scenes for drinking, lounging, and flirting — not just eating. We’d say Sonsie was among the earliest, and newer spots like Red Lantern, The Brahmin, and the just-opened GEM channel a similar spirit. They’re restaurants, sure, but they also serve up a healthy side of “sexy social scene."
The Under-the-Radar Revelers
With its eclectic population of beer-guzzling students, post-university hipsters, and bedroom-based music producers equally adept at the synthesizer and the nose flute, we’re not surprised that Allston Rock City seems to be Boston’s best neighborhood for underground throw-downs. Among our favorite hush-hush haunts are crunchy co-op The Burrow (formerly known as Eliconia) and The Secret House of Pancakes, which packs out-of-state bands and edgy art installations into a bare-bulb-lit basement for its DIY dance parties. And then there’s The Wacky Kastle, which offers homemade vegan meals to visiting talent. How to get in? If you have to ask, you’re probably not invited. And that’s the fun.
The Spoils of War
When a fight breaks out in a club, we usually want to be far, far away — unless the smack-down is at Down Ultra Lounge. Soon after it opened in 2010, the subterranean club introduced a “dueling DJs” approach as a creative nod to the upstairs dueling-piano bar, Howl at the Moon. The roster of battling beat-masters includes local favorites like DJ Greg Pic and DJ Costa — so whoever triumphs at the decks, those of us on the dance floor are guaranteed a win.
The Nerds of Nightlife
Being a nerd doesn’t mean spending weekends watching The Two Towers alone in hobbit apparel. Nerds like to party too, and some of the options we’ve spied in Cambridge are inventive enough to tempt even the in-crowd to indulge in a geeks’ night out. If you drool over comic books (or just wish you had X-ray vision around girls in spandex), watch your heroes come to naughty life with Geek Girl Boston’s costumed burlesque shows at Oberon. (POW! BIFF! SCHWING!) Or bond over beer and brainy lectures at the monthly Nerd Nite series at Middlesex Lounge. Meanwhile, Spectra Events’ Nerdy Cabaret series has brought a slew of divinely dorky performers to the Middle East. And ImprovBoston’s annual Geek Week will serve up punctuation celebrations and Harry Potter–themed sketches from April 25 through April 29.
The Grindhouse Heroes
When it comes to late-night entertainment, we have a soft spot for midnight movies: flicks that are always colorful, usually campy, and often a bit creepy. (Insert Vincent Price cackle here.) So we love the weekend @fter Midnite series at Coolidge Corner Theatre, where selections run from nostalgic favorites (The Goonies are good enough!) to fright fests (1980s gore machine Cannibal Holocaust) to the unofficial so-bad-it’s-great genre (Tommy Wiseau’s legendarily abysmal The Room ). And since the early ’80s, AMC Loews Harvard Square 5 has screened cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show for costumed crowds every Saturday night.
The Rising Phoenix
The inimitable TC’s Lounge long ruled Boston’s dive-bar scene like a mangy Don Corleone, cultivating a one-of-a-kind vibe with its claw machine filled with pornographic prizes and walls plastered with primordial posters and candid Polaroids. Then the unthinkable occurred last month, when a beer-cooler short circuit sparked a blaze that burned the place beyond recognition. Our hopes teetered on the brink, but to our relief, owner Tony Consalvi has already announced his intention to rebuild the place. With any luck, we’ll soon be pounding brain-melting “Oxycontin shots” and bagging digital deer via Big Buck Hunter all over again.
The After-Hours Eateries
New York is the city that never sleeps. Boston? We’re like the responsible older sibling that has a sufficient amount of fun and then goes to bed at a reasonable hour so that we’re not late to work. But all those early closing times seem like a curse when your stomach’s rumbling after a raucous night out. Fortunately, sustenance awaits at South Street Diner, Boston’s only 24-hour eatery, and Victoria’s Diner, which serves goodies like blueberry-stuffed pancakes round the clock from Thursday morning through Sunday night. By Fenway, Tasty Burger flips patties until 2 a.m., while the same owners’ Franklin Café and Franklin Southie offer finer fare in the South End and South Boston until 1:30 a.m. And though Chinatown has plenty of post-midnight munchies, for East Asian fare we love Brookline’s Golden Temple, open until 2 a.m. on weekends.
The Tippling Siblings
Some nights, we want a real meal — and a drink or two, too. But other times, we want to invert the equation: it’s a liquid dinner we’re looking for, with some tasty solids on the side. So we’re happy to notice that some of our favorite restaurants have been opening cushy, cocktail-centric side projects. Eastern Standard’s handsome brother, The Hawthorne, offers an ever-changing selection of craft cocktails in a stylish subterranean space. Journeyman’s sister spot, Backbar, brings the same high-level ambition to its drinks as the restaurant does to its cuisine. Downstairs from Foundry on Elm, Saloon is all about the sips. And upstairs from Central Kitchen, Brick & Mortar has transformed the former home of the dance-centric Enormous Room into a warm and welcoming watering hole. In these offshoots, the drinks are the main draw, yet they all offer way tastier treats than the local sports pub.
The Main-Man Attraction
In Europe, DJs are marquee draws. They’ve long been able to fill gargantuan stadiums, arenas, and multi-acre open-air festivals with the thousands-strong throngs America reserves for rock gods like U2 and the Rolling Stones. But here’s a sign of the changing times: on June 15, Swedish DJ Avicii will bring his LE7ELS tour to TD Garden. It’s unprecedented: while DJs have occasionally opened for pop acts there, this is the first time one has headlined at the Garden, which can host up to 20,000 for concerts. Leave the lighters at home; it’s glow sticks you’ll want to wave aloft to a new summer anthem.
The Encyclopedia Britannica Bars
Booze is rarely known to enhance focus. But when it comes to drink options, we salute those spots that strive to amass a comprehensive collection of a specific alcohol. Want whiskey? The Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar has more than 110 from Canada, Japan, and other locales, with a weekly featured selection and a reward-offering Whiskey Club. Brookline’s Taberna de Haro offers more than 260 Spanish wines with its tasty tapas, and the Seaport’s Temazcal boasts 300-plus kinds of tequila. But if you’re a hophead at heart, check out the staggering (pun intended) 140 beer taps at the Fenway ’hood’s new Yard House, whose draft stats recently jumped ahead of those of Allston’s long-standing victor, Sunset Grill & Tap (still impressive at 112).
The Voyage-in-Time Venue
Many nightspots have tried to plunge patrons into old-timey environs, boasting of their “Prohibition-era cocktails” and “speakeasy-style atmospheres.” But most of the time, those promises are just words on a (historically inaccurate) press release. That makes us all the more appreciative of Davis Square’s Saloon, a newish spot that has actually accomplished the feat. Dark woods, saddle-leather booths, and turn-of-the-century-style chandeliers set the time-warp tone, and the libations likewise feel period-appropriate. Try something from the truly epic bourbon list or a twist on a pre-Prohibition classic, like a Ward 44, Saloon’s pork-belly-infused take on a Ward 8 (a cocktail invented right here in Boston back in 1898). Once properly doused, wander into the adjoining Davis Square Theatre for live theater, music, or stand-up comedy, depending on the (current) calendar.
The Next-Generation Groomers
The influx of big-name DJs to Boston clubs is impressive enough. So we’re bowled over by the skills of promoters who have recently started luring major names to New England colleges and universities. In the fall, the minds at Mass EDMC and NV Concepts teamed up to bring Tiësto’s College Invasion Tour to UMass Amherst and URI. In February, their Winter White Tour brought French bigwig David Guetta to UNH. And this month, Avicii came to UMass Amherst. In our day, we were lucky to get B-listers in the quad on Spirit Day. But these major bookings ensure that future fans get an early education in electronic music.
The Nonstop Scenes
In the nightlife world, the buzz accompanying a big opening can fade as fast as the ink of a bar scar. But some venues excel at maintaining momentum. Take BOND, which opened in early 2009 in what was once the members’ court of the Federal Reserve Bank. The Langham Hotel hotspot’s glam interior still impresses, and its Taste Thursdays, Play Fridays, and Flaunt Saturdays give us good reasons to return (like last month’s appearance from acclaimed Russian DJ trio Swanky Tunes). Unique digs and parties likewise continue to draw a dressed-to-thrill crowd to the multiple bars of the Liberty Hotel, which opened in late 2007. Vestiges of the venue’s former life as the Charles Street Jail lend one-of-a-kind atmosphere, and the hotel’s Liberty Affairs series’ art-, music-, and fashion-themed fetes are great rationales for rallying on a weeknight.
The Goldilocks Group
As we discovered in college while trying to borrow thinner roommates’ jeans, one size doesn’t fit all. That’s especially true for live music. Larger venues are often hesitant to book exciting but untested new acts, for fear of being unable to fill a too-big space. And a too-small venue can leave fans frustrated when tickets sell out in nanoseconds. But Crossroads Presents has been able to find just-right fits for up-and-coming indie acts and huge stars alike. That’s because Crossroads books for five spots — Brighton Music Hall, the Paradise Rock Club, House of Blues, the Orpheum Theatre, and the Boston Opera House — whose capacities range from 340 to 2,700 concert-goers. And it has instituted a smart system that allows new acts to start at the smallest spot, Brighton Music Hall, and graduate to a larger stage if their ticket sales exceed expectations.
The Suburban Legends
Boston sure beats the suburbs when it comes to clubs per capita, but that doesn’t mean trips outside the city should be limited to the occasional Target pilgrimage. (Shh!) If your ideal Friday night involves onion-ring-smothered steak, margaritas, and arcade games like Frogger and Fruit Ninja, you can’t go wrong with Dave & Buster’s, that guilty pleasure of a food-and-game chain that recently opened a Braintree location. And in the summer, the seaside dance parties at Ocean Club actually manage to lure us to Quincy with impressive DJ lineups that have featured the likes of Calvin Harris and Dirty South.
The Gay Ol’ Times
The club scene has always been part of gay culture: hell, the gay-rights movement started with riots at NYC bar the Stonewall Inn. But in Boston, LGBT-focused nightlife has ebbed and flowed. There are only a few nightspots that cater to gay crowds every night of the week, like Fenway’s Machine, which celebrates more underground sexual subcultures, and South End party spot and cabaret Club Café.
So cheers to promoters who have kept popular nightly parties afloat throughout the years, including the eponymous founder of Chris Harris Presents, who has long had a lock on some of the city’s biggest bashes. Harris is the man behind a four-night streak of fetes, which starts on Thursday with GlamLife at The Estate, where resident DJ Richie LaDue holds court over frequent drag performances. Then comes the newly launched Queer Fridays party at Guilt, which hosts guest DJs like Tony Moran and Manny Lehman. Next is EPIC Saturdays at House of Blues, which brings a “big room” dance feel to the former site of super-club Avalon. (In fact, EPIC occasionally hosts “Avalon Reunion” events.) And finally, there’s a chance to get sloppy on Sunday at Hot Mess! at Underbar, the perfect way to polish off a week of parties — or start up the next with a well-earned hangover.
But we’re also pumped about newer entries to the scene, like Mr. D!ck’s Night at Bijou, which has DJ Joe Bermudez steaming up the dance floor each Friday for a sophisticated (though frequently shirtless) crowd. Aiming for a sweaty but stylish vibe, the weekly soiree was launched this spring by real-estate maven and dapper man-about-town Ricardo Rodriguez, who recently passed the reins to Chris Tobeck of the long-running Tobie events. Here’s hoping the night’s success spurs a stampede of even more new parties following suit.
The Techno Wizards
Look hard enough, and you can probably find a smartphone app to assist in just about every aspect of your nightlife experience. You can track your friends’ nightly party patterns using color-coded maps with the recently launched, locally developed ClubView, time your exit to catch the last T ride home with OpenMBTA, and secure sleek, speedy car service for nights when a smelly, swerving cab won’t do with Uber. But we think we’re most impressed by the promise of Zowler. It’s the brainchild of a team that includes CEO Giuseppe Stuto, manager of business development Michael Hanna, and some familiar fixtures of the local nightlife scene: Michael Winter of East Coast Clubs and Ace Gershfield and Sal Boscarino of 6one7 Productions are serving as advisors. Users log in through Facebook, and then Zowler allows them to check in at clubs, keep track of friends’ comings and goings, check out individual venues’ profile pages to scope the scene in advance, and share real-time photos, video streams, and comments from inside the clubs. They can also pre-pay for covers with a credit card or skip the wait entirely by purchasing a premium Line Cutter pass. For their part, club owners will have the ability to offer promotional discounts and rewards to regular customers, as well as get user-reported analytics about their patrons. The Zowler team already has plans to expand the app to Miami and Las Vegas in the coming months, but the Boston rollout has begun — so this is a rare instance where we’ve beat other cities to the cutting edge of club life.
The Top Talent
In March, a few days before swinging through Boston to spin a smaller show at Bijou, Tiësto packed a huge, casino-loving crowd into the Mohegan Sun Arena. After that blow-out, we squeezed in a quick Q&A with one of the globe’s most famous DJs.
Your album Club Life Volume Two: Miami drops in April. If you made a mix inspired by Boston, how would it sound? Ha! Who knows? Perhaps Club Life Three will be Boston! The crowds I’ve played there are always incredibly passionate. They clearly love the music and never disappoint. To suit their high energy, I’d definitely play “Maximal Crazy”!
What do you think about recent DJ/pop-star collaborations? David Guetta with Nicki Minaj, Calvin Harris with Rihanna — do they help EDM gain exposure or compromise the genre? These collaborations have been a really big factor in the rise of EDM in the US. They have without a doubt brought a new audience to the scene via mainstream radio and huge online success, which is great to see. I’m not against collaborations of this kind, but the voice and energy has to be right for my sound and the energy of the song. I don’t always wish to go down a very pop-oriented road, but I don’t look down on others if they take that route.
Are there any rising DJs or producers you think we should be watching? One guy I think is going to really explode in the next six months is Tommy Trash. He has a real rock-star personality and is an awesome producer and DJ. I can’t wait to see what he comes out with in coming months. Also, my boys from Dada Life seem to be getting bigger and bigger all the time. It’s great to see success come to such talented, nice guys.
You’re working on your new studio album. Some critics thought your last, Kaleidoscope , wandered too far from trance toward harder electro territory. What’s next? There are always going to be people who dislike what you make, but I keep myself open to inspiration and let that guide the music I make. I couldn’t tell you how my music is going to change or even if it’s going to change, but I’m always going to follow my passions and evolve as an artist. The fluidity of genres at the moment is one of the things that seems to be making the EDM world more exciting than ever!