Boston’s music scene has always been defined by the small clubs that provide a platform for everyone from rising artists to local legends. But, in recent years, they are disappearing even outside of pandemic-related challenges. The latest closure is Atwood’s, a revered bar, restaurant, and music venue that will shut its doors this month after 16 years, signaling yet another significant loss among the community-centered stages that bolster Boston’s musicians.
“It was my musical home for 10 years,” says Russell Chudnofsky, a local guitarist and music teacher who played Atwood’s weekly from 2009 to 2019 with the bluesy, rustic Tim Gearan Band. “I’m very thankful to have had that opportunity. There was often a lot of love in that place.”
Atwood’s highlighted a wide range of music on its stage, including folk, Americana, bluegrass, roots, blues, and rock. The restaurant wasn’t half-bad, either: Menu items showcased New England producers, including a burger with beef sourced from a farm in western Massachusetts, and chocolate pudding featuring Somerville-based chocolatier Taza. The bar kept a solid rotating draft list with sought-after regional pints, like Hill Farmstead and Lawson’s Finest Liquids.
Owners Patrick and Ryan Magee, who declined to comment for this story, built a loyal following, and Atwood’s was known as a cozy bohemian hub in East Cambridge. They also had an ear for booking emerging talent, like the popular Greensky Bluegrass, Lyle Brewer of Neighbor Tunes, Cliff Notez, and Eric Royer’s One Man Band, among others over the years.
“I don’t know where the Eric Royers of the world are going to play,” says Brian Burke, a longtime Somerville resident and former Atwood’s employee. “I mean the first place I saw Greensky Bluegrass was Atwood’s. Second was Johnny D’s.”
Johnny D’s, the Somerville fixture known for booking budding artists like The Chicks, Ben Harper and Gillian Welch, as well as their Sunday jazz brunch, closed in 2016 after 47 years. In May 2020, gritty underground rock club Great Scott announced it would close after 44 years in business. Somerville’s indie lounge and burger spot Thunder Road and Irish pub Bill McCabe’s, which hosted nightly shows including reggae nights three times a week, both closed in September 2020. At the end of January 2023, Porter Square mainstay Christopher’s and their adjoining music space Toad announced they would not reopen, WBUR reports. One of the city’s most iconic set of indie stages, the Middle East, is slated to be demolished to make way for a six-story hotel with a new music venue, the Boston Globe reports.
“As music lovers and Bostonians, it’s sad to see how many independent clubs have closed,” says Zach Blankstein, guitarist of COUCH, a seven-person pop fusion band. The ensemble, which formed during the pandemic, had trouble securing small stages in Boston based on closures or fully booked schedules. Artists are required to have what’s called a “ticket history,” or proven ability to sell tickets, to incentivize promoters to book bigger gigs, like Sinclair, House of Blues, or Royale. “Without a ticketed show on our resume, it took us nearly two years of performing regularly in other parts of the northeast to finally book our first Boston show,” says Blankstein.
Despite these challenges, there are signs of hope. Crystal Ballroom opened in October 2021, from the same family who owns Arlington’s Historic Capitol Theater. Boston Harbor Distillery in Dorchester books local favorites like Tim Gearan, Evan Goodrow and Jennifer Truesdale. The Paradise Rock Club has booked touring and large regional acts since 1977, and no-frills neighborhood favorite Cantab reopened after their pandemic closure. Policymakers appear to be concerned with cultivating a richer nightlife in Boston, evidenced by mayor Michelle Wu’s recent hire of the city’s first nightlife director, Corean Reynolds. The Lower East Side’s iconic club Rockwood Music Hall, which has historically been a launchpad for emerging artists, may expand to Fenway, culture publication Vanyaland reports.
As Boston’s music scene continues to grapple with the uncertainty of small club closures and the opening of multi-million dollar enterprises like MGM Music Hall and Roadrunner, the loss of places like Atwood’s is a poignant reminder of what’s at stake.
“My favorite [memory] is from my first show at Atwood’s playing with a full band,” says local soul singer Julie Rhodes. “Our harmonica player Sonny Jim walked across all four tables to the side of the stage, jumped to the floor, and played an acoustic harmonica solo into a pint glass in the middle of the room. These are the types of special, intimate show moments you don’t get to see in big venues.”
Disclosure: The author was a server at Atwood’s Tavern in 2011.
Jennifer Henry is a New England-based freelance writer focused on food + drink, travel, wellness, climate, and culture.