It’s easy to feel isolated in Rhode Island and even easier here in the Bay. As dictated by the Rhody Effect, distance is assessed in relation to our state’s small scale. People in other states wouldn’t blink at the thought of driving more than half an hour to see a show, but here you may as well be talking about going to the moon and back. But fear not! Providence may be our capital and cultural hub, but that doesn’t make the rest of the state an arid wasteland of great dining, beautiful coastline and tourist attractions that’s devoid of great music. On the contrary, there’s an active and vital scene right here in the Bay, from coffee shop open mics to venues bringing in national touring acts. “It’s cranking in the smaller towns,” says Barrington blues-rock artist Becky Chace. “There are a lot of great musicians around.”
Providence might have name recognition with Lupo’s and Providence Performing Arts Center, plus the smaller clubs and venues that come part and parcel with any city’s scene, but there are plenty of options available for show seekers looking for live music right here in the Bay. Here are ten venues, bars and coffee shops with great, regularly scheduled performances.
The Sandywoods Center for the Arts always has something going on. Their regular Tuesday night open mic – set to return from a late summer hiatus on September 22 – is a great place to see emerging musicians, spoken word performers or anyone else who has the calling to get up in front of a bunch of strangers and put their mouth up to a mic. They also host a Contra Dance every third Wednesday of the month, which has less to do with the classic Konami Nintendo game than I originally thought. A contra dance borrows from European and American folk traditions and is set to music performed on fiddle, guitar, mandolin and other similar folk instruments.
But really what makes Sandywoods great is the fact that it hosts eclectic, national touring performers throughout the year. The music tends to skew towards the folksy, bluegrassy and Americana-y persuasions, but there’s plenty of room for rock, jazz and even classical. Becky Chace and her band will be there on September 12 to throw their blend of blues and Americana into the mix.
“We had our CD release party there and it was a blast,” she says. “It’s a reasonable ticket price, they attract good acts and it’s bring your own beer and food. It’s a great concept.”
Sandywoods Center for the Arts – 43 Muse Way, Tiverton. 401-241-7349, www.sandywoodsmusic.com
Famous for its Folk and Jazz Festivals, Newport has plenty going on all year round outside of two festival weekends. Second only to Providence in terms of options for seeing local music, the offerings in Newport are as numerous as they are diverse. Here are three spots that need a place in your Facebook news feed.
Norey’s hosts live music every Wednesday night, with a focus on bluegrass, honky tonk and blues-flavored rock and roll. While other spots in town feature local acts, Norey’s tries to serve the community as a destination for out of town performers, attracting bands from across New England and the Northeast. They also rarely charge a cover, which is always a good thing, especially at Norey’s – not having to pay to get in the door means more money to put towards their extensive craft beer selection.
Norey's – 156 Broadway, Newport. 401-847-4971, www.noreys.com
Over on Memorial Boulevard, Jimmy’s Saloon packs the crowd in all week long with no two nights alike. On Thursdays you’ve got Jimmy’s weekly Ocean Mic Night, where their stage is open to all genres and types of performers. Hip hop, rock, spoken word, comedy; performers bring the talent and Jimmy’s provides the gear and the platform. Friday night hands the mic over to the indie crowd as Tweed Leisure presents local up and coming acts like Able Thought, Silverteeth and Tammy Laforest. “A lot of eclectic stuff, the arts crowd usually,” says booker Andy Hunter of Jimmy’s Friday night offerings.
Saturday nights go underground for metal, hip hop and reggae. The rest of the week is fair game for anything from local rap to a death metal band touring through from South America to a monthly stand-up showcase. “We get a lot of requests,” says Andy. “If somebody’s in town we’ll get them a date and give them support.” That support usually comes in the form of an opening band from Newport or Providence – something both cities have no shortage of.
Jimmy's Saloon – 37 Memorial Boulevard, Newport. 401-846-5121, www.jimmysnewport.com
Able to pack in over 300 bodies, the Newport Blues Cafe is the big boy in town, bringing in local and national touring performers. It’s also neither a cafe nor exclusively a blues venue (discuss!). In recent years it’s found itself host to Deer Tick’s wild Folk Fest after parties and semi-final rounds of WBRU’s long-running Rock Hunt. A second floor looks down over the stage, making sure that even on a packed night there’s not a bad view in the house. Through September, the Felix Brown Band has a Tuesday night residency, providing covers across multiple genres including rock, blues and R&B.
Newport Blues Cafe – 286 Thames Street, Newport. 401-841-5510, www.newportblues.com
Of all of the venues in this article, I don’t know that any of them came as more of a surprise than Bovi’s Tavern. Located just five minutes outside of Providence and its hip, indie rock scene, Bovi’s comes screaming to life on Monday nights with the hot horns and swinging sounds of the John Allmark Jazz Orchestra.
For 15 years John and his 16-piece jazz band have performed classics from masters like Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich every Monday night (though Bovi’s has hosted live jazz for much, much longer). The craftsmanship on display here is not to be understated. This isn’t just a group of guys from around town who put a combo together, this is legit, no nonsense jazz with a reputation that precedes it. On the night I stopped by, I noticed a small group of Berklee College of Music students, all of them wearing the mesmerized expressions that suggested their pilgrimage from Boston to East Providence had been well worth the trip.
Of course jazz can be intimidating – pop culture and public radio has painted a pretty unapproachable image of “The Jazz Guy” – but Bovi’s is a welcoming, unpretentious room. If you love music and are looking to change things up, Bovi’s is definitely where you should be spending your Monday nights. Added bonus: Friday and Saturday nights finds Bovi’s hosting rock, blues, indie bands, even the occasional country act, from southern New England and Boston.
Bovi's Tavern – 287 Taunton Avenue, East Providence. 401-434-9670, www.bovistavern.com
Relatively new to the open mic scene, Custom House Coffee in Middletown hit a David vs Goliath kind of snag when BMI, ASCAP and SESAC – the three big time live performance licensing companies – cracked down on the cover songs being performed the coffee shop.
“It was almost a blessing,” says owner Bob Mastin. Though the legal ramifications forced him to pull the plug on the open mic, people missed it so much that Bob has no choice but to bring it back as a showcase for original material exclusively. “There’s been no shortage of talented songwriters and performers,” says Bob, who feels like the Friday night open mic for songwriters is even better than it was before.
“It forced me to change things in a better direction,” he explains. “Now we can only allow original music, which makes it kind of cool.”
Custom House Coffee – 796 Aquidneck Avenue, Middletown. 401-842-0008, www.customhousecoffee.com
In the East Bay – and really across the state – The Coffee Depot in Warren is held up as being one of the best coffee shop open mics around.
“I’ve never been there when the place wasn’t packed,” says Tracie Potochnik, a singer songwriter based out of Providence. Tracie has played the Coffee Depot many times in her decade on the scene, including several nights where she was a featured act. “It’s impressive that it’s been going for as long as it has, and that’s a real testament to the commitment of the folks who run it: Manny and Cathy Perry for many years and now Rick Norman.”
The coffee shop is just as vital to any live music scene as the bar, the mid-sized venue or the up-and-comers and promoters helping new performers get the word out. Typically softer, more intimate and generally unplugged, the coffee shop is where many an open micer learn the ropes. It’s the gym of the local music world, where emerging talent take some of their first steps into the scene. It’s that safe place where experimentation is encouraged and a singer-songwriter’s identity is forged in the crucible of a live audience.
“When I started to write songs and was playing as a solo performer, open mics including Coffee Depot’s gave me venues in which to get comfortable and build my on-stage confidence,” Tracie says. “Even now, after I’ve been performing for several years, when I have new songs I like to try them out at open mics. Playing a song in front of an audience is key to figuring out what’s working.”
Returning for its latest season on September 11, this Friday open mic has served as the proving ground for countless local musicians over its long, storied history.
The Coffee Depot – 501 Main Street, Warren. 401-608-2553.
All eyes turn to Bristol every July for the oldest Independence Day celebration in the country, but two reasons to keep Bristol in mind for the other 51 weeks of the year are Judge Roy Bean Saloon and Aidan’s Pub.
Judge Roy Bean boasts impressive, regularly scheduled live music every Monday and Tuesday. Monday shakes the back-to-work blues with an open mic from 8-11pm hosted by Bristol-based musician Colby James. “We’ve got a little bit of everything but it’s mostly original music,” says Colby. “It’s very singer songwriter, very Americana.”
Colby has been playing around Rhode Island for ten years, and has been hosting an open mic at Judge Roy Bean for many of those years, including a stretch prior to its current ownership. Every week a dedicated corps of musicians take to the stage, but the venue serves as a proving ground for its fair share of new and emerging talent. “There’s definitely a crew of guys faithful to it every week; there’s at least one person that I’ve never met before,” says Colby.
On Tuesday night, things continue in the MTV Unplugged vein for acoustic sets from 7-10pm. Chris James performs there every other Tuesday night and mixes covers with original material. “The audience at Judge Roy Bean’s has been second to none,” Chris says, adding that the cozy setup makes the room a favorite to perform in. “Performing is always best when the crowd gets involved. Being closer makes that connection all the easier to achieve. I like being close to the audience.”
Audiences in further search of a band to go with their brews and bites should keep an eye on the good Judge’s schedule, as Friday nights bring the occasional band into the house to kick out several variations of the jams. There’s also never a cover charge, which translates into an extra drink for all of you open mic cruisers on a budget.
Judge Roy Bean Saloon – 1 State Street, Bristol. 401-253-7400, www.jrbeansaloon.com
Just 492 feet and a two-minute walk away (excuse me for being ruthlessly efficient) is Aidan’s, which is a straight up old school Irish pub. How old school? So old school that every Sunday you can sit back with a Guinness and take in the rustic, old world sounds of traditional Irish music. According to Colby – who is a regular at Aidan’s acoustic cover night, hosted by Jon Tyler on Fridays – “It’s awesome. It’s amazing to see all those cats every week. And I think they all work for beer.”
John Forrest, a Bristol-based fiddler by way of Scotland and Australia described a typical Irish session thusly back in our March issue: “A pub session is not meant to be a formal performance. Back home in Scotland and Ireland you would never clap after a song because the musicians are playing for themselves as much as they are for the people in the pub.”
So what’s the appeal of listening to musicians that would be happy even if you weren’t there to clap? Odds are you won’t hear a better bunch of performers than the ones trying to keep up with or show off in front of their peers.
Aidan's Pub – 5 John Street, Bristol. 401-254-1940, www.aidanspub.com
As a “traditional Irish sports pub,” Dublin Rose doesn’t scream “live music” as you drive by, but listen closely on Friday nights and you’ll catch some singer-songwriter sounds, luring you into the parking lot like a busking, six-stringed siren.“It’s a really good crowd,” says Kyle Nicholas, “and as the night goes on they definitely get into it.”
Kyle has been playing out in the scene since he was a teenager, taking a cue from his older brother and picking up the guitar. As a mostly self-taught musician, Kyle found a lot of support when he was getting started.
“When I started playing it wasn’t hard to find a place to play. It really helped me build confidence.” Kyle sticks to covers these days – “I’ll play Top 40, anything from 1950s, like Johnny Cash or Elvis, up to the ‘90s, like Sublime and Dispatch,” – and plays all over the state. But for several years now he’s been playing every second and last Friday at Dublin Rose. “It’s mental medicine,” he says of getting to play in front of a crowd. “You have a hard day at work – it’s good to relax and play some music.”
Dublin Rose – 940 Fall River Avenue, Seekonk. 508-336.9222, www.dublinrose.com