As a transplanted southerner, it will always feel a little weird to call Cambridge, Massachusetts “my hometown.” It will always feel weird for my neighbors as well, for whom the fifteen or so years I’ve lived here are but a drop in the bucket. Still, I’ve been around long enough to see the place change a good deal. With the repeal of rent control shortly after my arrival, a lot of the city’s newcomers— including students, artists and immigrants of all stripes— moved out. Gentrification touched many corners of the city, most visibly Harvard Square, which became a desert of bank offices and optician shops.
Even so, a ragtag cohort of established restaurants and watering holes have persevered. This is especially true in the vicinity of Central Square, the knot in the middle of Cambridge’s bow-tie-shaped footprint. City planners and scions of business have tried to sanitize Central Square, but humble, salty institutions like The Middle East and The Plough and the Stars continue to thrive.
Then there is our living natural history exhibit, the Cantab Lounge. If you want to get a fix on Cambridge’s distinctive character, you need venture no further than 738 Massachusetts Avenue. If you’re a fan of bluegrass, make your pilgrimage on a Tuesday night, when the redoubtable Geoff Bartley presides over a program devoted to bluegrass.
I paid a visit this week and was amply rewarded. Della Mae, a well-regarded band with strong ties to Boston, was the headline act. Here’s a taste of what the scene was like:
Crooked Still, New England’s preeminent roots group, is in town for a concert this weekend at Harvard’s Saunders Theatre. In the video, that’s Crooked Still’s fiddler, the amazing Brittany Haas, trading licks with Kimber Ludiker of Della Mae.
Haas and Ludiker aren’t just card-carrying members of Boston’s thriving, distinctive and tight-knit traditional music scene; they’re on its Board of Directors. Whenever two or more such worthies gather in the name of Angeline the Baker or Wild Bill Jones, word spreads fast, and the Cantab is briefly transformed into a clubhouse of sorts, with lots of New England’s hottest and most ambitious players rubbing shoulders and comparing notes up on stage, in the audience, and in the jam space down in the basement.
Given that it’s such a haven for music (including different genres on other nights), it’s always struck me as odd that the Cantab is so freakin’ loud. There are times there when you can’t hear yourself think, much less hear the music. Bartley presides over an impressive rack of mixing gear. If you stick around until the featured acts are done and the excellent house band takes over, the crowd thins out, and the sound improves markedly.
Some players seem to view the noise as part of the place’s character. I’m not convinced, but there was something charming and entertaining about the way Della Mae had to compete for the audience’s attention first against a Celtics play-off game, followed by an inning or two of a Red Sox-Yankees nail-biter. A cheer would go up, and you never knew if it was because someone had played a tasty solo or Orlando had picked up another foul. Perhaps I need to bring a Zen perspective to Tuesday at the Cantab: What is the sound of a bluegrass club where you can’t hear the bluegrass?
Certainly, I understand that, in the case of bars and music, perfection is the enemy of awesomeness. You want a well-lit, acoustically perfect room with good sightlines? Go to Symphony Hall. Any first-rate dive needs to be a little rough around the edges, and the Cantab has raised roughness to an artform. Everything about the place, from the faux stonework of the exterior façade to the musty aroma of the basement carpet proclaims an absolute nonchalance reminiscent of the young Brando.
Rounding out the whole scene is a small but stalwart cohort of regulars. When I say “regulars,” I don’t mean folks who show up to pick and grin every Tuesday; I refer to customers who should have plaques with their names engraved on them affixed to their stools. Different day; same stools. In truth, in my wide travels, I’ve never found denizens of public houses to be the most welcoming sorts. After all, for all they know, you might want their stool. In this regard, Boston is no different, even though it is said to be home to the prototype for the bar in Cheers, “Where everybody knows your name.”
At the Cantab, the regular patrons don’t know my name. They don’t want to know it. They know all their second cousins, and I’m not one of ‘em, all right? During my most recent visit, the guy to my right seemed to have misgivings the minute I sat down at the bar. His mood didn’t improve when I pulled out my camera. He turned to me and said, “Move your umbrella.” I looked down. There was my umbrella, leaning against my stool (ah, but there’s the problem perhaps: it wasn’t my stool, was it? No plaque). I asked him what was wrong with where it was. He leaned over to me and said in a tone that was very dark and very, very damp, “I don’t want to touch it.” I moved the umbrella.
Yer Pal— Curly