September 4, 2009 | Narrative
In Search of Lost Venues
A Guide to Finding Live Music in Providence
article by Sam Carter
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may have been arrested at T.F. Green Airport on charges of assault and obstructing police, and the Talking Heads may have first met while students at RISD, but the Providence music scene isn’t just about history. With a number of quality venues and many opportunities for local musicians, the Renaissance City calls itself either host or home to a number of musical acts.
Like nearly any city in the U.S., musical activity in Providence consists of two spheres: the touring acts stopping by for a performance or two, and the local musicians performing for pleasure, practice, peer review, or any number of reasons on any number of nights.
Since it’s only an hour outside of Boston, the biggest tours don’t always make stops in Providence. That makes it a great place to avoid the grasp of the odious Ticketmaster, overpriced concessions, and thousands of high-pitched screams obscuring the sound. The shows in Providence—often smaller and more dynamic than those in Boston—occur at one of a few key venues.
If the largest touring acts do indeed make it to Providence, then they will likely appear at the Dunkin Donuts Center. With its 14,500 seats, the “Dunk” can offer the feel of a true arena show if so desired, but it’s still small enough to see the stage. The acclaimed Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, smaller than its corporately-sponsored rival, hosts many national acts as well as lesser-known, up-and-coming groups. Founded by a Brown alum and devoted to bringing great live music to Providence, Lupo’s is perhaps the most popular venue among the many college students in Providence.
The Providence Performing Arts Center also offers the occasional musical performance between its traveling Broadway shows and other entertainment. This fall Ben Folds and Ray LaMontagne will stop by this cozier theatre with a more refined ambience than either Lupo’s or the Dunk. Other smaller venues, such as AS220, offer fare not found elsewhere.
Some venues have been disappearing due to increasingly strict fire codes and residents’ unions keen on keeping their neighborhoods quiet, but great opportunities to see live music still exist. The best places to look for information about upcoming shows are fliers plastered along Thayer Street light poles and the listings in the Providence Phoenix.
While the more famous tours can receive most of the attention, Providence also serves as an excellent training ground for local acts aimed at larger success. From rap to punk to the increasingly vague indie genre, one can find Providence natives honing their skills before they move on to larger cities and an increased chance of discovery by a record label or larger fan base.
Rap and hip-hop thrive in Providence, and many performers who develop their technique on Providence stages move on to national and even international recognition. For example, Sage Francis has already acquired a national reputation, and Poorly Drawn People — a Providence collective of emcees, DJs, and producers — is on the rise, earning support both across the country and online.
Self-described “happy hardcore” group The Iditarod has found fame on the other side of the Atlantic. On the more experimental end of the local acts are the noise-rockers Lightning Bolt. Having garnered praise from the likes of Mojo magazine, their future looks as bright as their name. The Slip is a local group that has found recognition and success outside of Providence, and the alt-country band Deertick has performed at festivals including South by Southwest.
While it’s always nice to get off the Hill for an evening’s entertainment, don’t forget to look for shows on campus. Student bands and school ensembles offer great performances, and Alumnae Hall has hosted classical and world-groove groups. The apogee of musical activity on College Hill comes during the annual Spring Weekend, a two-day concert whose list of past performers offers a taste of the zeitgeist from each of the past fifty years.
There’s no need for providence when exploring the music the city offers. A willingness to trek down the hill, a little cash, and a quick perusal of the concert listings are all that’s required to see a lively side of our little city.