Storied rock clubs, bare-bones bars and raucous DJ lounges are dotted along the Cambridge stretch of this major thoroughfare, which runs from Dorchester all the way to Lexington. Embark on a live musiccrawl from the mighty Middle East in Central Square to tiny Toad in Porter Square, stopping for burgers or other cheap eats along the way.
Where to hear music on Massachusetts Avenue
This sprawling venue is one of America's leading rock clubs, and a major player on the national and local music scene. A Middle Eastern restaurant as well as a club, it was the nurturing ground for Boston's alternative and indie music scenes, beginning in the mid-1980s in the smaller Upstairs room. 'Downstairs' was added later and, like many of Boston's basement clubs, was once a bowling alley. In the restaurant, musicians play the Corner without a cover charge, and in keeping with the Middle Eastern theme, there are also belly dancers. ZuZu, the venue's newest addition, sits in-between Upstairs and Downstairs, offering food, hip DJ nights and bands.
To a music geek, the cramped, beer-soaked 270-capacity of T.T.'s is simply Nirvana—who, by the way, played a near-empty show here a mere six months before Nevermind's meteoric rise up the charts. On Saturdays, DJ Chris Ewen spins New Wave, but this is first and foremost a spot for deafening guitars and tight-jeaned frontmen.
This delightfully dive-y Central Square haunt offers everything from bring-your-ax blues jams (Sundays/Wednesdays) to singer-songwriter open mics (Mondays). There are a couple undisputed stars: on Tuesday nights, some of the best fiddlers and banjo-pickers this side of the Mississippi trade licks while host Geoff Bartley sends around a donation hat (More recreational bluegrass players can sharpen their skills together downstairs). On Thursday evenings, a bevy of unbridled grad students dance their cares away to the Chicken Slacks' mix of Motown covers and funky originals. A well-stocked jukebox fills in during quieter moments at the bar, which draws a diverse clientele ranging from twentysomethings to grizzled barflies. The one Cantab constant throughout is high-quality musicianship and an undeniably unpretentious vibe.
The spiritual forefather of Greater Boston's thriving Irish pub business, the Plough has been going for some 30 years. In the daytime, it offers the best pub grub in town. At night, the tiny bar is transformed into a hotbed of clashing elbows and live music. Your chances of meeting a novelist just went up by 90%.
A short walk from Harvard Square, this diminutive basement bar puts on a jam-packed program of shows. The beauty of the Lizard Lounge is that there is no stage. Instead, bands perform on a well-worn rug—the only delineation between audience and performer. The musical fare runs the gamut from rock and folk to Americana, along with the odd Boston Opera Underground performance. There's great food too, served in the Lounge early on, and all night up in the Cambridge Common restaurant.
This Porter Square hole-in-the-wall is one of the few remaining cover-free spots in the city. There's a lot of good roots/Americana, though the joint isn't above booking a solid Beatles tribute band or a well-honed soul singer. Barely the size of a studio apartment, Toad gets packed easily, so expect to rub elbows with complete strangers. Fortunately, this place self-selects for a certain brand of open-minded musicophile, so mingling with this amiable bunch is usually a pleasure—and when it's not, the bands should be enough to hold your attention.