The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000

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Hello Lilli's

A new hot spot fires up the local scene

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Lily's On a back stretch of Somerville Avenue, just next to a liquor store and across from an auto-body shop, sits the venue formerly known as Club 3. The spot was known for years as the suburban joint where the less-than-great bands came out to play. As of last week, its innards were still a mess of wood, tarps, and scaffolding. But if all goes according to plan, this former humble club is about to become one of the new centers of Boston-area nightlife.

The venue will be rechristened as Lilli's this Saturday, when Buffalo Tom and Fuzzy break it in on opening night. The place is named for local nightlife legend Lilli Dennison, who owns it with B Side Lounge owner Patrick Sullivan and local DJ/keyboardist/entrepreneur Brother Cleve. It was an open secret that the three partners were making moves to buy Club 3 last fall -- Sullivan made the initial proposal to Dennison, who was working at the B Side, and to Cleve, who was DJing there. The deal was finalized a few days after Christmas. Greg (Skeggie) Kendall, another long-time member of the local music scene, who had been working in various capacities in the booking office at the Middle East over the past few years, signed on as the booking agent soon after that. The core group spent the next few months rounding up investors; they've spent the past two weeks painting, prepping, and not sleeping. But then, they knew from the start what they were getting into.

"I just woke up one day last fall with a hangover and a mortgage and said, `Guess I own a club,' " Cleve notes when the four of us sit down to lunch. "There's a lot riding on this, but it's going to be worth it," adds Dennison. "We've got a lot of ambitions and a lot of hopes, and we're doing all we can to make them turn out. Who knows, maybe this is the beginning of a new scene that still involves the old scene."

In a year when national venues are dropping like flies, when the Paradise is dark and the Rat is still a burned-out shell, the opening of any new club is cause enough to celebrate. But there's reason to be especially psyched about this one. Its owners amount to a Traveling Wilburys of the Boston club scene -- they're folks who hang out in the trenches when they're not there professionally. And since Lilli's is located within stumbling distance of the Sky Bar and a short drive away from the T.T.'s/Middle East axis, its opening brings back memories of the thriving club scene in the '80s, when Allston and Kenmore Square were both hopping four or five nights a week. At the very least, there's now one less reason to bitch about how things aren't what they used to be.

The new owners say they're aiming for a 25-plus audience that may not always feel at home in other clubs -- a young but not too young crowd that can dig the idea of snazzy decor and early shows on school nights. "There are a lot of us who've been going to clubs for a while and, hey, we're not dead yet," Dennison notes. "Not that we don't want the younger kids here, but I think there's a certain demographic that will appreciate it if the place is comfortable and the shows start early. And that will appreciate a certain mix of music. I see this as the kind of place that could play host to both the Real Kids and Wynton Marsalis. Why not?"

Dennison is a perfect example of the demographic she's talking about. Hitting town 20-odd years ago, she first landed a job as a waitress at the Rat, then proceeded to manage succession of popular local bands that included the Turbines, the Titanics, and the Del Fuegos. Along the way she became a club promoter (she launched the live music at Charlie's Tap and later booked the Central Square World's Fair) and a cool insider who seemed to know everybody (she was the one who played the Gallagher brothers their first Sly Stone record after Oasis had performed at Bunratty's). Last year she helped get the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain off the ground by booking the first few months. She left that job because the Lilli's deal was already under discussion, she now admits. So naming the new club after her seemed to be a no-brainer. "Everybody would have called it Lilli's anyway," Sullivan says. "Plus, we couldn't fit `and Cleve's and Pat's' on the marquee," Cleve adds.

When I visit, one still has to imagine the final product. The old Club 3 interior has been entirely gutted -- only some band graffiti in the old dressing room remain from those days. There's a new stage located a few feet back from the old one, a new soundbooth in the rear, a new sound system, a new entrance with a ticket window (replacing the Lotto lounge that used to adjoin the club), and a new bar that's still covered in plastic. The old drop ceiling is also gone -- "which means a lot to us tall people," Dennison points out. "And it makes it easier for girls to sit on guys' shoulders and flash the band," adds Cleve.

Dennison walks me through the place, pointing out what the finished room is going to look like. "Here in the lobby is where the blown-glass figures are going to hang. Here on the floor is where they'll put the turquoise naugahyde chairs that they just rescued from the Aku Aku dumpster. Here in the corner is where the Hammond B-3 organ will sit, for early organ-combo shows every evening." The outside wall of the club is still adorned with the painted mystery figure from the old Club 3. Some have guessed it's Elvis or Bryan Ferry; I say it looks like k.d. lang. But they've added a comic-book speech balloon, which should make for a funky marquee.

When you get to the basement, you can tell how serious they are about treating the bands who play here right. They've turned the old offices into a "performers' lounge" with its own bar and even a shower; they're thinking of putting a jukebox down there as well. And they've put the load-in door directly next to the stage, so nothing will have to be carried more than a few feet. "If the bands don't have a good time, nobody does," explains Cleve, who's toured with the Del Fuegos and Combustible Edison. "I can attest to that after 20 years on the road."

The strategy already seems to be paying off: reached by phone, Kendall reels off a handful of impressive names, mostly from the roots and alterna-country circuit, that are a hair's breath away from being confirmed -- all acts that usually play at clubs with higher capacity than the 300 at Lilli's. Even the confirmed names are impressive. The owners are being smart and starting local, with a bunch of top-shelf Boston bands playing in the first month: Seks Bomba on the 6th; the Upper Crust doing a CD-release gig on the 8th; the Real Kids on the 13th; Tarbox Ramblers on the 20th; the Strangemen on the 22nd.

Two month-long residencies are already set, with the Bathing Beauties (the country band fronted by Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz and Fuzzy's Chris Toppin) playing every Tuesday in July and the mighty Lyres every Wednesday. The latter residency will inaugurate a permanent garage/sleaze series, "Live from the Somerville Strip," which is being co-booked by Todd Abramson from Maxwell's, in Hoboken. Meanwhile Brother Cleve has instituted a handful of DJ nights: Kris Defixio will spin "intelligent drum 'n' bass" (i.e., electronica with traceable jazz and soul roots) on Sundays; Cleve himself will spin deep house on Mondays and will inaugurate his "bootyque," which is built on his collection of disco/funk/blaxploitation vinyl, on Fridays.

Kendall's master plan is to turn this into a rockier version of Nightstage, the showcase club off Central Square that closed in 1993 (and is still empty after all this time). "I'm looking for a `Nightstage in New Orleans' kind of feel. I don't think the void was ever filled when Nightstage closed -- for instance, where would Rosanne Cash play in town today? But we'd also like this place to be less fern-bar-esque than Nightstage was. My dream gig would be putting somebody like the Meters in here, or Lou Reed when he decides to do a club show. Or Iggy Pop doing one of his spoken-word things with John Medeski. My goal as a promoter has been getting shows that will make lots of money but are still pretty close to being exactly the shows that we want to put on."

The first month's emphasis on garage rock will likely make a lot of long-time scenesters feel at home. "But there's a younger audience for that as well," Dennison observes. "You hear people around the world talking about the Lyres and the Real Kids like they're gods, and they're right here under our noses." The one definite nod to the older crowd is that the club plans to feature organ combos beginning at eight on most nights, so that anyone who has to go to work at sunrise can get a live-music fix and still be in bed at a reasonable hour.

But the owners aren't afraid to admit that they want their club to be an all-purpose music nut's hangout, where Cleve can turn the Lyres fans onto electronica and Dennison can pull in a new audience for her beloved garage bands. And one can't help imagining that the opening of Lilli's might coincide with other positive developments, like the expansion of the Middle East and the rumored reopening of the Paradise, and be part of a wholesale live-music renaissance.

"At the very least," Dennison suggests, "It ain't gonna hurt."

Buffalo Tom and Fuzzy inaugurate the club this Saturday, July 1. Members of both bands will appear every Tuesday through Just as part of their country spinoff, the Bathing Beauties.

Garage rock rules on Wednesdays through July, with the Lyres inaugurating the "Live from the Somerville Strip" series. The garage invasion continues with the Upper Crust throwing a release party for their live CD on Saturday the 8th, the Real Kids and the Gentlemen sharing double bill on Thursday the 13th, and the Strangemen and the Konks doing the same on Saturday the 23rd. Seks Bomba and Astroslut bring lounge music to the club on Thursday the 6th. From Amsterdam, Arling & Cameron play on Saturday the 15th; the rootsy Tarbox Ramblers play with Buttercup on Thursday the 20th.

DJ nights include "Devotion," an "intelligent drum 'n' bass" night featuring Kris Defixio, on Sundays. Brother Cleve and guests spin deep house on Mondays; Cleve returns to spin rare funk and disco on "Bootyque" nights, every Friday. Guests for the Bootyque include Foxtrot Zulu on the 14th and Ursula 1000 on the 21st.

You can reach Lilli's by taking the Red Line to Central Square or Porter Square and then catching the #83 bus (or from Porter Square, it's a 10-minute walk up Somerville Avenue). If you're driving: the club doesn't have its own lot, but there is a municipal parking lot on the same block, adjacent to Conway Park.

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