A new hot spot fires up the local scene
Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano
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
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
"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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