“The first thing you learn as a Boston musician is that you’re not gonna play downtown,” says Ryan Walsh, marketing and communications manager of ArtsEmerson, and frontman for Boston Music Award-winning band Hallelujah the Hills.
This is somewhat ironic. In theory, and as it is in most major cities with a thriving cultural landscape, downtown should be the first place to go for local live music, and the very fact that it isn’t highlights the already prominent issue of finding reasonably priced space. Artists are therefore sent packing, assimilating into neighborhoods in Allston and Cambridge in order to live, practice, and play.
To most entrenched in the scene, the inaccessibility of downtown is quite real, the ability to perform there based foremost on fiscal solvency rather than on talent. But that’s about to change, thanks to the fruit of an initiative previously unheard-of in Boston: a dynamic new venue for local musicians in the heart of downtown’s Theater District.
“I saw the Paramount especially as a place that really begged for more use,” says Kieran Fallon, associate box office manager for the Paramount Center, who saw a chance to make his idea into reality when David Dower took on a greater leadership role as artistic director at ArtsEmerson in January. “I think that David is really looking for the Paramount to become a destination downtown, [and] I saw local music as being additive to that vision.”
Enter Winter Rock ’N’ Roll Weekend, an experimental event showcasing four bands over two nights in the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box. On the bill: swamp punk darlings Tigerman WOAH!, woodsy indie alt project Faces on Film, psychedelic rockers Quilt, and multi-instrumentalist Julia Easterlin.
“I just think that Boston is getting better and better for all of the arts, and it’s really starting to blend together,” says Walsh. “And this is a perfect example of that. I think everyone’s goal in the arts is kind of the same: to just be moved, by something—a story, or a sound.”
If this first weekend turns out to be a success, it could fundamentally change the way that people think about downtown Boston’s cultural value, as well as give folks pause to reconsider the parameters of a venue like the Paramount—which will have proven its ability to include a wide variety of artists and catch the interest of audiences outside of the traditional mainstream theatergoing crowd who currently frequent the area.
“We’ve been describing it as a really fancy basement show,” Walsh says. “You enter into this beautiful historic theater, and then you’re basically going to a black box room with bricks on the wall. I think that kind of contrast is going to be really fun for the music.”
In the wake of ARCH Gallery in Allston shutting its doors, taking with it the dream of multipurpose gallery space and music venue Allston Rock City Hall, the continued creation of these spaces is vital. Boston is in dire need of accessible art, and of the persistence of people like Walsh and Fallon who pour their experience and energy into pushing for same. Both are closely tied to the city’s local music community: Walsh is an active member of the live music scene, and Fallon recounts a history as guitarist for The Nightlights and downstairs booking agent at the Middle East.
“I would say that the challenge of getting an audience in this first weekend is that Boston music fans are stubborn,” Walsh says with a grin. “And if they’ve never been to a venue before, it’ll be like, ‘I guarantee you, it’s safe, it’ll be a good time!’”
Despite the challenge, Fallon has high hopes that the locals will come through.
“It’s going to feel both new and familiar to everyone going into it,” he says. “We’re really hoping to build something here. I want audiences to come away with a different perspective on what’s going on in the Theater District, and I think that can be achieved by exposing them to what we have going on onstage at ArtsEmerson.”
ARTSEMERSON PRESENTS: WINTER ROCK ’N’ ROLL WEEKEND. PARAMOUNT CENTER, 559 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. JAN 23 (TIGERMAN WOAH!/FACES ON FILM) + JAN 24 (QUILT/JULIA EASTERLIN) at 10 PM/ALL AGES/$10 ADVANCE, $12 DOOR. ARTSEMERSON.ORG