SOMERVILLE — Union Square lost some of its verve this week as the owners of Bull McCabe’s and Thunder Road both announced they were closing the live music venues permanently due to challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were fighting to stay alive for a while, but [COVID-19] sealed the deal,” Bull McCabe’s owner Brian Manning said. “Six months without revenue while continuing to incur debt killed us. I don’t know how we could bounce back.”
An intimate 780 square feet, Bull McCabe’s was known for hosting a regularly rotating cast of independent local bands, including the reggae groups the Dub Down and Krush Faktory. Open since 2008, it served straightforward pub fare such as burgers and fish and chips, but the food was never as much of a draw as the nightly music and eclectic group of patrons who hung out there.
The space was a late-night refuge for Anita Young Coelho, a music producer and singer from Medford who used to stop by to unwind after her shifts at now-closed Ryles Jazz Club.
“It was so tight-knit that you were shoulder to shoulder with people from all walks of life, and there were no shenanigans,” she said. “It was a wonderful feeling.”
Manning’s announcement followed one from Thunder Road owner Charlie Abel, who said his venue’s initially temporary COVID-19-related closure had become permanent.
“The challenges upon us all at this time are far too great to keep our doors open and remain as a staple music venue in the Boston area,” he posted on Facebook.
Several people responded with well-wishes, including Jeff Vetstein of the Grateful Dead cover band Bearly Dead, which had a residency there. He wrote, “I spent more time here in the last five years than anywhere else besides home and work. It became part of me and I looked forward to each and every show, as anything could and did happen.”
One of the most memorable moments in the venue’s five-year history happened in 2017, when Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell jumped on stage to play two songs with Bearly Dead while there to grab a drink between nights playing at TD Garden.
Many memories won’t get a full retelling, as Thunder Road’s owner is not permitted to host a proper goodbye party for the club.
“I really wanted to do that for the patrons and the bands,” said Abel, who previously co-owned Harper’s Ferry in Allston, which closed in 2010.
In July, Abel sold the Somerville property to a developer who plans to create housing on an upper-level addition, but he had arranged a tenant agreement that would have let him keep the club operating, at least for a while, he said. His plans changed as he faced the reality that he would likely not be permitted to reopen the club for at least several more months, while still liable for paying rent and taxes.
Several other independent music venues in the Boston area are dealing with similar hardships. Allston rock club Great Scott has also closed, but it may eventually reopen in another location.
Music venues fall under Phase 4 of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan, which means they are not allowed to operate until there is a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19.
“Who knows when we’d be able to have the bands and people close together,” Abel said. “And it seemed very difficult to do social distancing in a music venue. Imagine the hurdles you’d have to go through to keep that in place.”
Abel is now collaborating with the owners of Soundcheck Studios in Pembroke, who are currently hosting socially distanced concerts outdoors in their parking lot.
Bull McCabe’s had reopened over the summer for outdoor dining and socially distanced indoor service but struggled to do enough business to remain profitable while operating with limited capacity and without its popular nightlife features.
Manning has been involved in an ongoing legal dispute with the building’s owner over a rent increase, but it was not the main reason for the closure, he said.
Before the pandemic, he was doing everything he could to keep the quirky pub open, including working another job as an Uber driver, he said. Knowing that it was beloved by many customers, as well as the musicians who played there for years, made it difficult to let it go.
“One of the guys from Dub Down said, ‘You gave us a home,’ and I said, ‘No, we gave you a room, and you made it a home,’ ” Manning said. “And that’s what it was about. It was an honor to have had a place like that, and the family that grew from it.”