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ARTS ON THE EDGE

Whenever clubs do reopen, the city’s live music scene won’t be the same

Elynor L. Walcott and her sons (from left) Paul, Lloyd, and Frank Poindexter outside their family-owned South End jazz club, Wally's Cafe, which had hosted shows nightly before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Elynor L. Walcott and her sons (from left) Paul, Lloyd, and Frank Poindexter outside their family-owned South End jazz club, Wally's Cafe, which had hosted shows nightly before the coronavirus pandemic hit.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

On just about any given night, Frank Poindexter could be found at Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club, the tiny South End mainstay founded by his great-grandfather in 1947.

The family-owned club has served for decades as a training ground for area music students, open 365 days a year and offering multiple sets a night.

But like so much else, that all came to a crashing halt in March, when the state ordered bars and music venues to close because of the pandemic — an existential threat to a club that relies on thin margins and a packed house to survive.

“It’s been really tough on our family,” said Poindexter, Wally’s general manager who runs the club along with his mother and siblings. “We’re taking on debt, and we’re waiting to see if they come up with a [COVID] vaccine.”

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Under state guidelines, independent music venues like Wally’s won’t be able to reopen until there’s a vaccine or treatment for the virus, a stiff requirement that’s already felled a number of area clubs, including Great Scott in Allston, Thunder Road and Bull McCabe’s in Somerville, and Bella Luna & The Milky Way in Jamaica Plain.

And more are sure to come: A survey by the National Independent Venue Association found that 90 percent of its member venues are in danger of closing permanently without some type of federal intervention.

The widespread closures have revealed not only the fragility of individual venues, but also of the national pipeline they form that helps launch performers' careers.

“This is where tomorrow’s stars get their start,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for NIVA. “The vast majority of working artists are playing in these venues, because you don’t start in a stadium. You need to develop.”

For Mark Kelley, bassist for the Roots and a Berklee College of Music graduate, Wally’s was just that place.

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“Berklee is a great institution, but I feel like to come out of the school of Wally’s is a very high honor,” said Kelley, who played at the club regularly as a student. “Just about every incredible musician that I’ve seen in the world that came from Boston was at some point a mainstay at that bar.”

Yaovi Ayeh of Boston listens to the Christian Conti Quartet at Wally's Cafe in 2019.
Yaovi Ayeh of Boston listens to the Christian Conti Quartet at Wally's Cafe in 2019.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Poindexter said that since his family owns the building, Wally’s will likely re-open eventually.

But other area venues aren’t so sure.

Holly Heslop, who co-owns Cambridge Eats & Beats, the parent company of Lizard Lounge and Toad, said its business is “hanging on by a thread.”

She added the company, which also includes the restaurants Christopher’s and Cambridge Common, has managed to do a little business by opening a patio at Cambridge Common.

Still, she said the company had to return a pair of Paycheck Protection Program loans after realizing it wouldn’t qualify for forgiveness. It had to furlough or lay off scores of staff, and outdoor dining will likely end come the colder weather.

“I try to remain optimistic, but some some days that’s easier than others,” said Heslop, who worried some of the venues won’t reopen.

“I am hopeful that we will, but I’m not confident,” she said. “Unfortunately, the things that make these places so special is the very thing that’s going to mean we can’t open them for a long time.”

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A number of local venues have sought support via GoFundMe, trying also to fill their schedules with livestreamed shows.

Club Passim in Harvard Square has had to lay off staff.
Club Passim in Harvard Square has had to lay off staff.David Lyon

Jim Wooster, executive director of Harvard Square’s iconic Club Passim, said the venue has been helped by a loyal audience that’s in the habit of donating to the nonprofit. Many of Passim’s livestreamed performances have been well attended, and the organization has started a fund to assist artists through the crisis.

Even so, Wooster estimated that income from ticket sales (now logged as donations) is about half what it was before. Income from food and drinks has evaporated, and the folk club had to lay off a large portion of its staff.

“It’s a big number,” said Wooster, referring to the loss of income, adding that Passim’s landlord has allowed the club to defer some rent payments. “The community’s been very supportive and very interested in trying to help us get through this.”

Even so, Schaefer of the independent venue association said much more help is needed to save the broader industry, which by some estimates will lose $9 billion in ticket sales if venues remain shuttered through the end of the year.

The association, which represents 2,800 independent venue and promoters, is pressing Congress to pass legislation that would establish a $10 billion grant program as well as provide other long-term financial assistance to the sector.

Schaefer said the proposed legislation, known as the Save Our Stages Act, “recognizes that we have rent and mortgage, utilities, insurance and taxes.”

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“Those bills have been piling up with no revenue,” she said, adding the proposed legislation could be used to cover these fixed costs. “[It’s] not negotiable: We have to pay that stuff in order to stay in business. If we don’t, we all go under.”

JJ Gonson, owner of ONCE Somerville and Cuisine en Locale, hopes to rent out her music hall for small gatherings during the shutdown.
JJ Gonson, owner of ONCE Somerville and Cuisine en Locale, hopes to rent out her music hall for small gatherings during the shutdown.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

In the meantime, venue owners like JJ Gonson, who owns ONCE Somerville, have been doing what they can to make ends meet.

In addition to a GoFundMe page that earlier this week had racked up nearly $35,000, Gonson’s been presenting shows online, and she hopes to rent out the music hall, creating a soundstage for livestream concerts or small events, such as an intimate wedding.

She’s also been concentrating on her catering and personal chef service, Cuisine en Locale, which recently launched a macaroni and cheese club that offers a new dish each week.

“So there are things that can help,” she said, “like if we can rent the soundstage, if we can sell a ton of macaroni and cheese and do a ton of meal delivery, and we can get some federal support.”

Short of that, however, Gonson said the club’s future remains uncertain.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” she said. “This was not in the business plan.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay