CAMBRIDGE — It’s a rare thing when the tone of a room matches the timbre of the band, where the intimacy of the music fits so snugly within its environs. Over the course of five years, Vapors of Morphine and Atwood’s Tavern have grown together, evolved together. But their next move may be the biggest: Long a fixture on Wednesday nights, Vapors of Morphine are taking over Atwood’s on Saturdays.
“What they are willing to do at Atwood’s, where a lot of bars and venues miss the boat, is invest in the human resources,” saxophonist Dana Colley says.
Along with drummer Jerome Deupree (who was later replaced by Billy Conway) and bassist-
vocalist Mark Sandman, Colley spent the ’90s creating one of the most iconic sounds of the alternative era. Their band, Morphine, would be one of the most successful to emerge from the city during a bumper crop of Boston music, achieving commercial and critical success and fostering an international fan base.
During a concert in Italy in 1999, Sandman, 46, collapsed on stage and died. Morphine soon disbanded.
When Colley talks about venues, you know he’s speaking from a place of authority.
“[Atwood’s] idea was, ‘We know music, we love music, we want this place to be known as a music venue and we want to invest in that. We want to bring in people we want to listen to, and we want musicians to grow with us.’ There have been down nights and down weeks, and we have never gotten the sense that ‘Oh, you guys might want to change things up a little.’ Even when we were questioning ourselves, they were like ‘Oh, no, you guys are doing it well, this is great.’ ”
In fact, without Atwood’s there may not have even been a Vapors of Morphine. Formed for the Nel Nome Del Rock Festival in Palestrina, Italy, in 2009 to mark the 10th anniversary of Sandman’s death, Vapors — Colley, Deupree, and guitarist-bassist Jeremy Lyons — would evolve from one-off tribute to full-fledged band over the course of their Wednesday nights.
“You get these little things, where people will make a leap of faith, ask you to do [a show] and it can create the opportunity to do something new or revisit something,” says Lyons, who has taken over the two-string bass. “The fact that we were offered a weekly gig at Atwood’s, that’s what allowed the band to really become something.”
Vapors aren’t simply covering songs and rehashing familiar recordings but using these compositions as a touchstone of sonic explorations. While Morphine was very much a rock band, Sandman’s beat-poet spirit imbued the tunes with a bebop energy that makes them feel fresh and vibrant two decades after they were first committed to tape.
“When you get on stage you have a responsibility to the audience to not just get up there and do your thing,” says Colley. “If it’s just one person [in the audience] or a full house, that one person deserves the same amount of respect as a full house. You can’t blame the people that are there for the ones who aren’t.”
His attitude reflects all the ups and downs of a life in music, but without the bitterness that can accompany its disappointments. It is an attitude that accommodates the depth and breadth of experience that the audience itself brings to the show, which is often just as important as what a band brings to the stage.
“Wednesdays we get a lot of people with no responsibilities. Or people that shirk them,” says Lyons with a laugh. “Mostly we’ve had younger people, some older codgers with unusual schedules, nurses, ambulance drivers, people that have a different schedule than the average 9-to-5 person.”
Says Colley, “That’s the key factor for us [in moving to Saturdays], that some members of our own generation, the people with jobs, would actually be able to make it out.” He’s half-joking, but the band is completely serious about broadening its audience and making the shows accessible to more people.
“Creating an atmosphere where people feel connected, they feel welcome, they feel relaxed, they feel like they are being appreciated,” says Colley. “That’s really important for me.”