Boston punk

Whistlestop Rock: Full-Throttle Rock Fest Rumbles Thru New England

The rock and roll package tour, or travelling music festival, has a long history. They started in the Fifties and continued with such events as the 1970 Festival Express, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and later summer-shed happenings like Lollapalooza and the Lilith Fair. Here in New England, we are being treated to a regional version of this called the Whistlestop Rock Fest. It began with a bravura 8-hour show in January at the Askew club in Providence. It continues of Feb. 29th at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, Mass. and there are several other dates upcoming. See whistlestoprock.com for full info on show dates.


Justine and the Unclean

“The Little Festival that Could” began with a casual online chat last year between Justine Covault (of Boston alt-rock favorites Justine and the Unclean) and Simone Berk, who fronts the power-pop quartet Kid Gulliver. The idea of getting all their friends’ bands together for a big show “caught fire” (as Covault said in a recent Providence Journal article) and soon the dialogue extended to several other woman musicians in the area. The rock music scene in my neck of the woods has long been known for its camaraderie, so it’s little surprise that, as Berk said in the same piece, “Next thing you know, we knew we had to do it.”


Kid Gulliver w/ Simone Berk in green jacket.

What resulted, after much legwork by all involved, was a curated festival that involves up to nine bands. All are co-ed or all-women groups and guest spots are promised at each gig. At the Providence show, it was clear just how well this concept was planned, with its quick succession of 45-minute sets. With so many groups, there was practically a built-in audience, supplemented by fans and friends coming down from the Boston area and a local Rhodey contingent lured by hometown faves Heather Rose in Clover and the promise of an all-star jam of other Providence rockers. HRIC would be be for me the revelation of the night, showing Whistlestop’s underlying value: turning local favorites into regional ones. But more on them later.

Views from Askew. From top to bottom: Heather Rose in Clover, Chelsea Curve, the Knock-ups. (Photos by author)


When I first ambled into Askew a little after 4:00 PM, Field Day was near the start of their set. Like many of the other groups on the bill, they played pretty straight-ahead rock with a fierce self-actualization. According to their own bio, Field Days’ members found themselves formed “unexpectedly, when its members were well into middle age.” This is not so unusual nowadays esp. when members have backlogs of material waiting to be heard. The band is led by former Boston Globe music critic Joan Anderman and fellow Globie Dan Zedek, a veteran of several area bands. The song “Finished With You” shows they were more than ready to hit the ground running.

Cold Expectations play in a more rootsy, country-rock style that builds on the genre’s early 70s heyday as well as later practitioners like Green on Red. Singer-songwriter-acoustic guitarist Steve Prygoda, bassist/back-up vox JoEllen Saunders, drummer Nancy Delaney and lead guitarist Bob Metzger have made a fine craft out of thoughtful, fully-arranged numbers like “Aliza Don’t Care.” I’ve known Prygorda for some time and way back when I did some videos for an earlier, more hardcore outfit. Those other roots were also apparent as the Expectations finished with the Camper van Beethoven barn-burner “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” which has become a bit of a regular finale with them.

Steve later told me of his love-hate relationship with cover versions. That’s understandable for any band that works hard to get their own material heard but is also an ice-breaker for people getting to know you. Most bands struck the balance of mixing in one or two classic-rock standards. The Knock-ups are one of the more high-profile bands playing the Whistletop, along with Justine and the Unclean and Maine’s garagecore stars Tiger Bomb, who were unable to play this first date. (Tiger Bomber and co-organizer Lynda Mandolyn was there and made a cowbell cameo during the Unclean’s later set). The brassy Knock-ups are first-rate practitioners of the kind of bristling rock attack that’s been a big part of the Boston scene since the glory days of the late, lamented Rat punk club (see related post). Singer-guitarist Gretchen Shae (who was invited up onstage to play a song with U2 a few years back) delivered several thrashers from the group’s growing catalogue and threw in a good cover as well (“Ring of Fire”). Bassist Cat Verlico confirmed the band’s knack for cagey humor, singing “I Hate Your Facial Hair.” That number was met with approval from your clean-shaven correspondent.

Kid Gulliver were maybe a little less snazzy (except for Simone Berk’s glittery shoes!) but confident material like “You’ll Never Know” and “Suzie Survived Chemotherapy” were a fantastic blend of Blondie/X era and riot grrl. This natural alchemy of styles from Nuggets-era garage to 90s grunge inform a lot of indie-rock nowadays, as was evident from the closing act Powerslut, who unfortunately are doing their farewell show at the next stop of the tour on Feb. 29th (at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, MA).


Back on the subject of cover versions, Kid Gulliver do a great take on the old 10cc hit “I’m Not in Love.”

But most bands have their own little spin on it, like Chelsea Curve with their Mod influence (their cover was an awesome take on the Jam’s “In the City”). The irrepressible singer/bassist Linda Pardee, along with guitarist Tim Gillis and drummer Ron Belanger excel both in the more classic melodic punk style of “Don’t look Down” and in their more quirky material like the ditty they wrote explaining how to decode the weather beacon atop the old John Hancock building in Boston.

Heather Rose in Clover were up next. Singer/guitarist Heather Rose had been sporting a Belly t-shirt during the local all-star session. Belly (who gained some MTV notoriety in the early 90s) also hailed from the Ocean State and were led by Tanya Donnelly, who before that co-fronted Newport-based cult favorites Throwing Muses along with Kristin Hersh. HRIC have some of Muses’ adventurous spirit, their indie-rock attack colored with passages of psychedelic guitar from Rose, complemented with the bass interplay of Lisa Middleton and the deft drumming of Chris Alvarado. Their original songs are sharp and declarative, using (in their words) “the sharp end of their own broken hearts” in such fierce broadsides like “Satellites” and “Go Back to Ohio.” Better still was the barbed wit that fed a song like “Welcome to New England” (with its memorable line “I had to scrape Antartica off my windshield”). They also killed on high-profile covers of “Under Pressure” and “Psycho Killer.”

Justine and the Unclean have been plying their superlative power-pop-punk through two kick-ass albums on Rum Bar Records, Get Unclean and Heartaches and Hot Problems. When listening to these songs, you wonder to yourself (as with many of these groups) how aren’t these guys huge? In Justine Covault they have a diminutive dynamo of a singer-songwriter-focal point. Her razor-sharp lyrical wit and fiery vocals, plus the relentless instrumental momentum provided by bassist Janet Egan King, lead guitarist Charles Hansen and powerhouse drummer Jim Janota (formerly of Boston rock institutions the Bags and Upper Crust) make songs like “Rock and Roll Blackmail’, “Monosyllabic Man” and “Bring Me Fire” into forces of nature.

Click below for kick-ass rock & roll (and great video-making) from Justine and the Unclean and, below that, the unstoppable Tiger Bomb!

But it’s mostly rhetorical asking why the Unclean or Tiger Bomb, or whoever your fave local rockers are, aren’t huge in this day and age. We all know what rules the pop-music roost on a national and global stage: you can see it each week on “Saturday Night Live” when the latest Instagram pop act trundle thru another redundant set piece that is 90% choreography and 10% bad music. Rock may have lost its pop-culture supremacy to hip-hop and the latest American Idol-style sensation but you would hardly know it here. The sisterly solidarity, hard work and self-supporting vibe is admirable, esp. considering the day jobs and the odd kid to raise. Hopefully, the Whistlestop Rock concept can continue and even expand on this current model. What’s most impressive is the skill and all-out energy of these bands, with members ranging from roughly their mid-20s to mid-60s, rocking out and writing songs in group collaborations that blessedly cuts against the grain of today’s empty ideas of viral “success.” This is the real deal, so catch it while you can: this here rock & roll train is bound for glory.
(Again, stop by the Whistlestop Rock Facebook group or whistlestoprock.com for full details)
—Rick Ouellette

Rock Doc spotlight: “Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption”

There was once a time and place for a man like the late Boston club owner Richard Rooney, then known as Chet to everyone in the city’s indie rock scene. A local guy from the Charlestown neighborhood, Chet in the early Eighties became the rather unlikely proprietor of a music room above an alleged Mafia bar called the Penalty Box in the nearby North Station area. Although his original idea was for it to be a place for jazz or blues acts, a friend fortuitously suggested he open a punk venue instead. From 1983-87, its open-door booking policy made Chet’s Last Call a virtual clearinghouse for Boston rock at a time when the scene was growing exponentially and hitting a creative peak that nearly matched the glory days of the town’s more famous punk dive, the Rat, back in the second half of the seventies.

Chet was the proverbial gruff-but-goodhearted guy who was a once common staple of older cities. He was a bear of a man usually stationed at the end of the bar, close by the entrance. Although you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side, any beef was usually quickly forgotten. Naturally, the joint wasn’t much to look at: a darkened flight of stairs brought you into a dim, smallish space (capacity was about 175) with orange and gold diagonal wallpaper for a stage backdrop and an incongruous iron railing around the dance floor. Rich Gilbert, guitarist for Human Sexual Response and the Zulus, reminds us that in those days Boston was still a “rough, edgy city” where, in the days before critical-mass gentrification, places like this could be left alone to flourish.


The type of place you didn’t tell your mom about: Chet’s side street entrance is seen next to the fire hydrant. The name of the super-sketchy Penalty Box downstairs bar was inspired by the Big, Bad Bruins who played across the street at the old Boston Garden.

“Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption” is part of a new micro-documentary trend for music films in this age of more accessible equipment and crowd funding. It’s made for and by many people who were there at the time (it was directed by brothers Ted and Dan Vitale, the latter is the singer for long-time local ska-punk band Bim Skala Bim). That Chet was well-loved by the local rock community is pretty obvious from the film’s opening minutes. Boston rock personalities line up to be interviewed and many are seen in performance footage shot at a pair memorial “Chetstock” shows that took place not long after his passing in December of 2015. Veterans of the scene will love to see clips of the Classic Ruins, Pajama Slave Dancers, Harlequin, Bim Skala Bim, Dogmatics and others, as well as the fun interview segments with local rockers like David Minehan, Ed “Moose” Savage, Barrence Whitfield, Xanna Don’t, Linda Viens, and Kenne Highland—not to mention members of Chet’s family and the folks that worked for him.

The premier of “Chet’s Last Call” is on August 3rd at the Woods Hole Film Festival in Falmouth, Mass. Click on the link for ticket info. https://www.goelevent.com/WoodsHoleFilmFest/e/ChetsLastCall


Check out the trailer and see all your favorite Boston rock stars!!

Granted, this will all be a bit much for the uninitiated, even if the place did host the occasional out-of-town breakout act (Husker Du, the Beastie Boys) or have the odd rock-celeb hanging at the bar (Stones producer Jimmy Miller, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry). Chet’s Last Call was a provincial but supportive scene—and a rowdy one as well. “A playpen for drunken adults,” is how Ken Kaiser puts it. Ken is also seen in new footage playing with the other Ken (Highland) with the Hopelessly Obscure, whose defiant name and garage-punk power riffing is classic Boston.

Chet was Boston’s youngest club owner then and a savvy music fan, committed to empowering new bands and giving a platform to more outre acts like the Bentmen with their cultish persona (group member Chris Burbul was also part of the production team). With modest cover charges and a clientele that favored cheap Budweisers, Chet was not destined (or even looking) to make a killing. Neighborhood grousing, as well as the club’s lax ways with underage drinking and drug dealing, likely led to its closing in 1987 after a run of nearly five years. Chet became Richard Rooney again, going into rehab and, after re-emerging clean, he went back to school and became a substance abuse counselor. This problematic aspect of the music scene is not shied away from—several musicians like Al Barr from the Dropkick Murphy’s talk candidly about their own addiction-and-recovery experiences. This later part of Rooney’s life story is quietly inspiring and brings full circle the idea of the Boston music scene’s abiding spirit. It makes “Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption” not just a fine tribute to the man but also to the lasting community he helped foster.

Have you heard about my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey”? It’s an alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll, seen through the prism of non-fiction film, with over 170 titles reviewed. You can check out a 30-page excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Forever Underground At the Rat: The Rise, Fall and Long After-Life of Boston’s Legendary Punk Venue.

Above photo by Wayne Valdez

by Rick Ouellette

In its heyday, the Rathskeller club’s unassuming façade was tucked into a homely jumble of mis-matched stores, restaurants and nightspots in Boston’s Kenmore Square, where the tony Back Bay neighborhood met the Fenway district and Boston University. Once you crossed its perpetually darkened doorway you could head straight to the street level bar (and later, James Ryan’s popular Hoodoo Barbeque) or turn left and head down the stairs to the subterranean music room. Along with cigarette smoke and the vestigial smell of sweat and spilled beer, the dim interior featured black walls, overhanging water pipes, dodgy rest rooms, tilty tables and a low bandstand that was cheek-by-jowl with the narrow dance floor. From 1974 until it closed in 1997, the Rat (as it was universally known) featured untold hundreds of bands, from rock’s living legends to the lowliest also-ran punk combo. That means about 8000 nights of edgy good times where the music was more often than not delivered at fever pitch.

Twenty years to the month after it closed, a Rat reunion show and benefit auction event was held at Kenmore’s Hotel Commonwealth. The supportive vibe that owner Jim Harold provided over the years for so many local groups starting out was a common theme, as it is in the commemorative “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD (more on that in a bit). The event took place in the second floor function area of the hotel whose giant footprint looms over the space where the Rat once stood. On an evening where exclamations of “Long Live the Rat!” were heard more than a few times, this irony was noted by many of folks in attendance.


Willie Alexander and band in front of the Rat’s original backdrop sign. (Photo by author)

Performing that night were a handful of local rock mainstays. Willie “Loco” Alexander, a godfather of Boston punk since the days of his raucous Boom-Boom Band, kicked things off with a mini-set that included the anthemic “At the Rat.” This tune was the lead track of the 1976 compilation double live album of the same name, organized by Harold to promote the local scene (now re-mastered and available on CD). It proved as popular as ever, two decades after the joint was shuttered. “Thanks for being alive,” Willie said in parting. The Nervous Eaters, led by singer-guitarist-writer Steve Cataldo, are another local legend that came up in the Rat’s earlier days; their buzzsaw riffing and unbridled lyrics set the course for many groups that followed. Having long lived down the compromised album they made in 1980 for Elektra, the Eaters reverted to the tough-as-nails sound in subsequent recordings and gigs. Songs like “Last Chance” and “Loretta” are for many people as much of a Boston tradition as the Swan Boats and were welcomed accordingly.


Steve Cataldo (Photo by author)

Emily Grogan and her band were of a later vintage than the two acts that preceded her and her impassioned songwriting and vocals were just as well received. Emily also told a touching anecdote about her early days when she was a bandmate of the late Mr. Butch, the beloved dreadlocked street person who was dubbed the “mayor of Kenmore Square.” Closing out the musical festivities were the Dogmatics. They were a prime example of groups that came into local renown in the mid-80s with a sound now twice re-generated since the 60s when garage-rock royalty Barry and the Remains played the Rathskeller when it was differently configured. Led by Jerry Lehane, the Dogmatics were a popular act not just for the Rat and the similarly downscale Chet’s Last Call, but also for the gig parties they’d have at their Thayer Street loft. At the Rat party they faithfully lived up to their legacy with the punked-up garage riffing and raffish townie humor of such nuggets as “Pussy Whipped” and the Catholic-school testimonial “Sister Serena.” They were joined by another Dorchester-bred favorite, Richie Parsons ex of Unnatural Axe, for a few numbers including the always reliable “Three Chord Rock.”



Emily Grogan (above) and the Dogmatics’ Peter O’Halloran and Jerry Lehane w/ Richie Parsons. Photos by Sara Billingsley.

The night ended sentimentally with a few words from Jim Harold as well as from former Del Fuegos drummer Woody Geissman whose Right Turn addiction treatment center was the charitable recipient of that evening’s fundraising. (I chatted with another Del Fuegos drummer, Joe Donnelly, but if either of the Zanes brothers were there I didn’t see them).

I moved to Boston shortly after the Blizzard of ’78, somehow getting my meager possessions from my hometown of Salem, Mass. to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. I began checking out the notorious Rat as soon as the snow banks started to recede. In the last few months of the apartment me and my older sister shared with rotating cast of third bedroomers (we had moved back there, unimpressed with Ft. Lauderdale where our family had re-located) a few albums had circulated that changed my musical life. I had purchased “Talking Heads ‘77” and Television’s “Marquee Moon” pretty much on the strength of reviews (both were revelations) while a roommate owned the equally eye-opening “Rocket to Russia,” the Ramones third album. Elvis Costello’s debut record was also making the rounds. But the first time I ventured down into the occluded interior of the Rat it was a misfire: it seemed to be an open-amp night for suburban bands whose mountaintop was the first Pat Travers album—-it was like they wanted to send me back from whence I came.


The Talking Heads at the Rat in ’77. By the time I first saw them they had graduated to the Paradise club, which had a higher capacity but less exposed plumbing.

Determined to right this wrong, I went back a few nights later when the Romantics were headlining. These guys, in their pre-red shiny suits day, had a buzz about them esp. after getting a positive notice in Creem magazine’s recent review of the Detroit scene. After a couple of pumped-up power pop numbers (where most everyone stayed seated) the singer presumptuously suggested that this was the place “where all the dancing girls are at.” As soon as they launched into the next song, two sets of young ladies emerged from either end of the bandstand and met in the middle of the dance floor. It was like some vision from a half-remembered rock ‘n’ roll dream. The jig was on: soon after I was going to the Rat every weekend.

I say “half-remembered” because in its original form that what it was all about: the small venues, the dancing, the aspirational groups, the chance encounters. By the time I was old enough to go out to shows, rock music’s economy had changed. My early experiences ranged from the precipitous old Boston Garden down to the 2800-seat Orpheum Theater. But at the Rat (capacity about 300+), the close quarters meant the physical and physic space between performers and audience was reduced or overlapped. I saw dozens of great local groups in this hothouse atmosphere and many of them have remained highly-regarded here even though only a few acts “made it big.” This is evidence of the staying power of a community of outsiders, sort of like why you see Harley-riding guys of Social Security age still riding around in packs.

1983, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — Rock band R.E.M. performs at The Rat in Boston. Band members include, left to right, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and (not pictured) Bill Berry. — Image by © Laura Levine/Corbis

Do Go Back to Rockville: R.E.M. were one of the last of the really big names to play the Rat. Others who came before them included the Ramones, the Runaways, Talking Heads, the Replacements, the Jam, the Police, the Stranglers and the Boston-based Cars. And few who were there will ever forget the Plasmatics’ three-night stand in March of 1979. I deny all rumors that have my hand brushing Wendy O. William’s derriere moments after she put down her chainsaw at the end of their set.

“The Sound of Our Town,” to borrow the title of Brett Milano’s excellent history of Boston-bred pop music, is ably laid out in the “Live at the Rat” album. It was a dynamic scene that was second only to CBGB on the east coast. Willie Alexander is out front with three tracks, leading a line-up that includes frenetic rave-ups by mid-70s staples like the Infliktors and Thundertrain as well as a fistful of bands known for their distinctive front men: Jeff “Monoman” Conolly (of DMZ), John Felice (the Real Kids) and Richard Nolan (Third Rail). These outfits were definitely the type of the times—with razor-edge riffing that would often build to cathartic peaks that sent the kids on the dance floor into a pogoing frenzy. But the three of them were also savvy songwriters, as were people like Frank Rowe of the Classic Ruins, who Milano suggested was the Randy Newman of punk.

This was a direct result of Harold’s policy of giving a chance to most any band that played their own material—or at least it served to unlock a lot of latent talent. Many bands that came along a little later in the late 70s or early 80s (the Neighborhoods, La Peste, Human Sexual Response, Pastiche, etc.) turned out to have quite a knack at evoking the urban milieu of the times. And what was that like for those who weren’t there or whose memory is getting a little hazy at this point? The “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD, produced and directed by David Lefkowitz, does a good job at hashing out that side of the story in the interviews interspersed with the stripped-down performances in the Hotel Commonwealth suite festooned with the club’s memorabilia. Doing songs are the same performers from the Rat party plus John Felice, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, Billie Connors and the good ol’ Dropkick Murphys (worthy youngsters 21CF cover La Peste’s “Spymaster”).


At the Rat reunion party, it was like old times in front of the stage. In the background, “Live at the Rat Suite” is projected on the wall (Brett Milano is interviewing Al Barr of the Dropkick Murphys). Photo by author

It’s great to hear your old faves in this cozy setting but also illuminating are the relaxed conversational segments, conducted by a trio of former Boston Globe music writers (Milano, Jim Sullivan and Steve Morse) along with local radio luminaries Oedipus, Carter Alan and John Laurenti. To Alexander, the supportive management and undemanding surroundings (“We were lucky if there was a door on the bathroom,” notes Willie) left a space that was a focal point where a scene could grow on its own. He says the kids, you know the artsy and non-conformist types you see in most every town, found a place of their own and a symbiotic relationship with the new bands that continues to this day. But while it may have been our clubhouse it was not the excluding type: also in the mix were adventurous suburbanites, post-game Red Sox fans and B.U. students.


The back cover of the DVD shows the partially-demolished Rat, while the front shows the well-meaning Rat-themed suite where you can have an “authentic experience” for several hundred dollars a night.

Ah, yes: Boston University. That’s where our story starts to fall apart. The school was always a convenient whipping boy for hometown rockers, ever since Jonathan Richman, in the early proto-punk days of the Modern Lovers, told his girlfriend to “Put down your cigarette and drop out of B.U.” But the ever-growing institution, under the presidency of the irascible John Silber, bought up large chunks of the Kenmore district. The eventual eviction of unwanted elements, whether it be leather-jacketed rock ‘n’ rollers or the hodgepodge collection of mid-century business, was almost an afterthought to the manifest destiny of outsized colleges, block-long hotels and chain stores (a similar fate has befallen Harvard Square).


Rat owner Jim Harold with some parting words and (on the left) Woody Geissman, whose Right Turn treatment center (“A Creative Place for Recovery”) specializes in the substance abuse issues of performing artists. Photo by author

In the photo at the top of this article, local musician Linda Viens stands in front of the Rathskeller, a quiet moment on a snowy day. A tip of the cap to Wikipedia for making this simple but remarkable shot by Wayne Valdez the featured image for their article on the club. All the loud music and edginess have fallen away, and the Rat’s tiny frontage is squished between a vintage clothing shop, a hairdressing school and the pre-Internet bank of pay phones. Viens’ casual pose suggests a kinship (even protectiveness) with her town’s most famous rock club. But not ownership. There’s less of a place nowadays for a “bon vivant” right-place-right-time proprietor like Jim Harold, who had the knack to know when to let something just happen. And boy did it ever. In the 21st century, the Boston rock scene has moved to nearby cities like Cambridge and Somerville where a vibrant blend of veteran bands and newer acts light up venues like the ONCE Ballroom. (I recently wrote about Linda’s new band Kingdom of Love and that abiding sense of musical community here). It’s the idea of the Rat that lives once the wrecking ball has cleared the way for the monolithic streetscapes of today’s gentrified cities. We plant the flag elsewhere and rock on.


Video by John Doherty

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is the first anthology of non-fiction rock films, covering the years 1964-2014. To see a 30-page excerpt click on the link here or contact me thru the comments section below. http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html