Live Music in South County

Local, music sounds better than ever

So Rhode Island Magazine ·

It’s a Saturday evening in August, and down by the beach the salty night air is alive with music. At Tara’s Tipperary Tavern in Matunuck, the Irish folk duo Hughie and Ger are leading the full house in a rousing singalong of the Kingston Trio’s ode to Boston commuters, “Charlie on the M.T.A.” Next door, at the rambling Ocean Mist beach bar, Brooklyn-based Dopapod is pounding out an eclectic mix of funk, jazz, soul, trance, African music and progressive rock. A little further down the shore, a tanned and buzzed crowd is making their way from their summer rentals in Misquamicut to Paddy’s Beach Club, the Andrea, Sandy’s Lighthouse and the Windjammer to listen to ‘80s metal cover
bands, blues and surf music.

In South County, summer is peak season for the local music scene; for a few fleeting months, you can find someone playing out live nearly any night of the week, with an entire set list of options on weekend nights at venues like the Ocean Mist, Westerly’s Knickerbocker Cafe, the Bon Vue Inn in Point Judith, the Narragansett Cafe, and the new Rok Bar n Grill and a trio of waterfront restaurants (Nautika, Blu on the Water and Finn’s Harborside) in East Greenwich. And while places like Paddy’s shut down for the winter, you can still find live music year-round in a dozen or so places scattered around Southern Rhode Island.

South County will never be mistaken for Nashville, or even Providence, when it comes to live music, and there are fewer choices than there were back in the glory days of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when rock and blues ruled the airwaves and live perfor- mance was the sine qua non for musicians and fans alike. “It’s not like it was years ago, which is pretty odd because it’s still a college town and a vacation town,” says West Kingston-based musician Ray Gennari, a veteran player with top local acts like Roomful of Blues and his current band, the Ravers.

Nowadays, if you want to hear a singer-songwriter or an acoustic duo, that’s easily found at places like Perks and Corks in Westerly and Java Madness in Wakefield. Popular local bands and national touring acts visit the Ocean Mist, Narragansett Cafe in Jamestown, the Knickerbocker Cafe in Westerly and occasionally the Bon Vue Inn in Point Judith. Cover and tribute bands remain staples at other bars. “There are lots more cover bands than originals,” says Tim Gardner, drummer for Charlestown’s Far Off Place, which was signed to a record deal right out of high school by legendary Woodstock promoter Artie Kornfeld. “We are one of very few ‘all original’ rock bands.”

Club owners say that’s partly because live bands aren’t quite the draw that they once were: with electronic dance music peaking in popularity, it’s easier and cheaper for a bar owner to bring in a DJ than a band for college nights. Down by the Block Island Ferry, for example, Clam Jammers opened with the concept of offering live music – the bar/restaurant’s logo is a clam playing a flying- V guitar – but has largely shifted over to DJs. “People who go out in our area aren’t looking for local bands,” says Michael Aiello, co-owner of the Bon Vue Inn, who says that the URI students who once came in to hear live rock are now more interested in hip-hop or the internet jukebox with its limitless variety of songs to choose from.

The strict fire codes put into place after the tragic Station fire in 2003 forced venues like the Knickerbocker Cafe to shut down and others, like the Ocean Mist, to sharply cut back on how many people could attend shows. For a time, it also made customers wary of coming to a crowded club to see a concert. “You can’t talk about the Rhode Island music scene without talking about the Station fire – not only its effect on people, but also on regulations,” says Gennari.

Finally, South County has always been a tough place to get people to pay a cover for live music, making the economics tough on bands and club owners alike. The Ocean Mist is just about the only place that can get a cover of more than $10 owing to the national reputation of its acts; at other clubs, customers rarely will tolerate paying more than $5 even for a popular local band, and most venues simply charge no cover at all. That’s great news for music fans in the short term, but makes long-term prosperity difficult.

Most musicians and music fans are dreamers by nature, however, and there are reasons to hope that the South County music scene will not only survive but perhaps grow richer. “Providence has a great scene, so I wonder if it will trickle down here – I’m optimistic because Providence is such a big scene,” says Gennari. Despite regulatory challenges and constant battering by the sea, Ocean Mist owner Kevin Finnegan has been out looking for the right location (including some in South County) to open a second bar, restaurant and music venue. East Greenwich’s new Rok Bar n Grill is an ambitious effort to convert a former post office building into a bona fide music venue.

Down in Westerly, the legendary Knickerbocker Cafe is involved with the Westerly Regional Arts Partnership (WRAP), a community-wide effort to boost the arts that includes outdoor concerts and promotion of live music. The Westerly Land Trust is working to restore the historic United Theatre as a performing-arts center, the Tunes on the Dunes summer concert series was a big success and there are a number of places offering live music within walking distance downtown, including the Knick, Perks and Corks, The Bridge restaurant and the Malted Barley bar. “The goal is to make [the local arts scene] bigger than it ever was,” says Knickerbocker Cafe manager Mark Connolly.
“Everyone loves their music in South County,” says Gardner. “To me, the music scene will forever be alive.” Here are some of the venues in South County that remain devoted to presenting live music:

The Ocean Mist, Matunuck
Ocean Mist owner Kevin Finnegan never intended to operate a concert venue. “I bought the Ocean Mist in 1988 to run a bar,” says Finnegan, whose family rented a Roy Carpenter’s Beach cottage each summer. The big building perched in front of –and increasingly these days, above – the waves had been around since the 1920s, but strictly as a beach bar. But bands started calling, and Finnegan – whose music knowledge was so limited that he had to research who Buddy Guy was when his manager inquired about a gig – saw the potential to expand into live music.

Today, the Ocean Mist is the most prominent concert venue in South County, booking 20 to 30 big shows annually and countless smaller acts. Over the years, the club has hosted then up-and-coming acts like Sublime, local favorites like Roomful of Blues and national touring acts like Leon Russell and Dr. John. Reggae, which Finnegan said bombed at first, has now become a staple, with bands like the local Ravers and the legendary Skatalites and Black Uhuru performing (every Thursday night is reggae night at the Mist).

Like other clubs the Ocean Mist was hit hard by the fallout from the Station fire; capacity was slashed by more than half, and Finnegan had to spend $140,000 on a new sprinkler system. But the club survived and emerged not only safer but more diverse: the struggles convinced Finnegan to beef up the Ocean Mist’s dining options, and the club now serves three meals a day. There’s few better ways to spend a summer night in Rhode Island than eating fresh fish tacos on the Ocean Mist’s outdoor deck – washed down with the adult beverage of your choice, of course –before moving inside to enjoy a great band perform. 

The Narragansett Cafe, Jamestown
Live music has long been a staple at Jamestown’s Narragansett Cafe, but for a long time it was known mostly as a local’s bar, and even a bit rough around the edges. The place has been spruced up significantly since John and Cathy Recca traded their jobs on Wall Street for residing full-time in Jamestown a few years back, buying the bar and opening the Jamestown Fish restaurant across the street. “We inherited a flourishing music scene on Sunday nights and enhanced it,” says John Recca.

The ‘Ganny is best known for its Sunday blues shows: in the winter, starting in February, it’s Blues, Bloodies and Brunch from 1-4pm. The James Montgomery Blues Band recently played to a packed house, and Roomful of Blues, Duke Robillard and Sugar Ray have also performed in a space known for its excellent acoustics and up-close interaction between players and the audience, which tops out at around 150-200 people on busy nights.

“People come here specifically to hear the music,” says Recca. “Every song gets an ovation, and every solo gets an acknowledgment.”

The bar generally hosts “danceable rock” bands on Friday and Saturday nights, with a more eclectic mix of artists and styles on Thursday nights – all with no cover charge. “I love music,” Recca says. “I can’t play a note, but it’s been a very successful investment. Having no musical background, it was shocking to me how much musical talent there is in Rhode Island.”

The Bon Vue Inn, Narragansett
The Bon Vue Inn has a long and varied history – the upstairs was once filled with rooms and operated as a bordello – and that includes decades of presenting live music by such varied artists as Bill Gannon, Michelle Phillips and the Beaver Brown Band. And while it’s not quite the hopping scene as it was in its heyday, the Bon Vue still has bands at least twice weekly, including local rock bands every Friday night. Acts range from the two-piece Brass Attack to the reggae mashup of the Mintones and Eight to the Bar playing jazz, swing and R&B.

The middle floor of the Bon Vue, described by co-owner Michael Aiello as a “college/fisherman’s/locals” hangout, is dominated by a big bar and two pool tables, although there is some space for dancing by the small stage. DJs occasionally spin for the college crowd here as well as in the downstairs Zoo nightclub. 

The Knickerbocker Cafe, Westerly
Located across the street from the Westerly train station, and easily spied by its vintage neon sign, the Knickerbocker Cafe is undoubtedly the classiest live-music joint in South County. The interior is polished and impeccable, with a big bar in back and a dance floor and tables arrayed before the Starlight Ballroom’s elevated stage, which has been graced by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Rusted Root and Leon Russell in its long history.

“The culture is you’re coming out to see a musician; you’re there to hear music, it isn’t secondary or background,” says the Ravers’ Gennari. “I’ve been playing there for 25 years. The PA is just amazing, the stage is great, it’s just a great room to play and see a show.”

One of the first clubs to regain its liquor license after Prohibition, the Knick survived wars and recessions, but not the aftermath of the Station fire. In recent years, however, a group of fans and musicians raised more than $1 million to renovate and reopen the legendary venue, which is now applying for nonprofit status with a plan to add a music school. The big dance floor is original to the building, but the light and sound systems have been completely updated.

One of the first clubs to regain its liquor license after Prohibition, the Knick survived wars and recessions, but not the aftermath of the Station fire. In recent years, however, a group of fans and musicians raised more than $1 million to renovate and reopen the legendary venue, which is now applying for nonprofit status with a plan to add a music school. The big dance floor is original to the building, but the light and sound systems have been completely updated.

Like the other big South County music venues, the Knick has a strong reputation for blues and roots music, which tends to attract an older crowd for acts like the Mystic Horns, Roxy Perry and Johnny & The East Coast Rockers. Regardless of genre, most bands at the Knick intend to get you up and dancing; among the regulars are the disco/funk/hip-hop/R&B band Sugar, for example. But management also is committed to providing a forum for local acts with a younger following, such as Far Off Place, and a weekly Thursday night open mic even gives the next generation of high-school bands a chance to perform for family and friends.

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