WORCESTER - Traveling to Worcester for entertainment was all the rage in the '80s and early '90s. The Worcester Centrum dominated the arena-rock market then. Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel played there. Clubs sprang up around the Centrum, including the Firehouse and Bahama Bob's. Both are gone now, while the Centrum - renamed the DCU Center - gets a fraction of the shows that it once did.
But Worcester's club culture is enjoying a renaissance, especially when it comes to live rock, heavy metal, roots music, and the blues. Bars have taken over run-down industrial spaces and refashioned them into gentrified night life destinations.
"Right now it's the best it's been since the '80s. . . . It seems that new places are opening up every month," says Vincent Hemmeter, who owns Ralph's Chadwick Square Diner (commonly called Ralph's Diner), Vincent's (a sanctuary for acoustic acts), and the brand-new Nick's.
"Things have really picked up the last two years," says Eric Godin, co-owner of Lucky Dog Music Hall, formerly Sir Morgan's Cove back when the Rolling Stones did a surprise concert there in 1981. Stones pictures from that night by Boston photographer Ron Pownall hang on the walls. But Godin also looks to the future, saying, "Maybe that night has run its course."
The small, 236-person capacity Lucky Dog is the pulse of Worcester's rock beat, says Scott McLennan, an entertainment columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette who graciously consented to play tour guide around town. While we were at the Lucky Dog, a local band called Ventt did some high-decibel venting amid the roadhouse setting.
The best-known Worcester club is the 2,000-capacity Palladium, which has a heavy blend of metal and hip-hop - two genres in short supply in Boston clubs. It could use a makeover - the endless nights of metal have left a grimy feel - but it's owned now by promoter John Peters of MassConcerts (the chief regional competitor to Boston's Don Law) and he booked the busiest fall lineup in the club's history. McLennan and I caught British hip-hop artist M.I.A., whose global sound and stirring computer graphics connected with a young, arm-waving audience that wanted more.
McLennan's overall recommendations are straightforward. You simply have to go to Ralph's Diner, a funky hideaway with wild, psychedelic murals, antique statuary, and other knickknacks. The diner has a low-brow charm, but there's an artsy bar with a pool table and a concert room above that, where national acts such as Black Flag and the Smithereens have played. Recent bookings run from punk to country (Ted Painter and the South County Band played some great rockabilly when we walked in) and there is even the vaudevillian Jerkus Circus once a month.
"Ralph's is a fabulous place. It's now better than ever," says McLennan.
Vincent's, meanwhile, is a hip hole-in-the-wall reminiscent of Cambridge's Plough & Stars before it was cleaned up (they also share some bookings). But the club has a wonderful, lived-in timelessness. The bartenders present an incongruous sight by wearing white shirts, ties, and aprons.
Worcester is known for hidden club treasures - and one is definitely the new Nick's, a sparkling bar/restaurant (German fare is served) that opened two months ago and still smells of fresh paint. It's the most metropolitan place I found in town, boasting a clientele from artists and students to businessmen.
Another gem is the Hotel Vernon bar, where a mix of artists and working-class folk exult in low-priced $1 draft beers (Boston hasn't seen those prices in years). It also has a rear concert club playfully called the Kelley Square Yacht Club, complete with a ship's wheel and lighted portholes. The band Muss blasted out some loud rock 'n' roll, but the capper was that a dreadlocked fellow named Ali Bomba took us on a tour of the '20s speakeasy that used to be in the basement. It's where Babe Ruth drank when he lived in Worcester. I was dazzled by the low ceiling pipes and the cobwebs that cover them. Ask for Ali - he loves to play historian and refers to himself as the "commodore" of the Yacht Club. Oh yes, and the speakeasy's password used to be, "Is Madame Rhubarb in tonight?" Nice.
You might not find Madame Rhubarb anymore, but there are two more live music clubs that you'll want to hit. Tammany Hall is a newly renovated haunt for the jam-band crowd and boasts a friendly, hippie-style vibe. "This is like everybody's living room. Everybody loves each other here," says one patron. And the crosstown Gilrein's is a rejuvenated blues club that owner Mohan Prashad spent a small fortune to clean up, installing marble furnishings and a spectacular wooden bar.
"It's almost too clean for a blues club!" McLennan says with a laugh. "But there aren't a lot of blues clubs left."
Worcester might not be on everyone's radar, but it has enough lures for any night life enthusiast looking for fresh pleasures.
Steve Morse, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.