PROVIDENCE -- Rich Lupo doesn't lack for confidence. "As far as live music goes, we're the most famous place," says the owner of Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel , the city's premier concert club that has booked just about every top-name music star in its 32 years.
But something happened while Lupo's was building its legend. The rest of downtown Providence finally came alive, shedding its image as a nocturnal wasteland. I can attest to that former truth, having attended college there 30-plus years ago when downtown was littered with dive bars.
Spending a recent Friday in Providence was a revelation as I trekked through new hipster cafes, fantastic nonprofit arts spaces (notably AS220), state-of-the-art dance clubs, and an alt- rock haunt called Club Hell, among others.
"There are a lot of cool things going on now. We're not an island anymore," says Lupo, who has had three locations for his club, the latest in the former Strand Theater . He shares space with a dance club called the Roxy, which has ownership ties to the Roxy in Boston.
My journey began by hearing the Schemers at the spacious, acoustically fine Lupo's. Led by Mark Cutler , it's an excellent guitar-rock band that never quite made it nationally. "If they had moved to Austin instead of staying in Providence, they might have been much bigger," says Bill Flanagan , executive vice president of MTV Networks and a Rhode Island native , who was at the show.
I then commenced the so-called "downtown loop": down Washington Street (where Lupo's is), around on Empire Street, back up Pine Street, and around on Richmond Street. It's not quite West Hollywood, but it's an eye-opener as cars loaded with young revelers swoop around and clog the roads. (Word to the wise: Park your car and walk.)
I stopped at Local 121, a bar -restaurant run by state Senator Josh Miller, who was in the appropriately stately mahogany bar talking with film director Michael Corrente, known for "Brooklyn Rules" and "American Buffalo." They are ecstatic about the "new" Providence. Corrente had just moved back to the city after living in Manhattan.
"It seems like the good guys are taking the city back over," says Corrente. "There are more eclectic pockets now of rock 'n' roll and art and diversity."
Striking a blow for diversity is the nearby Cuban Revolution. It's a sophisticated, Havana-like cafe with an outdoor patio and walls featuring paintings of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. A Castro documentary was airing on its TVs . Its website, theCubanrevolution.com, says the cafe is dedicated to questioning "the economic embargo directed against Cuba and its people." The room has a cosmopolitan crowd of Hispanics, Afro-Americans, and Asians. Another Cuban Revolution opens in Providence in September.
Around the corner is the popular AS220, a multi room site that has a concert space/art gallery where , this day, a techno act named Rocket House was screaming rather frantically for a young, experiment -loving crowd. The Rhode Island School of Design is nearby and many of its students flock to AS220, an artist-driven, nonprofit venture financed by the government and private sources. It also has a playhouse called the Perishable Theatre and a burrito restaurant with a sidewalk patio. The vibe is hot but subtle.
Another nonprofit is the nearby Providence Black Repertory Company, a classy, red-curtained room where black poets perform and work by black playwrights is staged . It also has a Latin jazz night on Wednesdays. The variety is impressive; so is the upscale clientele.
After swinging by a chic, picture-windowed jazz room called Tazza, it was time to hit some overtly commercial dance clubs. So I stepped into the Complex, a massive, two-story club, capacity 1,434, that was booming on both floors. But it quickly drove me out with its absurdly dark lighting, shockingly dirty staircase, and a DJ hosting a "big booty contest."
Much better was Ultra the Nightclub next door, where DJs Biggie and Pauly were slamming amid razzle-dazzle computer lights while a sexy crowd went wild. There was also a line down the block . Manager Jeff Floramo says, "We have a personal relationship with everyone here," which might be a stretch, but there was an obvious close-knit spirit.
Another peak dance experience unfolded a block away at Level II, where DJ CR the Beast blasted a bass-heavy set for a fleshy crowd that was getting rapidly tanked. The club is 18-plus for women on Fridays (sorry, guys under 21 pay more that night) and many people come from Southeastern Massachusetts, according to manager Gary Slater. "They'd rather drive to Providence than Boston," he says.
Next stop was Club Hell, a rock disco that occasionally offers live music where I spot ted a Mohawked punk male and lots of tattooed women dancing to a Ramones tune. It's an eccentric place with a very alternative feel. It has been voted Providence's "most gay-friendly straight club," and fetish night on Wednesdays has "a dungeon in the corner where people can get spanked," says the manager, John DiFruscio.
I needed a little relief, so I walked farther, to a laid-back ethnic hangout called the South Street Cafe, which feels like a low-key Caribbean beach club. And across the street was a chill-down roadhouse named Jake's, where I had a final drink while listening to some Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison tunes on the sound system. A much-needed retreat.
I left exhausted, convinced that downtown Providence has become a nightlife mecca that was only a pipe dream when I attended college there.
Steve Morse, a Cambridge freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.