On a recent Saturday night, Patrick Magee was manning the door at Atwood’s Tavern, where the local sax-rock trio Vapors of Morphine was playing its weekly gig. It was unseasonably cold outside, but Magee looked comfortable, almost serene. He swung open the door with a half-smile and a simple “Welcome.”
Magee, 37, and his brother Ryan, 36, opened Atwood’s exactly 10 years ago. The bar, restaurant and music room became a cozy beacon on the outskirts of Inman Square where the nightlife was muted and foot traffic low. On the small side with a seating capacity of 85, Atwood’s quickly gained a reputation as a spot to catch top-notch local artists and in recent years has become a regular stop for touring acts, mostly rock and Americana. Starting April 25, Atwood’s will mark its 10th anniversary with a week of celebratory concerts featuring a familiar cast of characters: the house bluegrass band The Clock Burners, South Boston blues-rocker Andrea Gillis and local rock ‘n’ roll elder statesman Dennis Brennan, among others.
In the beginning, the Magees kept overhead low by doing everything themselves. Patrick manned the bar, Ryan the door. Even now, with a full staff and devoted customer base, that hands-on approach remains—Patrick had to jump into the fray on Saturday because one of the doormen called in sick.
The previous afternoon, as the near-empty bar roused itself sleepily in anticipation of the evening rush, the brothers sat in a corner booth with the venue’s booking agent, Randi Millman. Patrick and Ryan Magee share the same towering, broad-shouldered frame and restrained demeanor: Ryan is deadpan and quick to joke, Patrick reticent but animated when he speaks. The brothers recounted the early days with a mix of fondness and self-deprecation. They had originally been looking at property in Cambridge so that their brother John, a Cambridge firefighter, could establish residence in the city. Ryan remembers being skeptical of the neighborhood. “Are there even any bars?” he recalls asking. John took them to the nearby Overdraught, only to discover it had been shuttered for months.
The three brothers bought the building and took up intermittent residence in the upstairs apartments, which, Ryan admits sheepishly, are still in the midst of renovation. (John Magee and a fourth partner departed the business five years ago.) Ryan, a carpenter by trade, built a small stage at the back of the bar. He buffed up a piece of redwood and hung it above the stage, where its craggy, serpentine edges throw shadows on the wall.
A Google search yielded inspiration for a name: “Atwood’s Corner,” an old designation for Inman Square that has since fallen out of use. Technically, Patrick informs the group, Atwood’s Tavern is part of a neighborhood known as Wellington-Harrington. “I always say East Cambridge,” Millman remarks. “And you're incorrect,” Patrick replies, to which Millman quips, “Maybe that's why people aren't coming.”
It’s a joke, but one that is central to the venue’s identity. “The reason why we exist is because we are in the middle of nowhere,” says Ryan. “No one knew enough to care that we were doing what we were doing. And that let us do what we wanted to do.”
Their vision was simple, he says. “Good food, good beer and good music. And that's it. It was to pick three things that we could do relatively well.”
“And make a place that we would want to spend time in,” adds Patrick.
For the brothers, who cut their teeth in the foodservice industry at The Burren in Somerville, that meant booking Boston-area artists that they liked. They were inspired especially by the rotating local lineup at Toad in Porter Square. Singer-songwriter Tim Gearan, whose band has a weekly residency on Fridays at Atwood’s, has been a stalwart since he played the opening night party 10 years ago.
“It's a real artist's room,” says Gearan. “They don’t have TVs blaring and it's mostly an original music room. It just means the world to the guys in the band that [Ryan and Patrick Magee] give us free reign to do whatever we want."
To build an audience, the Magees tapped into an existing community of local music lovers, fans of folk and roots music who frequented slightly larger rooms like Club Passim and the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. "For me, [Atwood’s is] another place to see all that great local music, on any night of the week," says Matt Smith, managing director of Club Passim. “It’s the old [saying]: 'When the tide rises all the boats rise with it.' The more venues, the better.”
Millman joined Atwood’s three years ago. For the veteran booking agent, who worked at the 300-capacity T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge for 15 years, the much smaller Atwood’s proved to be an unexpectedly good fit. “As someone who has been booking clubs for 25+ years, I finally feel like I'm home,” Millman wrote in an email the next day. “I can't describe it, but I know I was meant to book this room. It's like I was carved from that same crazy wood that Ryan made the stage walls with.”
In addition to broadening the regular cast of locals, Millman began bringing in national touring acts, like the Minnesota bluesman Charlie Parr and the Louisiana folk singer Leyla McCalla. “I'm still learning my way around it,” admits Millman, who says her initial instincts about what would work in the room were not always correct. But her bosses didn’t seem too bothered by it.
“We still make bad financial decisions to support the music. And we're happy about it,” says Patrick. “It's easy to look at any one show or any one night that didn't make money and say, ‘Oh, we're never doing that again.’ But I think consistently over time we've said, ‘It's not about the one night. It's about all of it.’”
Even while promoting their 10th anniversary blowout, the brothers voice humble ambitions for the next decade.
“I hope it stays almost exactly the same,” says Ryan. “I mean that.”