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A parting glass to Atwood's Tavern

People entering and leaving Atwood's Tavern on Cambridge Street in Cambridge, on a weekday evening. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
People entering and leaving Atwood's Tavern on Cambridge Street in Cambridge, on a weekday evening. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“Atwood’s always had a magic glow to it,” says Boston singer-songwriter Ali McGuirk. “When I was playing gigs early on, it was a place where you knew there was a built-in audience who might take a chance.”

That glow will fade to memories after this week when the tiny but beloved East Cambridge restaurant and venue closes on March 31 after a 16-year run. In an unintentionally appropriate booking, the farewell performance will be by New Orleans-style jazz band the Soggy Po Boys, perhaps allowing for a jazz funeral.

Patrick Magee, who co-owns Atwood’s with his brother Ryan, didn’t reply to an e-mail requesting comment. The news comes one year after a remodeled Atwood’s reopened from its Covid closure. Like many businesses, Atwood’s was short-staffed, and one musician says the simple answer he was given for the closure was exhaustion.

Royer Family Band plays for a full house at Atwood's Tavern on Cambridge Street in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Royer Family Band plays for a full house at Atwood's Tavern on Cambridge Street in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Music at Atwood’s got off to an inauspicious start, remembers mandolinist Jimmy Ryan, who estimates that he played hundreds of nights at Atwood’s. “The first time they had music it was myself and Mark Spencer playing as a duo, and the entire audience consisted of the owners.”

The Magees stayed with it, and Atwood’s soon became known for residencies by the likes of Tim Gearan, Duke Levine, Vapors of Morphine and Eric Royer’s Monday-night bluegrass series. “[W]e played whatever we wanted, which was all that was asked of us, and before long, the curious became regulars, and nature took its course,” texted Gearan while on vocal rest ahead of a show last weekend.

Eric Royer plays banjo as he sings with members of the Royer Family Band at Atwood's on Cambridge Street in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Eric Royer plays banjo as he sings with members of the Royer Family Band at Atwood's on Cambridge Street in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Levine plays guitar for Bonnie Raitt and Peter Wolf, but “at Atwood’s I could play my own original music, and it’s really the only place where I did that,” he says on the phone from California, where he is in rehearsals for Raitt’s current tour. “Pat and Ryan just wanted music by people who they thought were great, but also were people who they felt a personal connection with. Their parents would come to see us play.”

Several musicians say that longtime bartender Liam Davenport was like an extra member of the band. While they were onstage, “he would talk to you from behind the bar and he’d always be hilarious. I just felt like I was playing with my friends,” says Levine.

Barman Liam Davenport and manager Alexander Sirigu pause for a photo on a busy evening at Atwood's in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Barman Liam Davenport and manager Alexander Sirigu pause for a photo on a busy evening at Atwood's in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The second chapter in Atwood’s history came 10 years ago when Randi Millman, who had previously booked famed local venues T.T. the Bear’s Place and Johnny D’s, came along to bring in nationally touring acts. Millman, who also hosts a midday program on WUMB-FM, was especially adept at snagging artists who were on their way up, like John Moreland and Suitcase Junket, or who were already legends, like Jon Langford and John Doe, to play the 85-seat capacity club. Giant tour buses belonging to Pegi Young and Dale Watson could be seen parked on Cambridge Street. Bluesman RL Boyce played Atwood’s a few months before he was named a National Heritage Fellow. Americana favorites like Charlie Parr and Rayland Baxter became regulars.

Millman remembers that when Moreland took the stage solo “I was scared the room would be too noisy, but as soon as he started you could hear a pin drop. At Atwood’s, the audiences self-regulated themselves. It had a bar atmosphere for certain shows, but it could also be quiet.”

The club’s range went way beyond local rock and Americana. Hip-hop artist Cliff Notez mounted a “Sketchbook” residency. Jesse Dee somehow stuffed a full soul orchestra onto the miniscule stage. “One year they were having a Christmas party and Ryan thought it would be fun if I put together a klezmer band,” says fiddler Joe Kessler. That group became Klezwoods, which went on to make several recordings and is still active.

Manager Alexander Sirigu talks with a customer at the long bar of Atwoods, as the band plays on the stage at the far end of room. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Manager Alexander Sirigu talks with a customer at the long bar of Atwoods, as the band plays on the stage at the far end of room. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

When percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo stepped onto the Atwood’s stage to sit in with Mike Rivard, Matt Glover and Roberto Cassan, the resulting group became Grand Fatilla, one of the area’s top world music groups until the passing of Cassan and Glover. “That was because of Atwood's taking a gamble and believing in us and calling us back,” says Pirozzolo. The group’s successor band, Sawaari, played Atwood’s earlier in March. It’s hard to imagine any other Boston area bar where a diverse, multi-generational audience would have been up and dancing to the group’s Indian and Moroccan grooves.

Atwood’s regular Brooke Feinberg fondly remembers countless nights with Gearan and seeing Hazel Royer develop from a child jamming with her dad into one of the area’s bluegrass greats. “Family-level friendships were made because Atwood’s gave our community a home,” she says, adding that the news is especially crushing to local music fans because Toad, an even smaller Cambridge venue where Gearan also played weekly for years, is up for sale.

Royer Family Band plays for a full house at Atwood's on Cambridge Street in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Royer Family Band plays for a full house at Atwood's on Cambridge Street in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“It was always very welcoming, a place that had a neighborhood feel without ever being limited to people who lived in the neighborhood,” adds music photojournalist Suze Uttal. “Where do artists who are just getting started, or who haven’t played Boston before, get to play? It’s places like Atwood’s.”

The Magees own the building that houses Atwood’s. “This place has been a neighborhood spot and will continue to be,” said the statement announcing the closure. “While we don’t know yet who will be picking up the mantle, we are confident that they will provide the neighborhood with the community space it deserves.” Those are words that give musicians and listeners hope that there will be more music in the future at 877 Cambridge St.

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Noah Schaffer Contributor
Noah Schaffer is a contributor to WBUR's arts and culture coverage.

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