By Ian James
Go to the Armory on a Thursday morning and you’ll have a hard time guessing what’s inside. With imposing white towers and slim, deep-set windows it looks more like a 19th century prison than a thriving music venue. Go inside and you might still mistake it for a quiet little coffee shop. The only visible sign of what the space becomes in the evenings is a red curtain in the corner of the room. Return on a Saturday night and both the curtain and the cozy coffee shop have disappeared. In their place is a compact music venue buzzing with atmosphere.
Unable to fit more than 30 people, it feels like a family get together where every other person just happens to be a talented musician. When they’re not performing artists sit among the crowd; they have a drink and chat with audience members. Most of the crowd seems to know each other; its a community space. At one show an artist’s brother, his girlfriend and another artist’s childhood friend were all called up to the stage to say hello. The musicians are also more than happy to talk to any strangers.
The building that The Center for Arts at the Armory uses today was built in 1903 as a home for the Somerville Light Infantry of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. It’s ten minutes away from Tufts, on Highland Avenue. In 2004 the state sold the building to the two brothers who own the Middle East Club in Cambridge. They decided to reinvent the Armory as a home for local artists. It took them until 2009 to renovate the building and prepare for it public use. This means The Armory has only been putting on shows for the last six years. It may not have a long history as a music venue, but that hasn’t stopped it from attracting the likes of indie folk band Darlingside, pianist Vienna Teng and guitarist Nils Lofgren.
Despite its growing reputation, The Armory maintains a focus on local art. They have monthly shows for poetry, jazz, and singer songwriters. One of the most popular shows for local artists is The Loop. Organized into 15-30 minute performances from a variety of local bands, The Loop is a great opportunity to hear music from all corners of the Somerville. Other shows worth checking out are David Tanklefsky & Friends, and the open mic nights. Tanklefsky is a local singer-songwriter who performs with a different set of local musicians every month. If you hear someone you like you can pick up their CD on the way out.
These smaller shows are usually held in the cafe, but the Armory has a larger space as well. The performance hall is a tall, arching room with a stage, mezzanine, and plenty of room for dancing. Throughout the renovation, the original design of the Armory was maintained as best as possible, and, when inside, the hall feels an awful lot like an army barracks. The performance hall usually hosts one to four events a week, while the cafe has five to six.
Soon the hall will be hosting an even wider range of events, if an upcoming series of benefit concerts is successful. The Armory is hoping to use the concerts to raise money for soundproofing the performance hall. When completed the Armory should be able to host louder shows, even though its situated in a largely residential area. Do not be surprised if the Armory soon adds punk rock and rap to its current line-ups.
There’s plenty of live music to watch in the Boston area, but The Armory stands out as more than just a venue. It’s a home for Somerville’s local artists, and its atmosphere brings audiences right into the show. If you are looking for a place to relax with friends and hear good music there’s no better place to go.