I am a San Francisco girl: The football field of my high school overlooked the rust-red steel arches of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking through fog. But when it was time for college in September of 1999, I headed east to attend the Berklee College of Music, and arrived in Boston during hurricane season.
Like a scene from a coming-of-age film, I found myself caught in a warm and windy rainstorm on Commonwealth Avenue. Drenched and exhilarated I returned to my dorm room to a voicemail from Hanneke Cassel, Scottish fiddler and fiddle-camp friend, inviting me to one of her classic all-night parties. That night I met and befriended fiddler Casey Driessen, singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez, and cellist Rushad Eggleston.
Boston, for me, has always been a place where opportunity combines with a community of overwhelming talent. Within two years I had crossed paths with double-bassist Corey DiMario and singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, who would soon form nu-folk bluegrass group Crooked Still with Rushad and banjo player Greg Liszt. With New England Conservatory and Berklee College just blocks from each other, and the weekly bluegrass night at the Cantab Lounge, there were always exciting and talented musicians around to inspire me.
Boston is a gift—this community thrives on original music.
A few years later I went to see Session Americana’s weekly Tuesday night residency at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. I showed my ID, paid the cover, and walked down the stairs into a packed room glowing with electronic table candles. In this small, stage-less room, Session Americana (self-described “folk band in a whiskey bottle”) sat around a table in front of a plush burgundy curtain, surrounded on three sides by an audience half-devoted to the band and half-devoted to potential flirts in the crowd. When the young, wavy-haired bass player began to sing, I sat on the floor right in front of the band and the whole room went quiet.
Within a few weeks, prompted mostly by the band’s multi-instrumentalist ambassador, Dinty Child, Session Americana asked me to sit in on fiddle and sing a song. At that time, most of Session Americana had day jobs. The others made their living primarily through local and regional music gigs. Boston has a stalwart community of these types: incredible musicians who write and sing honest lyrics with soulful vocals, engaging as any of the touring bands that come through town.
Boston is a gift—this community thrives on original music. The songwriter scene, mostly driven by singers with guitars, has quickly embraced fiddle and cello players to add smooth string lines to their albums or collaborate on live shows. People like Matt Smith at Club Passim make space for fiddlers in songwriter rounds. Billy Beard of the Lizard Lounge invites instrumental collaborations as openers.
In this landscape string players can express themselves without guitars, though some of us have learned to do that, too. There is genuine appreciation for excellence and originality. And above all, everyone is consistently seeking to collaborate. Bands and projects including fiddles, cellos, and violas play everything from cabaret rock to art-pop to bluegrass to Americana and beyond. This makes sense to me. I’ve played fiddle in many collaborative projects and when it came to forming my own band, the most fulfilling and unique option was to include another fiddler, a cellist, and eventually a bass. New bands, beyond Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards, have chosen fiddlers and cellists as core band members. Why are so many bands in Boston taking that path?
I asked a few of my peers—transplants all—this very question: fiddler Auyon Mukharji of Darlingside, cellist Paul Wright of Tall Heights, and percussionist Devin Mauch of cello-driven Ballroom Thieves. All agreed that the Boston scene provides a collaborative, nurturing environment in which string players seem to thrive.
“I often found myself at a show surrounded by other musicians who were there for their fellow Bostonian music makers,” says Mauch. “It always felt very cooperative instead of super competitive.” And the flexibility of the scene offers unique performance opportunities.
“It’s particularly fun for us to jump onstage with bands we tour with/open for and add strings to their set as well. Strings strumpets, that’s how I think of us,” says Mukharji.
This audience is not limited by genre-fixation. They see solo fiddlers or new student bands as frequently as Patty Griffin or the Boston Symphony.
It’s not always easy, of course. Wright made an important distinction that his transition to Boston wasn’t so smooth. “I definitely had a hard time at first finding my people in Boston,” he says, “but that was probably because I was hanging on the wrong side of the river, and not getting over to rooms like Club Passim and Lizard Lounge” in Cambridge.
In addition to the clubs and musicians, we all attribute much of our success to the listeners and fans in the Boston area. This audience is not limited by genre-fixation. They see solo fiddlers or new student bands as frequently as Patty Griffin or the Boston Symphony. This place, these clubs, these fans of music embrace and foster creativity of unlimited scope. And I haven’t even touched on the traditional music scene—pubs and restaurants around the city host Irish and Scottish sessions most days of the week. There are weekly contra dances with live New England fiddling.
Boston is filled with strings players and as it turns out, the scene is also constantly expanding to make room for more string-driven music.
While I drift in and out from the road for most of year, this San Francisco girl is grateful for the incredible collision of open and generous audiences, wildly inventive musicians, and bold students from across the globe that we call the Boston music scene.
Laura’s Local’s Tips: A Guide to an Evening in Boston
Devin Mauch suggests the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (25 Evans Way, Boston), “for a unique and emotionally rejuvenating museum experience.” With a permanent collection installed by Gardner as well as contemporary art from the museum’s artist-in-residence program, the Gardner Museum experience begins when you enter the museum through an elegant garden courtyard. Some of Gardner’s unique pairings of textiles, furniture, sculptures, and paintings feel like secrets whispered in your ear.
I suggest walking along the Charles River. From the Gardner Museum head left to catch a small corner of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, a system of green spaces that wind their way through the city. Head down Park Drive over the Boston University Bridge and walk west along the river as coxswains coax their rowing teams, and runners pass in both directions. Make sure to walk out onto the John W. Weeks Bridge and look across at the Eliot House cupola.
I pick Club Passim (47 Palmer St., Cambridge) for folk-music history and guaranteed great music. Passim is a major force in the Boston music scene and supports a school of music, several festivals, and the Iguana Music Fund grant program. The managing director Matt Smith is one of Boston’s best music fans, giving a start to many of the songwriters and string-driven bands that are now beloved in the Boston area and beyond.
Auyon Mukharji suggests the Lizard Lounge (1667 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge) “for an appealingly bizarre subterranean vibe with an excellent beer selection.” With several local or touring bands on the bill, the Lizard Lounge gets rolling a little later. Dennis Brennan’s weekly residency is a highlight, featuring up-and-coming performers during his set break.
Paul Wright picks Toad (1912 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge) “for that chilly night when you want to stumble in somewhere warm, drink a beer, and hear some feel-good music.” This 62-person capacity bar is where I go when I am not ready for the night to end. There are at least two free musical events there every night of the week.
What Laura Cortese Plays
Instrument: Acoustic Electric Strings London five-string made
by Gary Bartig
Strings: Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold
Boston Shop: “My favorite violin shop is Rutman’s Violins. I have known Ilya Rutman since my first semester at Berklee. He has shown me the ropes with instrument care and has worked closely with me to find the right hair and distribution to make my bow hair last, despite my tendency to give a little grit and break hairs.”