One night, probably two or three years ago, I was leaning into the railing around The Moon’s porch, about four whiskeys deep into a soapbox speech about what kind of bar I’d run if I ever had the capital to open one, when I looked across the street and had an epiphany. Possibly because the place was in my line of sight and probably because it’s the only carpet bar-type bar on West Berry Street, I announced to whoever had been humoring me at the time that if I had the cash, I’d totally buy The Cellar. My drinking buddy rolled his eyes and asked why. “I think it would make a cool venue,” I said.
Of course, I don’t have the money to buy any bar, and I’m fairly sure The Cellar’s owners have no interest in selling theirs. And, anyway, it’s kind of already become a venue on its own.
If I remember correctly, The Cellar started hosting shows last year or maybe in the fall of 2010. First it was the scene of some kind of weekly jam — I recall hearing hand drums a lot of the times I walked by, and after the jams seemed to peter out, the place became home to a cover band for a little while. I think. That kind of shit tends to run together for me. Now the bar’s little room upstairs seems to be a place for new bands to cut their teeth and journeyman acts to easily pack a house. You’d expect that a band performing with such limited acoustics would sound like hot garbage, but that isn’t true. While the sound isn’t great, the modest PA set-up is run by a competent soundman, and the acts I’ve seen have managed to cut through the aural murk endemic to bars that were never really made for live music. In other words, you can hear the vocals and bass, even when there are two electric guitars.
As a case in point, a recent charity event held at The Cellar and its neighbor, espresso-cum-computer-repair shop Stay Wired, featured a lineup capped by Secret Ghost Champion and Quaker City Night Hawks, two bands for which dual guitars and multiple vocals are signature components, not to mention that they both play pretty fucking loud. Obviously, pulling off a good mix was a challenge, especially when you figure that the room was close to capacity — my guess is that The Cellar’s upstairs holds about 70 bodies, so the resulting din of people talking makes subtleties like four-part harmonies or keyboard flourishes pretty hard to hear.
Except that they weren’t. Oh, sure, both bands have sounded better in a lot of other places, but they’ve also sounded worse, and for a venue that was more or less willed into being by someone’s earnest imagination (and desire to get in the local music game) and a competent engineer’s crafty ear, a tolerable mix in a small room is pretty damn respectable. You might not have noticed everything that SGC frontman Ben Hance and company were trying to get across during their set, but at least it wasn’t total auditory mud.
So it’s good that a loud band can pack a small room and not sound like shit. Honestly, though, I’d rather watch a band with a little less bombast, and here’s why: On Friday night at The Cellar, I caught Madràs, the ethereal indie project by brothers Jeevan and Mathew Antony, and their textured, spacey chamber pop really shone in this setting. I’d say there were maybe 20 to 30 folks watching the show, a lot of whom sat at tables. Of course, there were talkers, but when Jeevan’s reverb-soaked vocals crested over the twinkling delay of his guitar, just about everybody shut up — and listened. This is a band in which the drummer uses mallets, and the frontman sits in a chair. Madràs is quiet, requiring you to listen actively rather than lean against the bar and have your eyebrows blasted off. And when the audience settled into silence, Madràs’ songs filled the room, swirling about the audience like sonic eddies wandering through space. I don’t know that I would have paid as much attention to this band if I’d first seen them at, say, Lola’s or even The Grotto — there was something about seeing them in the dark of a makeshift venue that made me take notice, and now I’ll have the mental preparation to appreciate them when they hit bigger stages around town. –– Steve Steward
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