North Shore Music Scene
Nicole Henley and the Van Burens at Opus Underground in Salem
Photo credit: Elise Sinagra
You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars and drive to a mega-packed arena to hear talented musicians—they’re playing right here on the North Shore. A burgeoning live music scene is thriving in our own backyard, with towns like Gloucester and Newburyport home to many up-and-coming artists. Local bars and restaurants are taking note; you can find a show every night of the week, from laid-back reggae to energizing rock to riveting Irish fiddlers. We’ve got your ticket to the top performers and places to listen to live beats.
When Opus opened its doors in Salem a few years ago, the response was so overwhelming they created a space downstairs, where guests waiting for a table could comfortably hang out on leather couches. It didn’t take long for general manager Danny Giddings and his team to figure out they were on to something much more. Now, in its third year, Opus Underground is the restaurant’s happening live music den with a range of daily acts across every genre. Monday is punk and rockabilly, Tuesday is a time to test your own talent with karaoke, and Wednesday is reserved for hip-hop collective Wreck Shop Movement, a community-focused group of artists that promotes education and giving back. Opus Underground’s first foray into live music was with reggae on Thursday. Still one of the most successful nights of the week, acts like Gloucester’s Soul Rebel Project pack the house every time they’re on stage. On weekends, anything goes: pop, rock, funk, alternative, indie, or soul. Watch for appearances by up-and-coming band Red Tail Hawk from Newburyport. Giddings says all live music runs from 9 p.m. until 12 a.m., and he and his team are always looking for new music, based on what people want to hear.
For 45 years, The Grog has been a neighborhood institution in Newburyport. With a range of live music several days a week, owner Bill Nichelmann says there’s something for everyone. Guitarist Steve Spungin holds court on Tuesday nights in the main bar, playing everything from the Beatles to flamenco. For decades, Wednesday has been reserved for local talent in an open-mic format called Hoot Night. There’s no cover for either weeknight show. The Grog amps up the energy on Fridays and Saturdays with a range of rock, soul, reggae, and R & B bands starting at 9:30 p.m. for a five-dollar cover. Well-known North Shore band Joppa Flats appears often, bringing a mix of tunes for dancing downstairs in the Grog’s club-level space. Nichelmann says he’s always looking for new talent to add to the lineup, but regular crowd favorites include Don’t Call Me Shirley, Third Man High, and the Henry Welch Band. But if you’re really looking for something special, don’t miss Parker Wheeler’s Blues Party, held every Sunday from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. for the last 25 years. “We are lucky Parker plays with us,” says Nichelmann. “He brings in a new band every week and it’s never the same show twice. Parker brings top-notch musicians together, and they’re thrown together on stage with no practice and sound amazing.” These jams have included blues legends like James Montgomery.
Located in Manchester-by-the-Sea, 7 Central has long been known for comedy and live music shows, held in an inviting English-style tavern atmosphere complete with fireplaces. New owner Paul Barclay has brought decades of Boston–based entertainment experience with him, expanding the range of talent and frequency of shows. Small acoustic and soft-rock acts are a nice touch for diners in the pub on Saturday nights starting at 9 p.m. General manager Nick Turczak says, “We definitely have a core base of regulars, but at the same time we get people who follow certain bands, which adds a nice flair to the night.” Sundays are popular, with a long-running Celtic show held every other week at 5 p.m. upstairs, led by Gloucester–based Michael O’Leary, a singer of Irish, Scottish, and Maritime songs, and various Irish guest musicians. 47 Central also added a weekly Sunday evening show in the downstairs pub from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. focusing on a two-person acoustic act, Joe Wilkins and Chris Langathianos. “Our vibe is more upbeat and energetic, but still in an intimate setting, where you can carry on a conversation,” Turczak says.
The Port Tavern
This month, Newburyport’s Port Tavern celebrates its seven-year anniversary, bringing Irish American comfort fare and a laid-back pub vibe to the local scene. Wednesdays are reserved for a traditional Irish seisiún (“session” in Gaelic), a relaxed gathering of Irish musicians who play off each other—one starts a tune and the others join in until they’ve completed a set of songs. Accompanying instruments can include tin whistles, fiddles, flutes, accordions and guitars for the real sounds of Ireland. General manager Abbie Pierce says regulars make Wednesday part of their weekly routine, but the music also attracts surprised first-timers: “I see a lot of times when someone is dining in the front bar and they don’t realize the music they hear is being played live at the back of the restaurant; they think it’s the radio!” Celebrated Irish musician Eamon Coyne plays the fiddle and mandolin, and is one of the recurring artists you can expect to hear.
O’Neill’s may be a classic Irish pub, but bar manager and music director Dana Matthews is setting the music stage with much more. “Our goal is to give back to the community and try and host as many local musicians as possible,” she says. With a lineup of rotating acoustic artists on Wednesdays and Thursdays like Spotted Tiger, and a regular gig featuring pop/country favorite Annie Brobst on Monday, Matthews is bringing a little bit of everything to O’Neill’s. “The Irish call their neighborhood pub the ‘local’ and we would like to be that for everyone,” she says. Staying true to the bar’s Irish roots is important as well, so three days a week traditional Irish music is the focus. Friday and Sunday evenings, an Irish seisiún is led by accomplished fiddler and multi-talented musician Larry Young and Dublin-born Irish and American folk artist Tom Courtney. Expect to hear more lively Irish music on Saturday nights with rotating acts. O’Niell’s just added a monthly acoustic brunch on Sundays from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. that featured singer-songwriter Sarah Blacker as the inaugural artist. Matthews says weekend brunch is crowd favorite, serving up a traditional Irish breakfast and make-your-own Bloody Mary bar. “Our motto is ‘Wicked Good Craic’ which means ‘fun,’” she says, a nod to both the North Shore and Irish community.
For full live music schedules and details, call or go online at each venue, or check musicians’ websites for appearances.
87 Washington St.
13 Middle St.
7 Central St.
The Port Tavern
84 State St.
120 Washington St.