"Boston is a fucking rock town," Charlie Levine, one half of Soul Clap, reminds me. We're hanging out at Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge'spremier rock club, where Levine and his DJ partner Eli Goldstein are throwing their beloved Crew Love party as part of Boston's weeklong Together Festival. "We fought so hard for electronic music and constantly got shut down by promoters," Levine continues. "When I was 13, I came [to Middle East] for punk shows and later underground hip-hop. I never thought I'd hear electronic dance music here," adds Goldstein. Later in the week, headliner Mano Le Tough would invade the same venue with his brand of "folkal house"—a true sign of the times.
Soul Clap are among the soldiers with war stories of toiling in the trenches in Boston—a city that has struggled to sustain an electronic music scene. Transient college crowds, strict alcohol laws, and a brain drain to neighboring cities like New York and Montreal have not made it easy. The closure this year of Rise, Boston's go-to afterhours and the only local club to ever make DJ Mag's top 100, was a big blow after its 16-year run.
Yet, the sixth edition of Together, May 10-17, was a reminder of how much Boston still has to offer for the tribes of dance music fans who live here. Taking place in venues all over the city, the festival gives local promoters and labels a spotlight to showcase their music. In fact, Together creative director David Day emphasizes that one of the festival's main goals is to highlight what's already in Boston. That Levine's dad showed up at the club was just another sign that Together is a family affair.
Fittingly, Crew Love's lineup starred the funk and disco edit king Kon, who has lived in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood for his 30-year DJ career, as well as Tanner Ross, a New Jersey-to-Boston transplant. During the day, the city's aspiring DJs flocked to the Soul Clap Record Fair, which was held at Together's daytime headquarters, the DJ/production school Mmmmaven. Goldstein and Levine handpicked vinyl records in response to ever more obscure queries from eager visitors. More techy? Desert island house? Sunday afternoon bedroom music? Yeah, they had all that.
Despite its size, Together pulled off an impressive range of sounds from across the electronic spectrum. The cluster of Cambridge venues all within a five-minute walk also made for painless party-hopping. On Tuesday, Laidback Luke delivered a surprise set of indie rock to an intimate crowd for a reunion of Boston's anything-goes electro night <3THROB, while @LILINTERNET offered a window into his hyperlinked brain as he trolled the web live on screen.
Martyn and friends from the Sekoia label set up at techno outpost Middlesex the next night for a more straightforward showcase of "the sound of the Dutch underground" (as an impromptu hype man put it it), while Scuba turned the techno quotient up even higher on Thursday as the guest of Make It New, Day's long-running beacon in the wilderness for Boston's underground faithful.
Elements, the longest-running drum and bass night in the country, has been turning Irish bar The Phoenix Landing into a 160 BPM shrine for 16 years. FDOT, a stalwart of the scene who guested their Together bash, compared the party to a "drum and bass island" in the middle of Boston. On his way out the door, DJ Dig-Doug sported a black-and-yellow New England Junglists hoodie with a stylized "J" in place of the Boston Bruins "B" logo. Local pride goes deep.
Together closed out at Machine, a gay club near Fenway Park with one of the city's best sound systems. DJ Bruno played the kind of deep, soulful house you'd hear at his weekly H.O.M.E. (House of Musical Expression) party, formerly known as Utopia Sundays. Fittingly, Bruno used to tag team with Armin Van Helden in the 90s as a resident at The Loft, Boston's musical answer to the Paradise Garage.
Sure, Boston still gripes about 1AM curfews on weeknights and a subway system that only began running last year until the 2AM last call on weekends. There's also the matter of its incurable rockism, a dearth of good dance music venues, and a general sense that the city is never going to compete with nightlife meccas like Montreal and New York.
Still, as the community that comes out for Together proves, Beantown is increasingly comfortable in its own skin. "We don't have people who party 24 hours because we're not stockbrokers with unlimited bank accounts," Day argues. "We're doctors, professors, students. We're a serious town. So we go out at 8PM instead of 11PM, and we're home at 1AM. We've got people who have to cure cancer in the morning—I want them to sleep."
Follow Greg Scruggs on Twitter