Destination: Blues: Massachusetts North Shore and the Merrimack Valley

By Georgetown Fats
March 2012

I had intended to provide regular travel logs from blues-friendly locals where one can find either blues, brews or BBQ at very easy reach and steady supply but as anyone can attest, life happens. Sometimes when out on the road for the day/pay job the blues, brews or BBQ are not within a steady supply while other times it is all too steady a supply and I forget to take notes. I was gunning for Anthony Bourdain’s job, but it all became too much work when I just wanted to enjoy myself.

While discussing my plight with The Boss, and trying to figure out the easiest way to split myself up into multiple blues music loving vessels, she suggested a Destination: Blues “staycation.” If you’re looking for some blues, brews or BBQ and happen to find yourself within my immediate area these are the highly recommended stops and haunts for you to consider if and or when you find yourself in my neck of the woods.

We start for me where it all began, Essex, Massachusetts. While The Farm Bar and Grille is now a burgeoning franchise with locations in Beverly, Manchester New Hampshire, and Dover New Hampshire, the Essex location is the home base. Located at 233 Western Ave in Essex, by taking advantage of their location near the Quinn Brothers Industrial Park, the proprietors of The Farm Bar & Grille have taken what was once a black hole for full service restaurants and turned it into a destination locale. There is an ice cream window with Richardson’s Ice Cream, a horse shoe pit, a beach volleyball court, a BBQ smoker and a very blues-friendly ownership. While not entirely a blues location, they crank out copious amounts of delectable BBQ with their outdoor smoker and by bookings bands such as The Ten Foot Polecats and A Bucket of Blues, it is clear that The Farm likes their blues loud and rockin’.

It is an old cliché, but The Back Page - Lowell is just off the beaten path in Lowell. While parking in Lowell can be a bitch, with their generous pours, pizza and attentive staff in addition to the musical bookings, this is a joint worth checking out with frequency. Truth be told, I have only successfully made it to The Back Page once, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort or desire. This converted brick mill building has the ambiance of the neighborhood jazz hole and the intimacy of the local corner bar that only the regulars know about. Once you find the place, it’s perfect. Quaint, cool and having booked such local acts as the Peter Parcek 3, Grace Curran and The High Falutin’ Band and Mr. Nick & The Dirty Tricks, clearly The Back Page in Lowell knows a thing or two about the local talent and scene.

The Tap in Haverhill is a microbrew and pub in a converted brick mill building. The open rooms and brick make for great acoustics and, did I mention the beer? The Tap makes many great beers while also being another blues-friendly environment. Come for the HaverALE, stay for a an act like the recently Nashville-transplanted Arrty Raynes, Paul Prue or Michael Fioretti laying down some blues in either the Limelight Lounge room or on the back deck overlooking the Merrimack River (weather permitting).

It is tough to give an accurate description of Roma as it is a little bit of everything. Good inexpensive food, function rooms, sports bar, this complex has a little bit of it all under one roof. Be sure to drop on by the bar on a Tuesday night to visit bartender Shelley Dame Smith as she somehow handles a usually packed house for the weekly Coupe DeVille Band open blues jam. Bring your axe and sign up early, as the jam runs from 9PM and can go well beyond 12AM.

So you say you may have had yourself a bad ice cube and are trying to shrug off some evil spirits on a Saturday or Sunday after a late Friday or Saturday night out. Well then, Fat Belly BBQ has got the cure for you. I am not exactly sure why the Tighe family of Georgetown thought to retrofit an old ice cream truck, but I am glad they did. Be sure to check their schedule as they rotate throughout the area at local fairs and festivals starting in the springtime and ending in the late fall.

In approximately 500 square feet, Richard Osborne, owner of Dyno Records in Newburyport, puts a whole lot of great music in his music store. Playing to an affluent community, jazz and blues music is Dyno Records’ forte, but Osborne does manage to bring in some rock, some contemporary pop, classical, musical supplies (picks and harmonicas), world music and racks of second-hand material. If by chance you can’t find what you’re looking for, Osborne and his staff will happily order it for you. Though the prices are reasonable, when I pay homage to Dyno Records I usually have to bring a credit card and/or plenty of cash as I always leave with the disk I was looking for and several that I wasn’t anticipating.

In what will hopefully be a sign of more investment in Salisbury Beach, The Blue Ocean Music Hall is a large theater overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. With a top-of-the-line sound system, stage and efficient wait staff, it is possible to get your dinner, drink and dance on with great frequency. Having booked Taj Mahal and Johnny Winter, not to mention just hosting a capacity crowd at Mr. Nick’s 3rd Annual New England Winter Blues Fest, The Blue Ocean Music Hall is blues-friendly, and then some.

While there are plenty of other quality hangs within the North Shore and the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, these are my favorites. I encourage you to check them out and tell them Georgetown Fats sent you. For other suggestions for Georgetown Fats to consider, please post them to The Boston Blues Facebook page.

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