Like so many things in Rhode Island, going out to hear live music in South County isn’t just about what you hear, but who you meet.
That guy over by the bar at the Knickerbocker Music Center might just be a local fan of the bands onstage – on this night, it’s Maine roots rock road warriors The Mallett Brothers Band and the Joplinesque, Boston-based Say Darling – or it could be Kevin Finnegan, owner of the Ocean Mist, who can hear all the bands he wants at his own oceanfront bar, but still comes out on a Sunday evening to see who’s playing at the Knick.
Venues like the Greenwich Odeum showcase national touring acts like rock veterans Blue Öyster Cult and Rickie Lee Jones, but most nights, it’s your friends and neighbors under the lights at local bars and restaurants, doing what they love for a few hours a week after their “real” work day ends. (You might spot North Kingstown school superintendent Phil Auger, for example, playing guitar and providing lead vocals for the Ten Rod Ramblers, a staple act at places like the Oak Hill Tavern in North Kingstown and the Breachway Grill in Charlestown.)
“The amazing thing is the amount of musical talent around here,” says Breachway Grill co-owner Craig Marr. “They do it mostly for passion – they don’t make a lot of money – and to have a night out and have some fun.” (For most players, taking home $100 is considered a good night, so please do fill those tip jars if you like what you hear.)
The shared sense of community even extends to out-of-town acts like The Mallett Brothers, who have played at venues like the Knickerbocker, Ocean Mist, and even a few backyard parties in South County since forming in 2009.
“The Ocean Mist is one of our favorite places to play. It’s got great vibes and really reminds us of home,” says singer and guitarist Luke Mallett of the Portland-based band. “This is a scene to be proud of,” adds brother Will Mallett, readily name-checking a list of his favorite local acts that includes Deer Tick, Smith & Weeden, Cactus Attack, The Silks, and Westerly’s own Wild Sun.
With a half-dozen major music venues and a variety of smaller stages at local bars, restaurants, and coffee houses, there’s rarely a lack of opportunity to slip on your dancing shoes in South County. See sidebar for some favorite hangouts.
Born as a vaudeville house in 1926, the Greenwich Odeum spent most of its life as a movie theater before being reinvented as a venue for live music. With just 410 seats (plus another 80 coming when the renovated balcony opens later this year), the Odeum is just intimate enough to provide a genuine sense of connection with performers like Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, The Bacon Brothers, and Evan Dando, as well as a variety of tribute bands covering the catalogues of Queen, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, and other classic rock groups. Odeum President Dan Speca says the location in the heart of downtown East Greenwich, with its many shops and restaurants, adds to the theater’s appeal for performers and patrons alike. “The artists like the charming nature of this town,” he says. 59 Main Street, East Greenwich
Bands have been playing in this historic nightclub across from the Westerly train station since 1933, and “the Knick” is going as strong as ever after its recent rebirth as a nonprofit music education center. The room itself is a delight, with elevated seating arrayed in a semicircle around a spacious dance floor; you even have a decent view of the stage from the main bar despite its relative distance from the performers. The birthplace of Roomful of Blues, the Knick still hosts performances by founder Duke Robillard, dance-friendly acts like Superchief Trio and Eight to the Bar on the main stage, and solo acts in the Tap Room. 35 Railroad Avenue, Westerly
You can learn to line dance any night from Friday through Wednesday at West Greenwich’s Mishnock Barn, then put your newfound skills to the test on Thursdays when country bands play in the lakefront barn from 7pm to 11pm. 200 Mishnock Road, West Greenwich
There’s never a cover charge at the ‘Ganny, even for the Jamestown venue’s popular Sunday blues show (dubbed Blues, Bloodies and Brunch during the winter months). Plus, there’s live music every Friday and Saturday night year-round and Thursdays in the summer. 25 Narragansett Avenue, Jamestown
Free popcorn and peanuts, fresh smoked BBQ, and live music on Fridays and Saturdays from one-, two-, and three-piece country, rock, and cover bands make this North Kingstown bar/restaurant always an entertaining stop. 565 Tower Hill Road, North Kingstown
This wildly popular East Greenwich bar has live country and acoustic music several nights a week, year-round. 195 Old Forge Road, East Greenwich
Located in a former waterworks and born out of a luthier’s shop and guitar-making school, Pump House Music Works is appropriately eclectic in its scheduling of musical acts, which can range from classical violin performances to jazz and “psychedelic space punk” rockers The Viennagram – and nary a tribute band in sight. The intimacy of the 125-person room is enhanced by community-oriented potluck and open mic events, held each month. 1464 Kingstown Road, South Kingstown
Local performers – soloists up to four-piece bands, including house band Russ and Jeff – cover the Beatles, Billy Joel, and more on weekend nights in the winter, plus Thursdays during the summer. 1 Charlestown Beach Road, Charlestown
Guitar-strumming singers provide the soundtrack to summer nights on the outdoor deck at the Break Hotel’s rooftop bar. 1208 Ocean Road, Narragansett
The outdoor stage at the Rat is one of the best places in South County to enjoy live music on a summer night, and in the cooler months, bands like the fantastic Take It to the Bridge and Glenn Kendzia strip it down for more laid-back performances in the tavern. 489A Old Coach Road, Charlestown
Classic rock cover band Second Avenue plays at Rhode Island’s venerable dockside seafood restaurant every Sunday afternoon, and you can enjoy your lobster dinner with a side of acoustic tunes on Friday and Saturday nights even in the dead of winter (and nightly in the summer). 250 Sand Hill Cove Road, Narragansett
This Westerly coffee and wine bar serves up live folk, rock, and blues six nights a week. 62 High Street, Westerly
Feeling good and doing good is part of the fun of attending a show at Kingston’s Courthouse Center for the Arts, where proceeds help fund inclusion programs for young artists with autism, learning disabilities, and Down syndrome. Shows take place in a former courtroom with 265 seats but just seven rows of seating, giving nearly everyone a prime view of a steady stream of tribute bands (Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Prince, The Doors, The Doobie Brothers) interspersed with shows by the likes of Rita Coolidge and Aztec Two-Step and occasionally more contemporary acts that draw students from the nearby University of Rhode Island. A bonus for attending shows is the chance to browse through the art gallery on the courthouse’s first floor. “There’s music down here in South County,” says Executive Director Mariann Almonte. “You just have to come and find us.” 3481 Kingstown Road, West Kingston
Performers at Finnegan’s rambling beach bar turn up the sound to drown out the sound of the surf rolling right under the venue’s outdoor deck and tiki bar, which serve as a refuge for conversation and fresh air when things get hot and rocking, especially in mid-summer. Reggae has long been a staple at the Mist – Morgan Heritage and dancehall legend Yellowman are among the many bands to have played here – but you also can catch up-and-coming local acts, tribute bands, and veterans like Steve Smith and The Nakeds and The Senders onstage, with free shows on weekend afternoons. A few steps down the sand, The Pub is an Irish bar with live acoustic music. 895 Matunuck Beach Road, Wakefield