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Club Passim Knew Them Before They Were Cool

Off Campus | September 27, 2011

Google “Club Passim” and you will quickly unearth accounts of its illustrious history at the vanguard of ‘60s folk music, playing host to legends like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, Joni Mitchell, and Mother Maybelle Carter. Fifty years after folk’s heyday it is easy to think of Club Passim as a relic, valuable as a slice of Boston culture and music history. But hip? Cutting edge? Surely not. Look beyond the Wikipedia page, however, and you’ll find that the club never stopped spring-boarding careers.

Tucked away in a basement behind the Harvard COOP, Passim is usually easy to miss. Three weekends a year, however, loudspeakers on Palmer Street broadcast the club’s music to passersby, tempting them to come inside and enjoy a folk music festival  known as the Campfire.

Passim’s manager, Matt Smith, founded the Campfire in 1999 as a way to salvage Labor Day, an otherwise bum weekend for music booking. He had been booking an event called Songwriters in the Square, a night featuring three or four performers performing in the round. It was an opportunity to feature artists who hadn’t individually built the audience to headline a show, and it was a fun way to encourage improvisation between artists.“It was supposed to be collaborative,” says Smith. “That’s why you put people in the round. Hoping that there will be some sort of spark or that someone will start singing a harmony or someone will start playing a guitar part.” Smith took the Songwriters in the Square concept and turned it into the tri-annual weekend-long festival that Campfire has become.

This Labor Day weekend the Campfire lineup was diverse, featuring singer-songwriters, bluegrass bands, Berklee students, and crusty old timers. Many were young up-and-comers who play other small venues in Boston and surrounding environs. Dietrich Straus, for example, regularly plays his heart-wrenchingly sweet folk songs at local venues like Toad and Lizard Lounge. Ana Mallozzi, a Providence local with indie style, a banjo, and a huge voice, sings about liking boys who like dinosaurs. She also plays around Providence with an all-girl folk band called The Sugar Honey Iced Tea. Then there are the local heroes, like Lori McKenna. A mother of five, McKenna just happens to have worked with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Around these parts, she sells out venues with her very personal hoke-free brand of country music.

These artists may be unfamiliar to the average college student, but, in the backlog of Campfire line-ups, open mics, and tribute nights, there are some names that might ring a bell. The Weepies? They owe their musical success and marital bliss to Club Passim. How about Josh Ritter? After graduating from Oberlin, Ritter launched his career at Passim. Now he’s a critic’s darling and one of the most established voices in modern folk music. More popular still, Regina Spektor played the Campfire multiple times when she was still the weird Russian girl playing her crazy songs in New York City bars. Then, all of a sudden, she was on tour with The Strokes.

 “That’s the kind of stuff you can catch every night at Passim,” says Smith who is constantly booking interesting new artists. “The overnight success, 90% of the time is a complete myth. People don’t often know where those artists start. They came from somewhere. A lot of times they came right out of our basement.” O

Club Passim is located at 47 Palmer Street. The Campfire occurs every Labor Day weekend, President’s Day weekend, and Memorial Day weekend and is $10 per day.  How can you say no to that kind of deal?