As an avid listener to SiriusXM’s Coffeehouse channel, when I think of a quintessential coffeehouse, the iconic Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts is what comes to mind. In this modern era that embraces constant change, it’s nice to know some things are still here, like this Harvard Square institution.
Boston has an amazing music scene and while baseball fans here have their legendary Fenway Park, music lovers have Passim. Located in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, it’s one of the most famous coffeehouses for the folk and singer-songwriter set in the country.
This humble little stage in a basement setting has been home to many talented musicians for more than 50 years, and still offers that authentic New England coffeehouse experience. If you appreciate the kind of acoustic music heard on SiriusXM’s Coffeehouse channel, you might like Passim. Passim was at the epicenter of the Boston folk music scene back in the day. Joan Baez was a regular in the early days and she introduced Bob Dylan, who reportedly played between acts when Baez was here. Others who played here include Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Peter Wolf, Patty Larkin, Taj Mahal, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Rickie Lee Jones, Josh Ritter, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band and Ingrid Michaelson.
It opened in 1958 as Club 47 and was a jazz club originally. It was Club 47 from 1958 to 1968 and was one of the first venues in the northern United States to feature African American blues musicians from the South and patrons and staff gave these musicians a place when local hotels wouldn’t.
It then became Passim and has evolved in recent years. If you haven’t been here for a while, it became a nonprofit in 1994. The coffeehouse part is now called Club Passim and they offer some 400 shows a year, every day of the year except holidays. There’s also Passim School of Music, where adults can also take lessons for instruments such as the harmonica, guitar and piano.
“Our mission is to create and inspire interactive music experiences,” says Benjy Kantor, Passim’s marketing director. “We’re trying to build a vibrant community of artists and students., and audience members through our listening members and through our music. This fall, people playing here range between having played here five decades ago till now.”
Boston’s Celtic Music Fest also became part of Passim several years ago. “The concerts are all on the street at Harvard Square and Passim’s is the center,” Kantor said.
For a little over a decade now, the restaurant Veggie Planet has been a partner here, so while there are a few general admission seats, it’s mostly table seating now. “There was always an ancillary revenue stream here,” Kantor said. “Passim informally means things here and there, like there was a tchotchke shop years ago, it was a café in the ‘90s and Passim became a nonprofit in the early ‘90s.”
It’s a cozy setting, although it went down from a 125-seater to a 101-seater, so it’s a bit more comfortable. There was some concern several years ago that Passim might not survive. “Five years ago, when we were in dire straits and we had pleas out to people, one of the things that did help was the ability to serve beer and wine, which we got three or four years ago,” Kantor said. “There’s a good amount of revenue that comes in for both us and Veggie Planet.”
As a nonprofit organization, Passim is membership based. Members get discounts on tickets, music classes and access to purchase tickets a week prior to the general public. Getting to buy tickets ahead of time comes in handy because Patty Griffin plays here for two nights in November and the last time she played Passim was a decade ago, and these two shows sold out in a record four minutes.
Another interesting concert that isn’t sold out yet is on Oct. 24 Scottish singer-songwriter folk rock legend Al Stewart will perform. If you missed him in the ‘70s, this might be a good gig to catch. He’s best known for his 1976 hit “Year of the Cat,” which is still on regular rotation on several popular channels on SiriusXM radio.
“The community is inspiring here, they meet each other at our annual ‘campfire’ festivals, it’s all day everyday noon until midnight and 100 different performers perform nonstop,” Kantor said. “There is no actual campfire. It’s recreating that idea of a community of folks sitting around a campfire and singing. It’s one of our best ways to showcase new talent to the listening audience. Sometimes it’s a good transition for people playing open mikes, and a lot of times they’re more established acts.”
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