Narrows Center a 'gem' of a music venue

Jay N. Miller

Editors note: This is the third of three stories on local music venues.

What began as a side project at a small art gallery has grown into one of the most remarkable music venues in southeastern Massachusetts. The Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River might have one of the more unwieldy names on the concert scene, but the 292-seat hall hosts 90 shows this year.

It’s easy to find, within reasonable driving distance, has free parking, great sound and good sightlines, and reasonable refreshments – because you can bring your own. Plus, the shows are an eclectic music lover’s dream.

So what’s stopping you from becoming a Narrows convert?

“I call it the ‘gem’ of music venues in our area,'' said Quincy music fan Casey Barbuto, 25. “And it’s pretty much an unknown thing to most people in our area.''

Narrows Center, now in its 12th year, just celebrated its 500th concert. It’s an unlikely outcome for the third floor loft of an old waterfront factory in the shadows of the Braga Bridge. With ticket prices at $25 or less most of the time, the nonprofit venue has become one of the area’s best-kept secrets. But the word is spreading.

“We pride ourselves on offering everything from mild to wild,'' said Patrick Norton, musical director for Narrows Center. “We started out 11 years ago at a small gallery with 2,000 square feet. We would host open mics, and have bluegrass on Sundays. Acoustic music was a side component to the art gallery. We eventually were priced out of that space, but then we found this beautiful spot right on the waterfront. It was much larger, at 15,000 square feet, and we realized we needed live music to help pay our rent. It was seven years ago in November that we moved here (24 Anawan St.).

“That first year, we staged about 20 shows. In the first two or three years, attendance was OK, but not great. But we kept adding shows, and by year four we had 60 shows. Last year we had more than 15,000 people attend our shows, and 80 percent of them came from beyond 15 miles, according to our research. We’ve become a destination for music fans.''

Barbuto said he discovered the Narrows because he was a fan of The Slip and decided to go see them at the Narrows when he saw the show listed on the band’s Web site.

“That was back in 2006, and it sounded like a nice place, although I wasn’t too familiar with Fall River,'' Barbuto said. “It was easy enough to find, right down Route 24, to Route 79. By now I’ve seen 12 to 15 concerts there. I’ve gone there to see bands I knew nothing about, like The Waybacks or Eric Lindell, because I trusted the Narrows to have quality people.''

Many acts have found that Fall River makes a nice stop on the way through New England.

“Musicians love our venue,'' Norton said. “As loud as Johnny Winter was when he played here, he and his band loved it. And fans really love seeing that kind of show here, because nobody is throwing up on them like at stadium shows. When we have someone like Leo Kottke here, no one even breathes. That’s the way it has to be for his music, and people know that. They get it.

“There are not a lot of 300-seat venues anywhere anymore, and we have begun hearing from all the big booking agencies. A lot of acts are searching for venues our size. It can be a travel situation, where they want an easy gig in between Hartford and Boston. But we do mostly weekend shows, and lately we see more acts simply flying in for the show.'' ''

Many fans will point to Narrows Center’s eclectic booking as a prime factor. You simply can see people here you won’t find anywhere else.

“Our booking is so varied because it’s not all about the money,'' Norton said. “We try to choose our acts based on whether they’re good, and we don’t have to stick to any one genre. We do stuff sometimes that we know won’t make money. (New Orleans pianist) Henry Butler, for instance, is a phenomenal musician, but not many people know about him so it’s a small crowd. We’re lucky to break even on those nights, but part of our vision is to try and break new artists, or lesser-known acts, to wider audiences. It has become too hard to make money in Boston clubs for some of these acts, so we can get them. We’re not afraid to do jazz shows either – it is hard to make money with them, but we feel they are well worth doing.''

The BYOB aspect is surely unique, but most fans agree it makes a night out far less expensive than going to Boston or Providence clubs or to the major arenas.

“My first time there, I was walking in and saw a guy carrying a bottle in,'' Barbuto said. “I asked him what he was doing and he told me, so I had time to find a store and get my own beer. That part of the Narrows helps keep the night relatively cheap, and it’s a lot better than paying $5 for a paper cup at one of the city clubs.''

“I also think the early show times – most shows are over by 11 or 11:30 p.m. – helps keep the rowdier elements out,'' Barbuto said.

“More than that, I really believe the allure of the place keeps everyone in check. You might see a 12-year-old kid in there, next to a grandmother, and that kind of community effect keeps everyone in line. The Narrows is a great listening room as a result, and I think it really is quite a phenomenon in this day and age,'' he said.

Norton said, “The reason for the BYOB aspect is that it requires no liability insurance. It was the easiest way for us to get up and running. Now, we could afford a liquor license, but we’re trying to resist that temptation. We like being the anti-corporate music venue. You’ll never see a beer-sponsored music series here. We think selling liquor here would just change the vibe too much, and take away a lot of the fun.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a good time, but the vast majority of our fans come primarily for the music, and I guess it’s almost like peer pressure that helps keep everyone well-behaved and respectful.''

And as suburban drivers know, not having to pay those Boston parking rates, or deal with the usual post-concert traffic jams at the bigger venues can be a major advantage.

The Patriot Ledger