Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Chicken Slacks perform in December 2018 at The Cantab Lounge in Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A seasoned touring musician turned his eyes to a nervous young man at a backyard barbecue. He had heard good things about the young man’s skill with the saxophone. “Come to this place called The Cantab on Thursday night,” he said. “Which Thursday?” the young man asked. “Any Thursday,” the musician replied.

Thursday nights at Cambridge’s Cantab Lounge have been the stuff of legend for more than 40 years: R&B star Little Joe Cook rocked the dive bar’s hot and sticky dance floor from 1980 until the early 2000s and the classic soul/funk band, The Chicken Slacks, has continued to power it for the past 15 years. This month would have been the 15th anniversary of the band’s residency at The Cantab – listed for sale July 20 for $240,000, liquor license not included – but a coronavirus shutdown has left that dance floor empty.

Jeremy Valadez, the young man at that barbecue who ended up joining The Chicken Slacks and ultimately becoming the band’s manager, laments not only the bar’s closing but the loss of community that comes with it. “Not only was it the dive bar’s dive bar, everybody knew who you were,” Valadez said.

Central Square’s Cantab Lounge has been closed during the coronavirus crisis and was listed for sale July 20. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The bar’s owner, Richard “Fitzy” Fitzgerald, said on Facebook that the bar may yet open in Phase 3 of the state’s pandemic recovery plan, whenever that happens. Valadez thought it might be coming, but the news still hurt: “It’s hard on me personally, because that was every Thursday. That was game day for 13 years at this point. To have that taken away … that sucks. ”

In a rapidly gentrifying Central Square, once a working-class, heavily immigrant community, places such as The Cantab are increasingly scarce. “The Cantab is where you can go to hang out with people who are a different age than you are, a different race, a different class, and nothing matters because you’re all out together on the dance floor having nothing but a good time,” said Marc Levy, editor of Cambridge Day. (The interview took place before this article was placed on Cambridge Day.) “I don’t know that there’s another place in Cambridge where you can go and have that, and I don’t know that you can fake it, either. I think it just happens. ”

Whether you were a hipster heading to the cramped basement to hear slam poetry on a Wednesday night or a longtime barfly glued to the beer stains on the stools upstairs, The Cantab was, in its heyday, magnetic. Local musician and featured singer David Jiles Jr. explained it this way: “It was unbelievable how fast the vibe turned from this dank, unwelcoming dive bar into this amazing, worldly party.”

That vibe was especially bubbling during the Chicken Slacks’ reign. “What’s magical about soul and funk music – it has this bringing-together capacity, it feels like home,” said Jiles Jr. Blaring horns and wild riffs, the band would play well into the early hours of Friday, sweat pouring down the members’ faces as the audience jived furiously before them. In the early 2000s, band founders Justin Berthiaume (who, years ago, moved to San Francisco and into Jerry Garcia’s old apartment) and a guitarist known only as Slim wanted to start a Motown classic funk band to “keep the music alive,” as Valadez put it. Alive is perhaps the best way to describe the Chicken Slacks’ style, which evolved with its members, featuring Valadez on sax, Mike Duke on guitar, Rick “Rhythm” Rosco on bass (the band’s longest-standing member, who joined around 2004), Russ Sternglass on drums, Brendan “The Badger” Badger on keyboards, Johnny “Blue Horn” Moriconi on trumpet and a rotating list of featured vocalists including Jiles Jr.

“When you’re in the Chicken Slacks,” Jiles Jr. mused, “you realize you have had some hand in this magic. You’re contributing to that.” For the singer, a particularly special moment came when he was able to fly his parents, who hadn’t seen him perform in a decade, from Chicago to Boston to see him play. “They sat at one of the tables and immediately were greeted by people welcoming them,” Jiles Jr. recalled. “My dad was able to talk about how ‘He’s my son.’ It was hard to put in words in the seat of a place like Cambridge. My dad grew up in rural Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper. He wasn’t able to go to high school. There’s something about that experience, a few miles away from a place like Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was nice to have my parents, who had never been to this place … have a sense of feeling like they belonged.”

Changing scene

Belonging, unfortunately, does not always mean staying. No one would dispute that the Chicken Slacks belong at The Cantab, but the bar seemed in jeopardy even before the pandemic. Valadez heard rumblings of The Cantab’s financial woes back in November. Word was that Fitzgerald had been unsuccessful in recruiting his son to take over the business, while patronage dwindled. “People weren’t going out anymore,” Valadez said. “The numbers had changed.” As the severity of the pandemic became clear, the future of the bar became less so.

Fitzgerald finally addressed the community via Facebook on July 21. “After 50 years of good times and good friends I have made the decision to put The Cantab Lounge up for sale,” the post read. “This has not been an easy decision, or one I have taken lightly. The Cantab has always been a fun place to have a cocktail, dance and hang out with friends. Our staff is second to none, our customers loyal and our music the best!” News of The Cantab’s sale was particularly heartrending since it came after the closing of several other watering holes in Central Square, including The Field, gone permanently; The Asgard, temporarily closed; and The Middle East nightclub and restaurant complex, for sale and unlikely to reopen.

Levy explained that the vanishing of these treasured small businesses was not simply about a local economy in trouble, but a unique culture diminishing: “I’m sure all the emptying spaces in Cambridge will be filled, but every time we lose an old-school place like The Cantab or Newtowne Grille, or for that matter The Tasty [in Harvard Square, closed in 1997], Cambridge gets closer to a sort of relentless parody of itself, with nothing to break up the tonal tedium.”

Moving to Medford

Today, the doors under that unassuming green awning remain closed, and Valadez is not sure what doors may open for the Chicken Slacks. He is still booking weddings, but not until the summers of 2021 or 2022. Immediately after The Cantab made its announcement, however, he received a glimmer of hope in the form of a Facebook message from Benny Tucker, a booking manager of Medford bar The Porch: “We want to be your new home.”

Tucker recently started to book outdoor solo acts for the bar, which is finalizing an outdoor stage that can accommodate three- to four-piece groups. A few Chicken Slacks members are booked there for an outdoor gig Oct 17, with a hopeful return for the full band to play indoors later in the year, once restrictions for indoor gatherings lift. Valadez initially objected to reducing the size of the band: “That’s not really The Chicken Slacks,” he said, “that’s just not our sound. We’re big; it has to be all of us.” Tucker promised, though, the long-term plan would include the whole band for a regular Thursday rotation. “We definitely want the real deal at some point,” he wrote.

Still, while the band will play on, as Valadez acknowledged, “The Cantab Lounge as we knew it is just a memory now.”