Friday, July 12, 2024

Sam Epstein, manager and owner of The Jungle in Somerville’s Union Square. (Photo: Joshua Pickering)

Type “Union Square Somerville” into Google Maps and check out the street view as far back as you can go. August 2007, in this instance.

Looks a little drab, right?

Maybe it’s just the dog days of August coming at you through the camera lens. Or maybe it’s something else. Fewer restaurants, zero bike infrastructure and not a single establishment at which to recreationally throw axes. Thumbs down!

Fast-forward to the present day and Union Square is alive with pleasure. More nightlife, bike lanes, a T stop and a restaurant that will serve you spaetzle. More people want to hang out in the square instead of passing through on their way somewhere else. Thumbs up!

In 2019 a music club joined the party, The Jungle.

We’ll spare you the punning “Welcome to The Jungle” transition here. It was already used by the Boston Herald five years ago. (You just knew it would be the Herald to drop that bomb.)

Besides, is it really a pun? More like a flag to plant. Both the name of the club and the tagline are direct references to a song “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, the favorite hair metal band of manager and owner Sam Epstein.

A verse or two might prove illuminating:

“Welcome to the jungle
We got fun and games
We got everything you want
Honey, we know the names”

You already knew The Jungle has live music (booked by Heather Timmons of Tiny Oak Booking, among others). But the “fun and games” extends across genres, with comedy open mics, karaoke and the occasional “toddler dance party,” putting live performances on the stage seven nights a week.

For Epstein, the challenge is not just the frequency of live performances, but fitting the regular showcases in a modestly sized space. The venue, converted from an old police car garage, would probably not have fit more than a couple cruisers back in the day.

Epstein makes it work: “The smaller the venue, the more work and harder work there is for each operator on site. So we learned to have the greatest respect for places like Wally’s, one of the few venues putting on great shows in a room smaller than The Jungle and usually with a smaller team.”

Is Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club (on the other side of the Charles) an inspiration in terms of cover charge as well? The historic jazz club doesn’t charge you at the door. Entry to The Jungle isn’t always free, but it’s always affordable – a feature becoming more rare in the gentrifying environs of Union Square. In the words of Axl Rose:

“If you got no money, honey
We got your disease”

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We feel you, Axl. Drop your precious dollars on these local bills that may or may not “wanna watch you bleed.”

Friday: This Music Presents: Stephen Haynes (The Lilypad, Cambridge)

Cornetist Stephen Hayes performs as part of a jazz quartet, including Pandelys Kayorgis on keys, Kit Demos on bass and Eric Rosenthal on drums. A cornet is a brass instrument that was offered the opportunity to become a trumpet, but said “Nah, thanks, I’m good.” Most cornets spend their off hours with flugelhorns down by the rail yard, getting cross-eyed on cherry wine, shooting whiskered vermin with air rifles. Fund the debauchery with a $15 cover; $10 for students. Rats get in free.

Saturday: Battlemode, No Detour, The Sleds, Pretty Late and Please Deal With Me (The Jungle, Somerville)

What are they feeding lineups in Union Square? Any show that breaks the four-band ceiling usually has “festival” at the end of the title. But it’s just another day at the office for The Jungle. Albeit a day that includes tater tot specials beyond your wildest dreams. Go live the dream on Saturday. Scene staple Battlemode added a third member to their electronic duo as part of their 2024 “glow up.” New year, new you, new band.

Jan. 25: The Reckoning Crew (Lizard Lounge, Cambridge)

I see what you did there. The legendary Wrecking Crew was a circle of L.A. session musicians who absolutely slayed in the studio during the ’60s and ’70s, putting their stamp on a golden era of rock ’n’ roll. Reckoning Crew is a local homage to the West Coast legends with a narrower mandate. They’ve cast an all-star lineup of Grateful Dead tribute musicians to bring the hallowed hippie songbook to life. Like Liam Neeson in “Taken,” the Reckoning Crew has “a very particular set of skills, skills [they] have acquired over a very long career, skills that make [them] a nightmare for people like you.” Give them back their daughter already!

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Boston Urban Ceilidh attendees learn a dance Friday at Crystal Ballroom in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Gutierrez)

Flashback to last week when this column was firing itself up for the arrival of the Boston Urban Ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee) at Crystal Ballroom, part of the Boston Celtic Music Festival. All the action unfolded Friday. A Celtic hullabaloo of fiddles, bagpipes and dancing shoes flying across the ballroom, filled to capacity with a crowd eager to learn moves.

There was more enthusiasm present than skill or experience, but if you had love in your heart and a spring in your step, you did just fine.

In fact, stand in thrall of how well the ceilidh came off. Hundreds of strangers learning and performing dances in massive ballroomwide formations in less time than it takes to drink a tallboy.

Sure, part of the credit belongs to the “caller,” who barked instructions expertly from the stage. But the lion’s share is due to the “student body,” which exhibited the goodwill, empathy and a collective resolve to get everyone over the finish line together.

As we slouch toward the next U.S. presidential election cycle, a night at the dance hall can teach us a few lessons. Whether it’s a caucus or a ceilidh, the power is with the people. Is it ludicrous to say that your average good-natured participant in a Scottish “strip the willow” dance has a stronger instinct for democracy than many of the candidates on the national ballot? The goal posts for what counts as “ludicrous” in 2024 keep shifting. Keep your dancing shoes at the ready until November.


Michael Gutierrez is an author, educator, activist and editor-in-chief at Hump Day News