Lowell’s legendary cradle of underground rock is back in business
If Lowell had a rock and roll time machine (and yes, we hope it would be the phone booth inside Cappy’s Copper Kettle), you’d no doubt end up at the Commodore Ballroom in the ‘60s, Mr. C’s Rock Palace in the ‘70s, The Raft in the ‘80s, and then The Safe in the ‘90s — where you’d probably want to take off your coat and stay a while.
The small basement bar at 160 Merrimack Street was ground zero for a watershed moment in Lowell’s music scene. Sure there had been big names that played in Lowell: Eric Clapton and Cream, Jimmy Page and The Yardbirds, The Doors. But The Safe set the stage for something different: local musicians playing their own original music. And it was good. Really good.
“It was home of the best open mic in the world,” says Steve Perez, a.k.a. D-Tension.
A former morning man on WFNX alternative rock radio, and an award-winning hip-hop artist and music producer, Perez, like many Lowell musicians who went on to bigger and better things, earned his stripes at The Safe.
“It was actually intimidating,” Perez says. “You’d see musicians carrying in their guitars, coming down to sign up for open mic. But then they’d listen. This wasn’t an open mic for beginners. Everyone who got up to play was not only good, they were bringing down the house with mostly original songs. You’d end up seeing a lot of people taking their guitar back to their car and just hanging out instead. It reminds me of certain basketball courts in New York. There are some courts where anybody can play. Then there are the other parks, the ones you don’t play in unless you can dunk. The Safe was that kind of place.”
Twenty-five years later, Perez is back where he started, this time as the owner of The Last Safe and Deposit Co.. Reopening the legendary club’s doors last month, he’s committed to resuscitating the downtown underground scene by bringing back a strong venue for original local music.
In the few weeks The Safe has been back in business, it has already become the best venue in the city for seeing indie bands and underground spanning genres from either those on their way up, or the ones holding their own.
On the club’s opening night, singer songwriter Charlie Farren (formerly of The Joe Perry Project and Farrenheit), played a solo set, followed by the melodic and magnetic Nick Orphanedes, better known as Melvern Taylor. These days, Melvern Taylor has a weekly residency at Toad in Cambridge, but in the early ‘90s, he was testing his songs on an audience at The Safe’s open mic.
Even hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow, whose 1980 single “The Breaks” made him the first to score a gold record for a rap song, stopped by Aug. 20 to work his smooth hustle and flow over the standing-room-only crowd.
“A great venue ends up taking on just as much personality as the people who play it,” Perez says. “There’s just something about this place that works. It worked then, and it works now.”
Shods drummer Scott Pittman calls the club “the biggest turning point” in the city’s local music scene. He should know. His old band helped usher it in.
In 1989, five guys from Tewksbury known as Duck Duck played a Battle of the Bands at UMass Lowell. Fronted by Kevin Stevenson with Pittman on drums, the band caught the attention of Mike Moynihan, a vocal major at UML, doorman at The Safe, and who Pittman calls “The Godfather of Lowell Music.”
At that time, The Safe was a venue for acoustic music only — until Duck Duck showed up to play the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
“We brought all of our electric instruments, full drums, furniture, tapestries and a toy chest full of props,” Pittman said. “The owner, Bill McFee, saw us unloading all this stuff and was like, ‘no, we’re acoustic only. You guys can’t set all that up in here.’ We weren’t really an acoustic band but we were ready to just roll with it.”
Collectively, the band knew a lot of people and the line to see them snaked out the door, around the corner and down Palmer Street. After the first set, McFee saw the huge crowd, with many more still waiting to get in, and told the guys to go ahead and set up their electric stuff, “but just this once.”
“Our second set was just wild,” Pittman says. “The place was booming and you could see dollar signs in McFee’s eyes.”
Duck Duck and their electric guitars were invited to come back the following month. It was another jam-packed show with lines out the door. And in 1990, the band played four nights a week, once a month for a whole year. It was an ambitious undertaking, so the band got their friends who played original music to join them.
Seemingly overnight, The Safe became the quintessential music club, where the vibe always felt like sometime around midnight and was just on the right side of dingy, explains Pittman, “sticky, dark and kind of cool.”
Punk bands like Out Cold ripped the roof off, the Skiadelics rocked skis strung with electric guitar strings, the original Dropkick Murphys played the club’s outdoor block party and songbirds like Jenny Riddle snapped crowds to attention with a six string and stand out vocals.
“It was pretty much the greatest year of playing music in our lives,” Pittman says.
It was also the springboard for several Lowell bands and solo artists that went on to win music awards and/or make a career in the music industry including The Shods, D-Tension, Jen Kearney, Melvern Taylor, Frank Morey and Bob Nash to name a few.
Then one night, Perez showed up for “the greatest open mic night in the world,” and The Safe was dark. A seizure notice was posted to the door for nonpayment of taxes. And just like that, The Safe’s days were over.
Other music clubs, like Smithwicks, and later, Evos, tried to fill the void, “but it was never quite the same,” Perez says.
Even today, downtown clubs like Back Page have the niche cornered on blues, others like LaBoniche and Life Alive cater to acoustic sets, and places like Ward Eight and The Worthen host live local bands but it’s not every weekend. A bonafide rock club has been missing from the downtown scene for quite a while.
When the old Safe space became available, Perez saw an opportunity to fill the void.
The original walk-in safe — dating back to the early 1900s when the building space was actually used as a safe, deposit and trust for valuables — remains. When crews dug into the renovation work, they unearthed the original black and white marble tiled floor, which Pittman used as inspiration to design an old snare drum. The drum currently sits behind the bar, a nod to days past.
A mouth harp was also discovered wedged in one of the walls, further proving Perez’s notions that the walls don’t just talk — they sing.
Still an accessible place oozing with history, good music and cheap beer, The Safe rings in Wednesdays with an open jazz and funk jam session, while Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays set the stage for a diverse lineup of artists from home and abroad. And on Sundays, you can still find an open mic. Led by Michael Dion (former frontman for Hot Day at the Zoo and currently, Daemon Chili), it’s ripe for discovering some of the best up and coming local talent.
Now the owner of the club that gave him his start in music, Perez says it still hasn’t quite hit him.
“I haven’t shed a tear yet and I’m a total crier,” he says. “But I’m sure the moment will come. This place has so much personality, I have no doubt it will work its magic on a new generation of 20-somethings.”
Open from 8pm to 2am Wednesday to Sunday. Visit facebook.com/TheLastSafe/info