The Greater Boston metropolitan area is a goldmine for concert-goers. Commonly known venues in the area include the TD Garden, the House of Blues, the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion, the Sinclair and the Paradise Rock Club. Further away from Boston, and subsequently a bit inconvenient for many music-lovers, are the Xfinity Center, the DCU Center, the Worcester Palladium and the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell.
For those searching for a small, relaxed venue with the convenience of being in the city, there is a hidden gem on Highland Street in Somerville, which describes itself as “not quite a nightclub” but “not quite a bar” that hosts “one-night creative events.” ONCE Somerville has two spaces for shows and other events – the “ballroom” downstairs has a 300-person capacity, and “the lounge” upstairs is a 100-person space with a full-service bar, ample seating and a dance floor.
When people arrived at ONCE on August 2 for the Skeptic Tour featuring Tilian, Landon Tewers, Brent Walsh and Rivals, they were greeted by a bouncer who checked everyone in, given wristbands showing whether they were over or under 21 and directed upstairs to the lounge to wait for the show to start. In the meantime, several people talked with the staff members in the lobby. I liked that it felt not like a shepherd keeping sheep contained, but like a conversation amongst new acquaintances.
About 20 minutes later, at 8 p.m., the doors to the ballroom opened and we made our way in. I was struck by how much fit into the small space – there’s a bar on the left, the merch tables were in the back of the room, equipment was along the right wall and there’s still plenty of breathing room for the attendees. With features such as chandeliers, curved staircases and an old TV displaying the “house rules” across the screen in Sharpie, ONCE was eclectic and oddly elegant, yet informal enough to feel comfortable walking in wearing ripped black jeans and a band t-shirt.
Something else that impressed me as the show progressed was how friendly not only the staff were, but the other concert-goers as well. Being under five-feet tall, I generally prefer to be elevated in the back of the venue at shows rather than on the floor where I often end up behind someone significantly taller than me, but since ONCE is standing-room only, several people around me encouraged me to get closer when they saw me contorting my neck at unnatural angles to see. Maybe it simply had to do with the size of the venue, but the crowd felt more like a group of friends than a mob. I witnessed several friendships start up as people bonded over favorite bands and other upcoming tours, and I also got to know some of the people around me.
The one qualm I had about ONCE was parking. There was a small parking lot across the street from the venue, but it filled up early, especially because some of the spots were reserved for a Dunkin’ and several other spots are reserved for Zipcars. The area surrounding ONCE was quite residential, so street parking was often limited to two hours. We ultimately parked in a spot behind the venue that was reserved for a nearby hair salon, and even though a staff member at ONCE said that was “totally fine,” it left me nervous for much of the three-hour show. I imagine that most visitors to ONCE arrive on foot, via a ride-sharing service, or the public transportation system. I would certainly recommend carpooling, taking the Amtrak from Durham to Boston or taking a bus to get to ONCE.
While several moments highlighted my evening at ONCE, one moment stands out from the rest. After the first set, many people stepped outside for a breath of fresh air, and I was able to say hi to the headliner’s drummer, Matt Mingus, as he was walking toward the tour buses. Other attendees spoke with some of the musicians and got photos with them on the sidewalk, which I would have liked to do if I hadn’t been so surprised and embarrassingly starstruck. I recall thinking to myself after my short exchange with Mingus that if that was the only good thing about the show that night, the $20 I spent per ticket would have still been worth it.
If you’re looking for a lowkey place to see an affordable “one-night creative event,” ONCE is definitely an option for you. While it certainly won’t become my end-all-be-all venue of choice, I feel confident knowing that if a concert tour I want to go to is stopping at ONCE, I’ll have a good experience.