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Take a peek inside Roadrunner, Boston's newest music venue

The view of the stage from the mezzanine level of Roadrunner.
Jesse Costa
The view of the stage from the mezzanine level of Roadrunner.

The Boston area has mourned the loss of beloved music venues since the pandemic hit two years ago. But Tuesday night a new club opens in Allston-Brighton, and it’s a big one.

Roadrunner is being billed as the largest indoor general admission venue in New England. WBUR took a tour to find out how and why the team behind Roadrunner designed it to be a better experience for audiences and artists.

When you walk into a music venue it can be chaotic. You often end up meandering from the box office, in a herd of giddy people, through cramped hallways to find the stage. At Roadrunner it’s one of the first things you see.

On a recent afternoon house audio technician Reid Calkin stood alone on the arena-sized stage, which is 60 feet wide. The club’s state of the art sound system had been installed just a few days before.

“Check one, check two,” he intoned deeply, then added, “Welcome. First time speaking through the PA — feeling good about it, feeling great.”

Calkin isn’t alone in his elation.

“Just hearing that PA turn on — the sound come through — this is something we’ve been thinking about for four-plus years,” Josh Bhatti said smiling, “and it’s like being a proud parent.”

Bhatti has overseen Roadrunner’s buildout from the beginning. He heads the Boston office for The Bowery Presents, a New York-based company that owns and books other local clubs including the Sinclair and the Royale. Bhatti said they’d been searching for a new location with enough volume to expand their concert footprint.

“We had an option for bands to play a 500-capacity room and a 1200-capacity room,” he said, “and then we were limited in our options of where we could take those shows.”

(The Bowery presents also promoted shows at the more intimate Great Scott, which shuttered in 2020).

Then they found this 50,000 square foot space at the Boston Landing development in Allston-Brighton. It was originally built as a Celtics training facility that ultimately moved across the street. The newly constructed, vacant space was a blank slate for Bhatti’s team to design a venue of their dreams — with backing from a partnership with the entertainment giant AEG. Bhatti said their goal was to create a more thoughtful experience for artists and fans that goes beyond the music.

“How can you either get that person who goes to one or two shows a year to go to three or four shows a year? Or the person who goes to 15 or 20 concerts a year, how do you get them to go to 25?” he said they asked themselves. “No one has to go to a concert, so how can you incentivize people to come in there?”

To that end, the multi-level Roadrunner’s vibe is fun and pretty fancy. It has two coat checks, four big bars and plenty of bathrooms. The playful décor evokes skateboard parks, Boston sports and local music history. A colorful mural near the entrance pays homage to the club’s namesake: local legend Jonathan Richman’s classic song  “Roadrunner.”

Watch on YouTube.

But the views throughout the space, along with the sound, were top priority. Bhatti said he and his team constantly asked themselves, “Can everyone in this venue see the show and can everyone hear it well? What’s the sightline from here, what’s the sightline from there?”

Stephen Martyak — who also designed the Sinclair a decade ago — said he’s proud of the ADA compliant sections. “Especially up in the balcony, which are some of the best sightlines in the entire venue.”

While they set out to create a playground for music fans, Martyak and Bhatti wanted to show us Roadrunner’s areas that are invisible to audiences. Touring artists have needs too, they explained as we pushed through a heavy, soundproof door leading backstage.

Life on the road can be relentless for musicians, so there are five well-appointed dressing rooms with showers, a sweet catering kitchen and a cozy lounge where they can recharge.

“These artists are traveling all around, they’re running on limited sleep, so we’re providing good amenities allow them to perform at their highest level,” Bhatti said.  “It’s not dissimilar from an athlete where, if they’re comfortable and feel like they’ve had a good day, they have a better show.”

And if the artists have a better show, he added, “the fans feel it.”

Bhatti is particularly excited about a not-so-sexy amenity that he said is actually luxurious: the off-street, climate-controlled indoor loading dock.

Drivers and road crews often have to find parking on city streets or squeeze into tight alleyways to do their jobs. Bhatti has been promoting and supporting bands since high school and has lugged his fair share of heavy equipment up and down ramps in the middle of snow storms. He feels for the roadies.

“Like in Boston, New York, the bigger cities, it’s almost impossible to roll up to a venue with trucks and busses and leave them there,” Jared Herman said via Zoom before a show in South Carolina, “Whenever a crew rolls in, and they see it’s going to be quick in and out and they’re going to get to their shower really quickly at the end of the night, is usually a good day.”

Herman is tour manager and sound engineer for the Boston band Lake Street Dive. He got a sneak peek inside Roadrunner recently and also appreciates the separate showers for crew members along with the washer and dryer. “Having laundry backstage is huge,” he added.

Lake Street Dive headlines Roadrunner this summer, but Herman predicts it will be especially game changing in the winter. “There’s no 3000-capacity indoor venue that exists in New England,” he said, “and it’s pretty cold most months.”

Career musicians need to sell tickets year-round, according to Lake Street Dive’s drummer Michael Calabrese. “This is how you make a living now,” he said, “not to go on a tirade, but the advent of streaming services has really decimated the financial foundation of any band’s music.”

Lake Street Dive formed at the New England Conservatory in 2004. The band’s earliest gigs were at bubble tea cafes. The genre-spanning five-piece band moved up to clubs like the Lizard Lounge, then — with promotion support from The Bowery Presents — to the Sinclair and Wang. Calabrese said graduating to larger venues is the goal for bands like his, and he hopes Roadrunner relieves pressure on Boston’s challenged venue ecosystem that never has enough rooms for local artists to play.

“That might mean other bands can start playing the Sinclair … which means other bands can start playing Lizard lounge … and then other bands can start playing Toad,” he said. “And you can kind of open up the space available to not only out-of-town, but local acts, to gain access to the scene.”

Josh Bhatti said he’s committed to developing artists as they grow. He and Roadrunner’s team see their new venue as a love letter to Boston’s musical legacy, just as Jonathan Richman’s iconic tune pays homage to Massachusetts and rock ‘n’ roll.

Stephen Martyak recalled listening to The Modern Lovers’ LP “Roadrunner” on repeat as he was designing the space, “and even the indigo blue color in the main venue is inspired by the album.”

Roadrunner opens March 15 with Grammy Award-winning guitarist and singer Billy Strings. Other bands on deck include the Dropkick Murphys, Olivia Rodrigo, Mitski, LCD Soundsystem and The Decemberists.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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