When construction of a new concert hall at 89 Guest St. in Boston began on April Fool’s Day 2019, there was no way to predict how a usually simple sequence of events – inaugurating, building a thing, welcoming spectators, enjoying – would be derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But after a series of setbacks related to construction shutdowns, supply chain nightmares, and real estate logistics, Roadrunner is finally open to the public.
Boston’s newest addition to the live music scene claims to be many things: the midsize concert hall the city needs, a neighborhood booster, a nonprofit arts partner. And the venue’s management company, The Bowery Presents, is stepping into the spring like all of us, hoping the worst of the pandemic is in the past and curious about what that kind of future looks like.
The 50,000 square foot site with a capacity of 3,500 people is betting on success. Tonight, Billy Strings gives the sold-out hall’s inaugural concert. Rocking trio Austin Khruangbin and New York pop dream Mitski also sold out shows.
Some might call it “the people’s place” because almost all tickets are general admission and no “seat” will offer a better view than another. The venue was designed with minimal right angles and obstructions, and angled sight lines to the stage, providing spectators with a clear view of the main event, whether they are standing in the main square of the first upstairs or have fun in the carefully sculpted mezzanine.
Josh Bhatti, vice president and Boston director of The Bowery Presents, said the reason for Roadrunner’s existence is simple: it fills a gap in theater size in the region.
“Boston has been underserved in venues of most capacity sizes, but certainly in the 2,000 to 2,500 capacity range,” he explained.
Shortly after The Bowery Presents opened the 525-person Sinclair in Cambridge in 2012, executives and booking agents met for a company retreat. As Bhatti recalls, someone on the side of the room posed the question, “What can we do to help you?” And someone on the talent side returned the service with an unambiguous plea: “Build a 3,000-seat venue in Boston.”
A decade later, Roadrunner – a venue seven times the size of the aforementioned Sinclair – opens under The TRACK in New Balance in a space originally intended as a training facility for the Boston Celtics.
Roadrunner takes its name from the Modern Lovers tube of the same name (depending on your mode of transport and orientation, you literally have to pass a Stop & Shop to get there). But its stated commitment to local art goes beyond its branding and interior details: 25 cents from every ticket from The Bowery Presents venues in Boston goes to Shout Syndicate, a nonprofit that grants grants for creative development and youth arts projects in Boston.
Shout Syndicate director Ami Bennitt said the money generated from ticket sales by The Bowery Presents or Live Nation (another partner) not only creates grants to fund projects, but also serves as a stipend for young people.
“Some of them might have to work at a laundromat, grocery store or gas station part-time to earn pocket money or contribute to the family,” Bennitt said. “We wanted to remove this barrier for children participating in the arts and pay them as if it were their work.”
She’s worked with other venues in the past and said it’s sad that some have closed due to the pandemic, but those closures aren’t related to the opening of this new venue.
Some Bostonians aren’t thrilled about Roadrunner’s arrival. In an article for Boston Hassle, a blog that focuses on the area’s underground and underserved music communities, contributor Meg McCarney argued that “venue financial support would have been better spent supporting current venues, rather than to add another space similar to one already stacked. list of medium-sized venues,” lest smaller venues struggle to make ends meet and eventually close their doors.
Bhatti, however, is keenly aware of Roadrunner’s role in Boston’s live music ecosystem. The fundamental difference between small and large venues, he observed, is in the acts they bring. He insists that both are needed to support a live music culture in the city.