Concert venue

Roadrunner’s sound and sightlines make it a Grade “A” concert hall

It’s the shiny new toy in Boston’s ever-expanding constellation of rock clubs. The 3,500-capacity Roadrunner, which opened on March 15, is located right in the middle of Allston’s lower revival and housed in a space originally designed as a training facility for Boston Celtics, under New Balance Athletic Complex.

Roadrunner takes its name from the 1976 proto-punk song by Boston’s Modern Lovers. And how’s that for the meta? In the song – about cruising in your car late at night in and around Boston – Jonathan Richman sings, “I’ll drive past the Stop & Shop with the radio on.” This you can do opposite Roadrunner if you approach Everett Street – a large Stop & Shop is about a football field away. Inside the club, in the VIP lounge, a bright red neon sign reads, “I’m in love with Massachusetts,” a line from the song.

The club is booked and owned by Bowery Presents, whose partner and co-owner is giant AEG, Live Nation’s main rival.

A lyric from the song “Roadrunner” inside the room of the same name. (Courtesy of Ben Stas/The Bowery Presents)

There were four shows in Roadrunner’s opening week. I caught two: Grammy-winning bluegrass guitarist Billy Strings and his band on opening night and perennial hometown favorites Celtic rockers Dropkick Murphys on March 20. Coincidentally, both bands had a polished banjo player, but there was probably very little audience overlap: neo-hippies (or old hippies) in the former and neo-punks (or old punks) in the latter. Both crowds, however, were boisterous and seemed at home in the new space, happy to celebrate after the pandemic lockdown and multiple tour postponements.

The shows weren’t without a hitch – Bowery Presents had a manic build two days before the Strings gig – but in its first week of presenting shows, Roadrunner gets an A grade due to the two most important considerations: the sound and sight lines. The sound on both nights was just the right level loud, clear and well dispersed throughout the room. The tiered steps on the balcony, which can be used as bleachers, as well as a raised perimeter around the floor allowed for nearly unobstructed views from anywhere. The club was designed by Stephen Martyak, who did similar work with the Sinclair in Harvard Square ten years ago.

The infrastructure was in place, but there was extensive and rapid staff training, which also required bringing in additional bartenders from Sinclair.

“It’s state-of-the-art, sound, stage, everything,” Dropkicks Murphy vocalist and bandleader Ken Casey said after their set. “And they are very accommodating, which is perfect for the group. There’s a nice backstage common area outside the dressing rooms, and we play with bands we like, which makes it easy to chat.

Another view of the crowd at the opening night of Roadrunner with Billy Strings on stage.  (Courtesy of Ben Stas/The Bowery Presents)
Another view of the crowd at the opening night of Roadrunner with Billy Strings on stage. (Courtesy of Ben Stas/The Bowery Presents)

On opening night, there were a number of music professionals in the audience and the reaction was unanimous. “There’s room to breathe, room to park and places to eat nearby,” said Ralph Jaccodine, veteran artist manager and professor at Berklee College of Music. “Adding Roadrunner makes our scene more engaging for music fans, visitors and students. The goal is to get music fans off their couches and support live music.

“The atmosphere was quite busy and people were delighted to be in the new room”, declared Adam Klein, after the concert of Strings. Klein, the co-founder of CK Communications Group, added, “It felt like a special moment in time. I was very impressed with the sound of the room. I stayed for a long time on the balcony right in front of the stage and found the perfect sound.

Strings manager Bill Orner used a baseball analogy for a tight home plate game for the club’s public debut: “They went home with it. The design and layout took into account different needs and it is as intimate as possible with 3,500 people.

Roadrunner, Orner said, is part of a wave of newly built and smartly designed big clubs across the country, mentioning The Anthem in Washington, DC, The Eastern in Atlanta and Mission Ballroom in Denver, the two latest AEG clubs.

Negotiating Roadrunner’s lanes on the various tiers took some work, not a surprise in a new location. By avoiding crowds of fans, you learn the lay of the pitch. The ropes were sold out and the Dropkicks drew around 2,500 – it was their fourth and final show of the week in Boston – and even though the floor was tight, you could find room upstairs or on the sides . And if you really wanted some respite, you can relax in the spacious living room behind the back wall of the balcony. You couldn’t see the band – except for the video screen – but the sound was loud and clear.

Roadrunner is equipped with an elevator to allow people requiring wheelchair access to view the stage from the mezzanine.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Roadrunner is equipped with an elevator to allow people requiring wheelchair access to view the stage from the mezzanine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On a somewhat humorous or potentially embarrassing first-night note, there’s an open balcony-level hallway with a large painting of a white toilet on the outside wall. Unisex toilets? No. It’s a Women’s toilet – turns out there is a very small plaque on another wall which is pretty much unreadable in the dark. The toilet next door had the toilet engraving but also a urinal engraving next to it. A-ha. This would be the “men’s toilet”, which had a similar small plaque.

During the Dropkick Murphys show, larger orange signage had been placed outside both restrooms and sentries were also posted, in case anyone was unsure of which direction to follow.

A parking tip: At the Strings Lounge, parking near the Stop & Shop parking lot was $10 (cheap). At Dropkick Murphys, another garage on Guest Street charged $20 (better than downtown Boston event rates). Warning: Beware of parking your car at the free Stop & Shop car park nearby. On Tuesday, there was a line of menacing tow trucks nearby, ready to pounce.

Roadrunner has a busy schedule – LCD Soundsystem sets up April 3-6 – but if you don’t have tickets yet, you might have to wait to see the site. The Mitski show on March 22, the two Bleachers shows on March 24 and 25, and the Chelsea Cutler show on Saturday 26 are all sold out. (Roadrunner added a second Cutler show on March 27.)

And while Roadrunner – New England’s largest indoor general admission club – is the newcomer, come September it will have a formidable rival with Live Nation’s 5,000 capacity MGM Music Hall at Fenway. Dropkicks’ Casey had a private visit last week and was impressed. He said the design was similar to Roadrunner, but would have general floor admission and tiered mezzanine and balcony sections.

Is there or will there possibly be too much of these medium-sized venues in town? (There’s always the Orpheum Theater, the Wang Theater, and, in season, the Leader Bank Pavilion.) Right now, industry sources are saying no, that there’s an abundant supply of “content and demand”, to use a biz term. And what Roadrunner has to offer pretty much checks all the boxes to make it a viable and versatile place to rock.