By Amanda Beland
If you’ve seen quality free live music in Cambridge in the last decade, chances are – you have John Allen to thank. Whether it’s booking bands or playing in them, the Dorchester native has made affordable tunes in a supportive community the name of his game since he started going to the Middle East Nightclub when he was 18.
“When I found the Middle East, I just went crazy,” said Allen. “I wanted to go to every show. I thought it was the coolest place.”
Going to shows at the Middle East eventually turned into playing shows at the Middle East. Allen has been playing guitar and drums since he was a teenager.
“Everyone has that thing, right?” said Allen. “It’s how I like to be creative.”
Soon, Allen was spending most of his free time at the club where he started making musical and personal connections.
“I remember meeting one of my best friends, Esteban, in the hallway of the upstairs,” said Allen. “We had a common interest in music and really just connected instantly. He married Diana and I.”
Eventually, he got a job working the door at the venue, which evolved into bar backing at ZuZu, the sister club to the Middle East, when he was 25.
Allen took over the Monday night booking slot under the name Night of the Living Deadhead in 2008. His idea was simple – book bands that he liked and offer the experience free of charge.
“It made sense to make it free,” said Allen. “A lot of the smaller shows these days are $10. Now, with two people, me and Diana, that’s $20 plus appetizers and drinks and cabs and such. Things can add up quickly. Plus there’s a lot of foot traffic near ZuZu. When the music’s free and you’re walking by, I feel like you’re more likely to wander in, even if you’re not sure if you like it. If anything, it was going to be $5.”
One night, Allen was set to do sound and bar-back when the bartender didn’t show up. Allen volunteered to complete the shift.
“I basically hit it out of the park,” said Allen. “The room was packed and I handled it all myself. The rest if history, if I can quote my uncle Woody, ‘Life is 80 percent showing up’. No relation to Woody Allen.”
Allen booked and bartended for ZuZu Monday nights for close to five years. In this time, the weekly selection of free music and partying became a staple in the Cambridge music scene. Part of Allen’s self-assigned booking responsibilities at ZuZu became documenting and archiving the Monday night sets. Through the Facebook alter ego Edison Tesla, Allen photographed and advertised ZuZu Monday nights to a dedicated following, including photos from live performances and show posters.
Allen moved on from ZuZu in 2013 and handed the Monday night slot to Joe Marrett (Hallelujah the Hills, CreaturoS) who renamed it Rad Castle. Allen held a blowout last show before the hand off where he played in both bands on the bill.
Allen continued working around town as a bartender and playing shows. In 2015, he started booking the Thursday night slot at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge. Although the venues were different, Allen wanted to do the same thing at Plough that he had perfected at ZuZu – bring his favorite bands together for a free party.
“I call it Gear Shares because everything needs a name,” said Allen, laughing.
Allen’s strategy is simple – either pair bands together who know each other well or bands who have never met and give both groups each other’s contact information.
“I’ll usually ask if there’s a band they like partying with and they’ll usually have one they know or a band they’ve seen, but don’t actually know,” said Allen. “In a small room with no stage, you really only need one drum set, one pair of amps. I’ll give the bands all the contact information so they can talk before the show and figure out like, ‘Who’s bringing the bass amp?’ or ‘Who’s bringing the drums?’ Then, they get a chance to chat before the show so when everyone gets there, they already kind of know each other. I think it’s really cool to build that sense of community.”
The Plough is Allen’s main gig right now, aside from playing drums in a couple bands around town. If you’re interested in playing at the Plough, email Allen through Gear Shares.