Music is the Mission at the Knickerbocker

From national headliners to intimate performances, this Westerly venue remains a South County mainstay in the music scene

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What South County venue has hosted musicians as diverse as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jon Batiste, Amy Helm, and Leon Russell? Westerly’s own Knickerbocker Music Center, of course, where local and nationally touring musicians have played since 1933.

“The Knick,” as it is fondly known, has gone through plenty of changes over the years, even becoming a nonprofit in 2015. Named for a train that once passed through Westerly station, the original cafe was built during the Great Depression, shortly after the end of Prohibition.

Since then, the club has hosted numerous artists with a focus on blues, rock, and folk genres, and it’s where Grammy Award winners Roomful of Blues got their start. The Knick even has a house band of sorts, the Knickerbocker All-Stars, comprised of well-known artists like Duke Robillard, Monster Mike Welch, and Willie J Laws – their album, Love Makes a Woman, featuring vocalist Thornetta Davis, was nominated for the 2019 Blues Music Award “Soul Blues Album of the Year.”

These days, the main room of The Knick hosts larger concerts, while the taproom, with its intimate vibe, hosts a range of local musicians. That’s where you’ll always find a friendly audience.

“The Knickerbocker is one of my favorite rooms to play because of its small size, and the seating is in the round, which encourages patrons to look at the stage,” says Bristol-based singer-songwriter Allysen Callery. “The last couple times I’ve played there you could hear a pin drop, and I was fortunate enough to hear a couple people singing along softly to the songs I’d written. That’s one of the best experiences a songwriter could have!”

Kris Hansen of the acoustic duo Man & Wife played the club recently and notes how invested both patrons and management are in the music.

“The audience was fantastic, a listeners’ crowd,” says Hansen. “They were very respectful. I am not always used to a quiet bar room. Sometimes you are just background for everyone’s good time, but the audience was there to hear music.”

“I was also very moved by their record player,” Hansen continues. “They actually play vinyl records for their patrons. Overall, the vibe is cool and friendly. The staff, including Liv the bartender, also a musician, is extremely supportive.”

Along with curating every detail of the experience, part of The Knick’s mission is to “preserve, cultivate, and celebrate blues music” and other related genres. This has led to partnerships with local agencies, including joint programming with The United Theatre (located just around the corner), creating a multi-venue regional campus for the arts in Westerly. Fostering a new generation of musicians, too, the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School has partnered with The Knick since 2014 to bring lessons to over 5,000 students in the Westerly and Chariho school districts.

Says Hansen, “It’s a music place first – that’s very clear.”

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