It’s been 30 months since the pandemic shut its doors, but the Lizard Lounge is back

All lizards molt as they grow. To protect themselves from predators, some change color with their surroundings or stretch out brightly colored throat fans, nod their heads and wave their limbs to distract and intimidate. On the last day of September, many of them slithered into a Cambridge basement, impersonating the red paint that enveloped the low-ceilinged room, and hopping along in a ritual led by Mike Rivard of the Club d’Elf.

“We’re going to ask you to do something that may be at odds with what you’re feeling right now, and that’s just to be quiet.”

Rivard greeted the packed house with newly skinned reptiles, mostly unmasked and hugging less awkwardly than they had a few months ago. The Lizard Lounge is one of the last clubs to reopen and its return feels symbolic, a transition into a new phase less governed by public health regulations but still lurking with ever-present dangers and crises.

“Let’s start with it like it’s some sort of sacred event because it’s for us,” Rivard said. “It’s been a long time. We’ve lost a lot of people over the last few years. It’s been a tough time. So put down your devices, let’s forget the time for a bit.” The bass rolled as the lizards mounted on a two-hour journey , protected from the potential dangers lurking around in their pockets.

The Lizard Lounge is owned by Holly Heslop and her husband Charlie Christopher. The couple also own Cambridge Common upstairs the Lizard Lounge, Christopher’s Restaurant and Bar and Toad Bar and Music Club in Porter Square. The Lizard Lounge opened in 1996 and has since been a creative incubator where musicians can improvise, meet, form bands and hold long-term residencies that evolve into other bands and side projects.

“Our goal has always been to be a sort of accessible neighborhood meeting place,” Heslop said. “You never know what to expect. And I love the variety and excitement. It’s unbelievable how great it feels to hear music from this building again. It really made everyone here so happy and excited.”

Staffing issues have contributed to the Lizard Lounge’s delayed reopening – it’s been closed for 30 months – but mostly it’s the nature of the venue.

There is no stage – instead the musicians play in the middle of the room, surrounded by the crowd. There’s no such thing as social distancing, and the energy of a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd is part of what makes the Lizard Lounge so special.

“It feels like the audience is part of the band,” said Zoe Knight, a musician and longtime patron who has been coming to the Lizard Lounge since January 2005. “I have such fond memories of being here. Seeing Club d’Elf for the first time broke my brain. This is the place that showed me what is really possible with music and improvisation.”

The group Club d'Elf - Mike Rivard on bass (or Sintir), Andrew Fogliano on tenor sax and flute and Alex Lee Clark on trumpet, Paul Schultheis on keys, Dean Johnston on drums, Jeff Rourke on turntables and Lyle Brewer on the guitar - playing at the reopening of the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA.  (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
The group Club d’Elf performs at the reopening of the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA. The venue reopened after the pandemic forced its closure for 30 months. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Bassist and sintir player Mike Rivard is the leader of the Club d’Elf. He formed the band with a fortnightly stint at the Lizard Lounge in 1998. While members have come and gone over the years, the band currently includes Andrew Fogliano on tenor sax and flute, Paul Schultheis on keys, Jeff Rourke on turntables and Dean Johnston on drums and Alex Lee Clark on trumpet. Lyle Brewer of the band Neighbors joined the group on guitar.

Your sound is unexpected. It’s a psychedelic ride with Moroccan and trance influences and lots of experimentation and humor. When musicians of this caliber improvise in a cozy but lively space with an audience present, something happens that cannot be reproduced and spat out at you by artificial intelligence. After 30 months of being too afraid to gather like this, the need for spontaneous, collaborative interaction in the room was palpable. Rivard described the experience as “strained”.

“We mix all of those elements, but it really needs that element of an audience that you can see, that you can practically touch,” Rivard said. “It’s like you’re in a living room together. And everyone just dialed in. And there’s something that happens to the music when there’s that level of contact and intimacy with the sound.”

Mike Rivard, bassist and leader of the Club d'Elf, addresses the audience at the reopening of the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA.  (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Mike Rivard, bassist and leader of the Club d’Elf, addresses the audience at the reopening of the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Heslop said they felt now was the right time to reopen the space and they are taking precautions to keep the public safe, such as: B. the requirement for a vaccination certificate. Heslop himself was one of the few people in the crowd to wear a mask.

Rivard said he was ready to be back. At the end of the show, he thanked the audience for participating in his waking dream.

“I really appreciate that everyone was able to comply with this request and turn off their devices and just be here. It’s very important for us as musicians to play with that kind of attention,” he said, a steady seriousness in his voice. “We may have some rough times ahead of us out there, but here it feels like we’re all in it together.”

The lizards cheered.