Wilbur Theatre Emerges as a Music and Comedy Hotspot in Downtown Boston

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Posted May 29, 2013 by Lauren Carter in Downtown Boston
Wilbur Theatre

There aren’t many places where you can see legendary hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan perform under the glow of a giant chandelier. The Wilbur Theatre in downtown Boston is one of them.

Located in the heart of Boston’s Theater District, the venue has become something of an independent powerhouse, attracting top comedy acts and a diverse lineup of music artists while maintaining its historic charm.

“Slowly but surely we’ve been able to sort of crack into the market and . . . establish ourselves as a music venue,” said concert promoter Andrew Mather. “Now we have something that’s sort of like a hybrid of a club and a theater. I would say that it’s almost a 50/50 split down the middle with music and comedy. I think that the beauty of this place is the balance.”

The beauty is also in the decor and vibe. A capacity of 1,093 for sit-down shows and 1,200 for standing shows makes for an intimate feel, while the ornate ceilings, balconies, and massive chandelier lend a stately air to the venue, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next April.

“A venue like the Wilbur has this deep history to it, and other than taking out the seats on the first floor, we did not mess with the actual ambiance of the place,” said Mather. “And the place lends itself to being just a beautiful gem of the city.”

New Life

The Diplomats at Wilbur Theatre

Harlem-based hip hop crew The Diplomats, better known as Dipset, reunited at The Wilbur on February 9. Photo Credit: Alisha Keshavjee

After being dark for 10 years, the theater reopened in late 2008 under the direction of Bill Blumenreich, owner of the Comedy Connection. The Wilbur now serves as the Comedy Connection’s home. While comedy is its bread and butter, the venue has branched out into live music, ranging from Americana and blues to hip-hop and R&B. On any given week, you might see Bill Bellamy, Bell Biv DeVoe, or a Beatles tribute band. In the next few months, the lineup includes comics Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, and George Lopez; “Hello It’s Me” singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren; and funk-and-soul outfit Robert Randolph & the Family Band.

But for all its diversity, there’s no denying the venue is gaining a stronghold in urban music for a mature audience. “We just happen to have a strong list already with urban comedy,” said Mather. “So we started dabbling with trying to get some more urban programming.”

They’ve done more than dabble: The venue has hosted acts such as Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, Ledisi, Boyz II Men, Wale, The Diplomats, Pusha T and Fabolous, Ghostface Killah, and Juicy J—all of whom claim devoted and in some cases die-hard fan bases, whether or not there’s a radio hit somewhere in heavy rotation.

Still, not every show is a hit. Machine Gun Kelly, for example, sold out quickly, but the venue was “trashed” after the up-and-coming rapper’s performance. A show featuring classic hip-hop icons Biz Markie and Nice & Smooth was canceled because things “didn’t work out.”

“Some things are hot and some things aren’t,” Mather said. “We’ve had some missteps, but for the most part we have learned our lesson and are trying to program appropriately for what this venue is.”

Upcoming Shows

The venue has two urban shows on the horizon that shouldn’t be missed.

On May 29, former Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland and singer-songwriter/producer extraordinaire The-Dream will perform on their first-ever joint tour. Both artists have albums coming out soon. The-Dream’s fifth album “IV Play” drops on May 28, and Rowland’s “Talk a Good Game” is due out on June 18. Expect a mix of new material and classic favorites from these two R&B artists, who are sure to collaborate onstage like they have on record. In an intimate setting like the Wilbur, this show won’t disappoint.

Classic hip-hop fans should clear out their schedules on July 19 for Naughty By Nature and Rakim, a show that should provide a potent one-two lyrical punch and a welcome trip down memory lane. It’s guaranteed that hands will be waving during Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray,” and Rakim is sure to put most current rappers to shame with his rapid-fire flow.

Having seen Wu-Tang Clan at the Wilbur (twice), I can guarantee there’s nothing like the juxtaposition of gritty rhymes and lavish decor to create a uniquely memorable hip-hop experience.

If you’re looking for an intimate spot in downtown Boston where you can catch some great R&B and rap acts, not to mention comedy shows and plenty of other music, definitely get on the Wilbur’s mailing list or like their Facebook page. And if you do happen to go to a Wu-Tang show and see a girl rapping herself breathless, it’s most likely me, so be sure to stop and say hi.

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