Sparsely Attended But Sincere: Ryan McHugh

6/26/14 – Miller’s Ale House

Boston has many great venues, but Miller’s Ale House in Watertown isn’t usually considered one of them. A chain restaurant with the appearance and atmosphere of a typical “American pub,” Miller’s Ale House is also home to Ryan McHugh, a talented singer and songwriter. The food is typical American fare, the ambiance nonexistent, and the crowd sparse. But the music is far above average—and that’s what brought me to Miller’s Ale House.

The restaurant was nearly desolate, except for a small group chatting and drinking amongst themselves. Across the restaurant Ryan stood with his guitar, adjacent to a nearly empty bar. With virtually no crowd or attention paid to him, Ryan was still making his way through a Black Keys cover with full conviction when I walked in. He was outperforming his venue, with a booming voice that failed to garner the attention it deserved. 

Ryan introduced his original song “Winter” by asking if anyone was a fan of the film “The Royal Tenenbaums.” I am, indeed, so I was all the more intrigued by the quirky tune to follow. The song vaguely followed the story of Chas Tenenbaum, who chose to abandon normalcy to adapt to the new life thrust upon him after the sudden death of his wife. It was a tale of hope and change, with lyrics that stuck out for their simplicity and honesty.

Another original song “Winds,” was equally sincere and emotionally charged. The original songs provided an interesting juxtaposition to the cover songs he played. In fact, he sang mostly covers, although in a convincing and entertaining fashion. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why he bothered with Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” when he had songs inspired by “The Royal Tenenbaums” up his sleeve. 

Luckily, Ryan’s covers weren’t just a string of ear-numbing Top 40 hits. He played a wide variety of songs by artists from different genres, showcasing his dynamic sound. His ability to transition from pop, to country, to rock made me wonder why he wasn’t focusing his abundant creative energy on his original work. However, after chatting with him in-between sets, I realized something as well known as the songs played on the radio: pop music sells.

Ryan proves that talented musicians must sometimes forsake originality in the face of the demand for a “popular” sound. An artist has to get by. He said that although his original work remains his passion, he plays shows at Miller’s Ale House to pay the bills. And because Ryan manages himself, shows in bars are the easiest to book. Although he writes and records his own music, he said that his venues—mostly bars—attract crowds that would rather hear the latest Katy Perry hit.

Ryan’s performance is a microcosm of today’s musical landscape. Even a talented artist can slip through the cracks without sufficient management and promotion. And the guy at the bar playing Top 40 hits? You never know what he has up his sleeve. Ryan McHugh plays at Miller’s Ale House in Watertown every Thursday, and he plays well.

Sparsely Attended But Sincere: Ryan McHugh
  • Genuine, energetic performance
  • Original songs were great
  • Audience interaction was heartfelt
  • Lack of audience
  • Unorganized, slightly nervous performance
  • Cover songs dominated the set
6.5Overall Score

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