The Stage at Suffolk Downs is one of several new music venues in Boston, which is a wonderful thing, because it means that people are going out to hear live music now more than ever. From small venues in Medford to large outdoor seasonal concert grounds, music venues are alive and well presenting bands of all shapes, sizes and styles to audiences of the same.
Located in East Boston, The Stage at Suffolk Downs is on the old racetrack grounds built in 1935 and whose track has been been underfoot of some of the most famous names in thoroughbred racing history: Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, John Henry, Cigar and Skip Away. Getting to the venue is fairly easy, even with Sumner tunnel construction, parking is available on site for a fee, but The Stage at Suffolk Downs is also accessible by subway on the MBTA (aka the T). Early-bird fans line up along the fence just outside the grounds. Once gates open, fans follow a ground-level boardwalk of sorts towards check-in where bodies and bags are scanned at security. There is a bit of a walk into the venue, which definitely helps both with foot traffic flow, and building anticipation as fans enter the space. Everyone feels the excitement build and community of music lovers intertwine as people enter. Friends take pictures of one another by the old Suffolk Downs Track sign and strangers offer to snap photos of groups of friends too.
There is a “no bags” and a VIP line for those who want to enter quickly and snag their front row spot. After walking through the metal detectors, tickets are scanned and then you are free to roam the pristine space. Once in, either walk to the barrier by the stage to secure a front row spot, stop off by the side of the field near the entrance to get concert merchandise early, fill your reusable (non-metal) water bottle with free water provided, or find a spot on the lawn to relax and take it all in.
With an 8,500 person capacity, the Stage at Suffolk Downs, which is Bowery Boston’s first outdoor music venue, is capable of hosting some pretty large concerts. While the Re:SET Concert Series was part of the first iteration The Stage at Suffolk Downs, Suffolk Downs has hosted outdoor concerts in the past including The Beatles’ final Boston area performance in August of 1966, the Jackson 5, and Radiohead, Blink-182. Suffolk Downs has also been home to Cirque du Soleil’s Big Top for Kurios in 2016.
The stage is 68 feet wide, which is more than adequate for just about any size band, and was able to be set up for a series of bands (four per show most recently for Re:SET) with plenty of space for everyone’s instruments and set up. The Stage at Suffolk Downs is set on an 186,000 square foot property, so while you feel completely immersed in the music and performance up by the stage, you can also step back, feel the cool evening breeze, watch a plane fly overhead, chill on the lawn, or get a little wild dancing with friends if you step back towards the perimeters where you will also find food, drinks, and whichever sponsors’ booths or VIP areas are set up for guests.
Set back from the stage is a raised platform for accessible seating. I was able to pop up there to check out the experience during part of Clairo’s performance with a packed audience by the stage and the view and sound from that vantage point were pretty darn good.
There were plenty of bathrooms, of the Port-a-Potty variety which was definitely appreciated for a full afternoon/evening weekend festival crowd. A water station was available near the entrance to fill water bottles once you entered and throughout the evening. Attendees are invited to enter the venue with empty vessels for water, but not bring water or other beverages in. Food and drink options as well as concert merch are set up along the edge of the field allowing plenty of space for everything else and on occasion for very long and winding merch lines.
I assume that VIP areas will vary from concert to concert, but, for Re:SET, VIP was an offset area to the right of the stage with a small trailer-style bathroom, lounge seating under tents, and a few lawn games. In addition, set back from the stage, just beyond Front of House (aka where all the sound and lighting folks are hard at work) was a mid-sized gated area for guests of the performing artists.
Before my first concert at The Stage at Suffolk Downs, I was concerned that the airplanes flying overhead would detract from the experience. Instead, I found it a feature. It is such a part of East Boston to be able to sit and watch the planes fly by whether you’re over on Castle Island or sitting at Piers Park looking out across towards the city. I only noticed two occasions when the airplanes took attention away from the stage; I heard the plane once when I was standing way back away from the stage directly under the plane overhead, and a second time also set back from the stage a little, when James Blake was singing a very quiet ballad.
There is nothing quite like an outdoor music experience and having such a large outdoor concert venue so close to Boston makes The Stage at Suffolk Downs a superfecta. The Stage at Suffolk Downs is just on part of the future of this neighborhood.