One cloudy and humid Wednesday afternoon on Millbury Street, just south of Worcester’s Kelley Square, a young musician trying to book a show for his band wandered through an unlocked door into Electric Haze, and asked to see the music director.
The music venue and hookah lounge was still hours away from opening for the night, and music manager George Adler had left for his second job. But owner Victoria Mariano still welcomed the musician, and wrote down his band’s information. Afterward, she sat down with a smile and returned to the topic of conversation — her venue’s connection to the city’s music community.
“I hope that we continue to build everybody’s careers, musicians, artists, hospitality, vendors,” Mariano said. “That’s always my goal for this place. If it doesn’t help people grow, then that’s not the point.”
Rock and rave
Electric Haze marks its 10th anniversary on the first weekend of September, and the venue has three nights of music and art lined up to celebrate, starting with its monthly art exhibition set to start Sept. 1, a night of jam rock set for Sept. 2, and ending with a Sunday rave set for Sept. 3.
On Aug. 16, two weeks before the shows, and some hours before a night of music, the faint, fruity smell of hookah hung in the air. The stage was receiving a new coat of paint, and Mariano was darting between behind-the-scenes afternoon tasks.
“Our model is that we’re not going to sacrifice community for profit. We’ve always made sure the entertainment money goes to the entertainers and the art money goes to the artists, and everyone gets rewarded for the work they put in,” Mariano said.
A divine decade
Each night’s celebration will feature reunion for artists who have contributed to the venue’s first decade. The art show will feature work by painter Colette Aimee, who contributed murals to Electric Haze’s predecessor, the now-closed Spiritual Haze hookah lounge.
Sept. 2 will bring a Saturday night full of variety, including Weird Phishes, a band that mashes up Radiohead and Phish covers; Worcester funk band Groovin’ Confusion, and rappers Ferris Electrik and Elijah Divine. Finishing out the weekend on Sept. 3 is a bill full of electronic musicians who have longstanding relationships with Electric Haze.
Mariano and co-owner Eric Collier opened the venue on Millbury St. in 2013 as a higher-energy complement to Spiritual Haze, which she co-founded along with three Clark University classmates in 2007.
According to Mariano, the Spiritual Haze of 2007 did not look much like the Electric Haze of 2023. It was alcohol-free, located in a small apartment, and intentionally aimed at fellow students between 18 and 20, who could not yet legally socialize at bars.
More:‘America’s Got Talent’ voters make their decision on Lavender Darcangelo’s journey
More:Last Call: Worcester musician, instructor Sam Herman forging new path in local scene
More:Listen Up: Dark and dreamlike, Nicole Sutka’s latest is a feast of sounds, emotions
Electric Haze, by contrast, has a menu of cocktails, specialty shots, and draft beer on tap alongside its hookah selection, and many of the people who settle in on a booth or at the bar are in their 20s and 30s.
However, Mariano said, the atmosphere is the same at heart.
Drag queens, jam scenes
“(Electric Haze is) 21-plus, live music, hookah, drinking, but still a safe place for everyone to gather and meet, always having some type of environment where you can easily talk and meet people,” Mariano said.
Mariano said Electric Haze has always been connected to two major Central Massachusetts scenes: the LGBT community and avid local music festival fans.
In 2013, shortly after opening, the venue began hosting the monthly Airspray LGBT dance party, which continued until the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Mariano said one of her favorite memories from the first 10 years of Haze was the atmosphere of the party’s first few months.
“It was so ridiculously fun that it didn’t seem legal. It was legal, everyone’s IDs were checked and we didn’t go over capacity, but it felt underground, Studio 54, Hollywood,” Mariano said. “People were making out everywhere. We were having to kick people out of closets and the basement. The sheer amount of love in that room couldn’t be contained. Normal standards flew out the window.”
Airspray eventually met its end during the 2020 lockdowns, but after reopening, Electric Haze has continued to be a hotspot for local drag shows. Worcester drag queen Mal E. Fishn’t hosts a weekly karaoke night on Thursdays, and this fall, the Worcester Drag Gauntlet competition will hold all four rounds at the venue.
Adler said although he has noticed some recent backlash against drag performance in the Worcester area, as well as nationwide, Electric Haze has not been strongly affected.
“We haven’t seen anyone come to the place and try to cause ruckus about it. We had to take precautions because you know how crazy people can be,” Adler said. “We haven’t let it deter us, and in fact, we’re putting out more of our drag shows. Why hide it?”
Festival season in focus
Mariano has been bringing her business to the New England summer music festival circuit for years, at one point taking the venue on the road in a 20-by-20 foot tent to more than 30 festivals a year. Now, she said, festival promoters can often be found socializing at Electric Haze, and during the winter, they present shows by bands who are popular with festival crowds.
“We’ve always been their brick-and-mortar version. When I was doing festivals, the vendors were my family in the summer. We slept next to each other outside for five nights in a row all summer long, so it’s nice to support each other,” Mariano said. “Especially during the offseason, when everybody misses their festival family, they’ll come and meet each other here.”
A chance to get on stage
Later that Wednesday, after dark, Electric Haze was full of musicians there for the Space Jam, an open jam session where players sign up for a time slot and a different group takes the stage to improvise their way through a set every half hour.
The jam session draws new attendees and familiar faces alike, and at one point, a quartet of friends was playing a laid-back groove when another regular stepped up to sing.
Space Jam founder Brandon Esteves bounced from the stage, where he played bass, to the sound booth, and then to the dance floor to take photos of the next crew of musicians.
“People get on stage and figure it out for 20 minutes. It gives people a chance to meet some new musicians in the area,” Esteves said. “There’s a large hip-hop community in town, so having the mics live gives them an opportunity to get onstage. How many rappers are used to playing with a full band?”
According to Esteves, the Space Jam has fostered relationships between many local musicians. Friends who originally met at the jam session are now throwing birthday parties for each other, and there is at least one new band whose members met at the Space Jam.
“There are a lot of different groups and genres of people, and the Haze brings them all together. There’s a great rock scene, jam scene, hip-hop scene, electronic scene, and we all get along and dig each other’s vibes,” Esteves said.
‘It’ll be a good vibe’
Esteves also regularly plays DJ sets at Electric Haze under the name Sunshine At Night, and he will be a part of the Sept. 3 electronic music show. Sunshine At Night got some help from the venue as well — before the pandemic, Electric Haze hosted an open mic night that welcomed DJs, and Esteves was a regular.
Most of the musicians playing Electric Haze’s anniversary shows are from the Worcester area. Esteves and a number of other acts have developed close enough relationships with the venue that they are often the first people who get a call from Adler when a touring act is forced to cancel.
“Bands will drop out for one reason or another and nights will open up, and a lot of people doing this 10th anniversary weekend are the backup people, the reliable people to hit up,” Esteves said. “(The venue) knows there’s a good crowd that will come through, and it’ll be a good vibe for what Electric Haze is trying to put on.”
Electric Haze is surrounded on all sides by other bars and small businesses. A cannabis dispensary, a corner store, and Patsie Dugan’s Irish bar lie to the south, while storied music venue and dive bar Hotel Vernon sits across the street.
That night, some Space Jam musicians made little trips next door to Dawg Alley, a tiny fast food counter that slings hot dogs with mountains of toppings long into the night, for a quick bite in between sets.
‘A symbiotic relationship‘
Mariano said she prioritizes working alongside her neighboring businesses rather than trying to compete with them, and the strategy has worked well during Electric Haze’s first decade.
“We’ve always had a symbiotic relationship where we all make more money by creating this area where there are so many things to do,” Mariano said. “I don’t sell dollar draughts, because Hotel Vernon does. Every place in this section does something different, so we help each other in that way.”
Although Electric Haze has had its ups and downs, Mariano said it was one of the few Worcester venues of its size to survive the initial COVID-19 lockdown thanks to a combination of savings, a helpful landlord, and a number of grants intended to keep local music venues afloat.
Mariano was concerned about reopening, but in March 2021, as vaccines began to roll out, she spaced the venue’s tables six feet apart and opened the doors, and musicians and fans returned with their noses and mouths covered.
“I wanted to wait a little bit longer, because I thought it was too risky to reopen, but I had so many community members asking, begging me to reopen. People were really struggling, not having an outlet for socializing and music, and feeling okay,” Mariano said.
Making room for everyone
Since reopening, Electric Haze has brought back popular acts like New York fusion band Consider the Source and invited new events, like the Space Jam, to the stage.
A typical week’s worth of shows might cover funk, reggae, folk, electronic dance music, and hip-hop. Mariano said the more dance-oriented gigs often draw such a big crowd that she has to push all the furniture against the walls to make room for everyone.
The booths and tables were in their usual spots that Wednesday afternoon. While Mariano and another coworker laid down masking tape on the stage’s steps and prepared black paint, Adler relaxed in a booth and said the thing that stood out to him most about Electric Haze was the same thing that stood out to Mariano: community.
“We have raves where everyone comes in onesies,” Adler said. “Everyone who comes here is just themselves. There’s no pretending to be someone else. Leave that at the door, forget your problems, get enveloped in the atmosphere.”
Electric Haze is located at 26 Millbury St. To learn more, visit thehaze.com.