Among the myriad super-cozy, out-of-the-way live-music venues all across New England, the Bull Run in Shirley, Massachusetts, is a bona fide gem, one of the most active, most historic, most welcoming and most community-conscious of its kind in the region – and perhaps anywhere in the United States.
For over 50 years, it’s hosted a cornucopia of artists playing everything from jazz, rock, folk and country to blues, bluegrass, soul and Southern rock. It’s extremely difficult – maybe even impossible – to name another New England venue that’s quite as quaint as the Bull Run while also having been – and still being – such a vital part of the area’s thriving music scene.
The restaurant-entertainment space features three music areas, the largest being the Sawtelle Supper Room with a capacity of 300. The other two, the Ballroom and the Tap Room, provide more intimate settings and are often used for weddings and small business events. A multigenred smorgasbord of New England-based artists have appeared at the Bull Run over the decades including James Montgomery, Tom Rush, NRBQ, The Stompers, Livingston Taylor, Roomful of Blues, The Fools, Johnny A. and New England.
Among the hundreds of other acts that have taken the Bull Run stage are The Yardbirds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, John Mayall, The Marshall Tucker Band, Dr. John, Johnny Winter, Mick Taylor, The Outlaws, Robbie Krieger, Blue Öyster Cult, Jim Messina, Jefferson Starship, Leon Russell, Aaron Neville, Vanilla Fudge, Suzanne Vega, Graham Parker, Los Lobos, The Tubes, Rickie Lee Jones, Larry Carlton, Loudon Wainwright III, Stanley Clarke, Marshal Crenshaw, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, BoDeans, Richard Marx, Alejandro Escovedo, Asia, Steve Forbert, Carl Palmer, Savoy Brown, Al Jardine, Albert Lee, Iris Dement, Royal Southern Brotherhood, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Watermelon Slim, Wishbone Ash, John Sebastian, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Rick Derringer, 10,000 Maniacs, Sonny Landreth, Lulu and Judy Collins.
Built in 1741 and initially called Sawtelle’s Tavern after its owner, John Sawtelle – who participated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773 – it became the Bull Run in 1861 immediately after the Battle of Bull Run that year at the outbreak of the Civil War. Before then, in addition to Sawtelle’s Tavern, it had had several names including Farnsworth Hall, Mulpus House, Morse’s Tavern and The Stagecoach Inn.
The venue’s classic exterior, post-and-beam construction, pine floorboards, colonial-era fireplaces and old-time-tavern ambiance make it as down-home charming as any place you’ll find anywhere on the planet. In 1775, at the cusp of the Revolutionary War, the building was the gathering point for men living in the area before they marched to Lexington and Concord, and in the early 1800s it was the first stop on the Boston-Albany Stagecoach route. Located 35 miles northwest of Boston and 27 miles northeast of Worcester, the building has been painstakingly restored and carefully maintained through the generations.
The Bull Run has been a family-run business since 1946, when Leonardo Guercio bought it after immigrating from Sicily. He passed it down to his son, Chip Guercio, the elder brother of the current owner, Alison Tocci, but when business bottomed out in 2008 during the Great Recession – like thousands of other businesses did – Chip put it up for sale.
Alison, however, a corporate media executive who was living in New York City at the time, wouldn’t have any of it. She couldn’t bear the thought of the Bull Run and its surrounding eight acres of land being sold to someone outside her family so she and her husband, George Tocci, decided to leave New York, buy the business and the land, and run it as the new owners-operators. She and Chip settled on a price lower than market value (but including past debt) and the Tocci’s first day as official owners of the Bull Run was New Year’s Eve 2009.
“We knew we’d have to do more than fix the tavern’s physical attributes,” Alison said in a 2018 interview with Forbes magazine. “The theme in my head was the long, local history of our place. Research showed that the local-food movement was strong in Boston and western Massachusetts, but we were among a few pioneers in our part of the state. So we brought in a new chef and joined the growing farm-to-table movement.” In a 2015 review, The Boston Globe heaped praise on the Bull Run for consistently offering “world-class entertainment in an off-the-beaten path club, housed in a beautifully preserved tavern.”
Today, the Bull Run employs more than 70 people – up from about 20 in 2009 – including Alison, George, Chip and several nieces, nephews and cousins. George, a Leominster native, is in charge of the music side of the business, which makes perfect sense given his background: He booked and produced shows in New York for many years and, in the ‘70s, worked as a solo artist under the name Ellsworth Hicks as one half of the country-blues duo Ellsworth and Hicks. Several of his original songs were featured in the 2001 film Ghetto Dawg.
“Our mission is simple,” write Alison and George on the Bull Run’s official website. “Buy local; treat the staff and the talent like gold; support the local events and institutions that truly create community; and bring world-class entertainment to this rustic setting in north-central Massachusetts. We believe in smiling service and a relaxed style which we call ‘boots-off comfort.’”
And you can’t get much more welcoming and community-conscious than that in any part of the world, can you?
(by D.S. Monahan)
Published on October 4, 2022