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Here comes the neighborhood

The Midway Café stretches its legs
By MATT PARISH  |  July 1, 2008

DIVE REVIVED: “A true cave, a step into the abyss. A great dump indeed,” says Chandler Travis of the soon-to-be-bigger Midway.

The Midway Café occupies what could be the most remote location of any club in Boston. On a desolate strip of Washington Street in JP “midway” between the Green Street and Forest Hills stops on the Orange Line, the bar counts among its neighbors a dusty, windswept parking lot hedged in with a barbed-wire fence and the darkened athletic fields of English High School. It’s an eerie little joint: the dusky interior looks as if it hadn’t seen sunlight in ages, and recollections of nights spent there play out like the biker-bar scene in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as directed by David Lynch.

And it’s about to make room for almost twice as many freakish oddballs and essential JP stand-bys as ever before.

The Midway, perhaps the most under of Boston’s underdog nightclubs and perennially unlucky zoning-board warriors, has finally obtained the go-ahead from City Hall to begin a long-awaited expansion. This summer, owners Dave and Jay Balerna plan to knock out the wall behind the bar and take over the insurance office next door, bumping capacity up from 60 to a luxurious 99.

Dave — the brother most often associated with the club as the charmingly loudmouth bartender unafraid to hurl praise and insults at the bands from across the room — says the plan is simple. “We’ll have it all done by our 21st anniversary on August 1. We’re not tryin’ to build the Taj Mahal. We’re just knocking a wall down and making the bar shorter.

“We’re glad to be moving into a new echelon of clubs. I’m not saying upper echelon or anything, but a different one. We’ll be able to pull in bigger bands and more community-minded events. In this economy, I think your future is always within two or three miles of you.”

The local focus for the future is reassuring, but that’s not to say the Midway hasn’t always been one of the more locally anchored clubs in the area. Like its larger cousin across town, the Milky Way (which plans on relocating a few blocks away and downsizing its capacity), the Midway has always accepted applicants of all stripes, its rickety stage graced with eclectic local line-ups.

“The Milky Way has really carried the ball for JP for a long time in that way,” says Dave. “On top of that, people end up coming here instead whenever they get lost trying to find it.”

The bread and butter of the Midway has been rockabilly shows, experimental-noise nights, all-ages hardcore shows (in the middle of the day), and its hallowed Dyke Night and Musk dance parties. A memorable booking stint from Deb Nicholson of Eximious Productions produced a long line of unlikely pairings at the beloved dive including Animal Collective and Leslie and the LY’s. This wide-open embrace is what makes the Midway fit so snugly within JP’s patchwork community

Chandler Travis — of the long-running Cape Cod freakshow and old Midway weekly standard the Chandler Travis Philharmonic — maintains a special reverence for the club: “A true cave, a step into the abyss. A great dump indeed. Very noisy, rude people reside there, all sweethearts when you get to know ’em.”

Rick Berlin, long-time Boston out-rock ringleader and informal JP cultural historian, likewise regards the club with something close to awe. “Pretty much any show you want to put on there, you can. My favorite was an all-Russian night. Some band from Moscow had a gig there — God knows how they got it — and the place was packed. Ninety-nine percent Russians. They knew every song and all the lyrics, got trashed, and sang and kissed each other in that intense Russian way.”

Berlin also happened to work next door to the club for nearly 20 years, as a waiter at Doyle’s, the bar with a long-storied feud with the Balernas (reported, among other places, in the August 2005 Boston magazine). Since the brothers moved there in 1987 (when the Orange Line still rattled over Washington Street), they’ve had various run-ins with the rival bar over noise problems, parking-lot usage, and alleged physical confrontations between employees. Some have even alleged that Doyle’s was behind all those doors slamming in the face of the expansion plans.

But you’ll have to ask Google if you want to hear anything else about the past. According to the Balernas, things have settled down since Gerry Burke Jr. took over Doyle’s for his family in 2005, and they’ve been looking toward the future ever since.

“He’s a nice kid,” says Jay. “I used to go over there and ask for singles and later find out the owners were telling employees, ‘Watch out for that asshole.’ That kind of thing. But now we get along fine.”

Related: Boston's Best City Life 2009, Boston's Best Food and Drink 2009, Boston's Best Arts and Entertainment 2009, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , David Lynch, Animal Collective, Chandler Travis
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